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Moyes faces towering task at United

FOX Soccer News: Sir Alex Ferguson's statement regarding his retirement.
FOX Soccer News: Sir Alex Ferguson's statement regarding his retirement.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Most newly hired managers face a pair of choices. Keep things the same?

Or start a revolution?

That choice is often informed by the success or failures of your predecessor. But what if the man you succeed simply walked away? And what if, on top of that, he was a legend?

David Moyes will find out. The 50-year old Scot was hired away from Everton to succeed Manchester United’s long-time manager Sir Alex Ferguson – who won a jaw-dropping 49 trophies in his 26-and-a-half-year run before announcing his retirement on Wednesday – on the strength of his remarkable similarities to him.

Aside from both being born into working class families in Glasgow, being staunch Labour Party supporters and sharing a propensity for bellowing at referees, both men had a proven track record as overachievers prior to taking charge of United.

They share similar working methods. Unlike the incendiary and outspoken Jose Mourinho, long been thought of as Ferguson’s heir apparent, Moyes has a pungent distaste for hoopla and has managed to keep drama to a minimum in his 11 years in charge of Everton. He was tough on his Toffees, but he got the most out of his players, too. And those who delivered for him could count on his loyalty.

In spite of working within relatively modest means, Moyes’ Everton teams competed for European places almost every year, outperforming more moneyed rivals. He became just the fourth manager to win 150 games in the Premier League, playing attacking football when he could and developing his own talent. He didn’t shackle himself to a tactical philosophy and prepared meticulously. Both men share a transfer philosophy, too. Both are savvy in the market, making few mistakes. They have a nose for a bargain, but they’re willing to spend big for the right kind of player, the instant difference-maker.

TROPHIES GALORE

Sir Alex Ferguson has had a long and successful career with Manchester United. See his top moments.

This all sounds an awful lot like Ferguson – the only notable exception being that Moyes relied heavily on data analysis, perhaps making him a more modern incarnation of his predecessor. So in tune were the two that Ferguson offered Moyes a job as his assistant in 1999, when the latter was still toiling in the fourth tier as player-manager of Preston North End, which he saved from the brink of dropping out of professional soccer and brought to the verge of the second tier.

Ferguson regularly praised Moyes and his work even after he turned down his job offer, and reports that Ferguson wanted Moyes to succeed him surfaced as early as April 2010. So with Ferguson likely playing a large role in anointing his successor – the process of which is described in the grave tones of a succession to the British crown – it’s unsurprising that they ended up where they did.

It was an obvious choice for United. Moyes ticked all of their boxes, having demonstrated loyalty and excellence and possessing European experience. To make matters even more straightforward, his contract was expiring in a matter of weeks. But was it such a smart move for Moyes?

The track record of those succeeding living legends in management is poor. This is as true at Manchester United, where Matt Busby’s successors faltered badly, as it is in other sports. After Phil Jackson left the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, after Red Auerbach left the Boston Celtics, after John Wooden left UCLA, after Joe Torre left the New York Yankees, after Vince Lombardi left the Green Bay packers, after Don Shula left the Miami Dolphins, the drop-off was steep.

Moyes faces many issues. The expectation will be that he’ll pick things up at the stratospheric, trophy-winning place where Ferguson left off. Yet United’s back line is in need of repair and a fresh coat of paint. No reliable goalkeeper has as of yet been found. The wingers are mercurial. And then there’s the Wayne Rooney question. Rooney came up at Everton as a teenage prodigy under Moyes. But he chafed under his discipline and accused him of forcing him out of the club when United offered a dizzying transfer fee – an accusation Moyes took him to court over. They have allegedly reconciled, but Rooney’s desire has been questionable in recently, and Moyes could find it hard motivating his easily sated star.

Reinvention won’t be a luxury afforded to Moyes. He’ll be expected to duplicate what Ferguson would have done. And when he falls short, the evidence will be ready and damning. Such endless comparisons could prove crippling. Living up to a legend would be next to impossible for any candidate, but the one that’s supposed to be a carbon copy of the real thing could find it even harder to be his own man.

Meanwhile, Ferguson could complicate things – he’ll still be around in his new role as director. No matter how well they get on, it’s hard to imagine Ferguson being able to keep himself entirely from meddling with a team he lived and breathed for almost 27 years. This sort of ill-defined hierarchy never plays out well in a locker room.

However well-suited he seems to it from afar, Moyes faces a towering task rife with pitfalls. He’ll have to channel Ferguson, while also making the fans forget the unforgettable man he is supposed to be the reincarnation of.

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