First things first, a disclaimer: This was never going to happen, and there are no guarantees it would have worked out anyway so let’s not get too excited. There was no way that when the time came for Sir Alex Ferguson to pass on the baton Manchester United were going to gamble on promising young manager whose experience had been gained with unfashionable clubs, the latest of which had just been relegated.
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But over the last week, watching the strain spreading around David Moyes as Manchester United suffered two home defeats, and seeing the man who replaced him at Everton – Roberto Martinez – excelling so stylishly, it was easy to wonder just for a moment: did United get the wrong guy? Right now, one looks to be short of ideas and inspiration, while the other could be the poster boy for modern, positive, resourceful management.
It is just Moyes’s luck at the moment that Martinez has made Everton blossom by adding a turbo-charge to the solid engine he built at Goodison Park. It is not that critics are forgetting what Moyes did there as he forged his own reputation, but it has not gone unnoticed that a new man has arrived to bolt on enhancements, and bring a new thrill to the ride. Everton dazzled as they earned a draw away to Arsenal. Here was a team that looked fresh, invigorated, organized, fearless, dedicated, exciting.
Those are not words wafting around Old Trafford at the moment. A sequence of two draws and two losses (one of them against Martinez’s Everton) from their last four Premier League games leaves United closer to the relegation zone than the top position they occupied when Ferguson bid farewell.
United look like they are trudging through treacle. It was certainly unhelpful that Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick, two of their most influential players, were unavailable as they stumbled against Newcastle. Robin van Persie was not in top gear, either, and had to spend far too much time dropping deep to try to get a touch of the ball.
Moyes tried to play it down afterwards, using the dreaded t-word. “Transition” it most certainly is, but leaning on it as an explanation of sorts never gives off the impression that a leader is bristling with the imagination and energy to force change.
“The Manchester United supporters know about the transition,” said Moyes. “They’re well aware of it. I don’t think they hoped we’d be in this position but we’ve got roughly the same squad that was champions last year and we’ve not changed an awful lot in that period."
Some 23 matches into a six-year contract, and at a time that was always going to have that uncertain air come the end of a momentous era, it is premature to rush to judgment. United don’t give any impression that they are seriously concerned. But there is no disguising the early signs and assessments of life under Moyes are very painful.
Naturally there is talk of an assault on the January transfer window, and United are under pressure to act with more audacity than they managed last summer, when only Marouane Fellaini arrived, and his first few months have been low key to say the least.
The comparisons between the direction at Moyes’s former and current clubs are uncomfortable from a United perspective: Martinez took the nuts and bolts of a decent team, made bold use of the transfer system to land three fine and influential players on loan (Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry and the sublimely talented boy from Barcelona Gerard Deulofeu), added a couple of clever buys and pinned his faith on the wonderful talent of Ross Barkley, the 20 year old who has been starting games (and commanding them) consistently. On top of a sound defensive foundation Martinez has introduced a more fluid and expressive game-plan.
In a matter of months, an identity has been forged. With due recognition to the quality he inherited from his predecessor, this is already Martinez’s Everton. The wait for a real sense of Moyes’s Manchester United goes on.