David Moyes: Devil in the detail

David Moyes has managed to hang on to Wayne Rooney, who last week scored his 200th goal for United. Picture: PA
David Moyes has managed to hang on to Wayne Rooney, who last week scored his 200th goal for United. Picture: PA
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Moyes’ poor record against the so-called Big Four masks his mastery of Manchester City during his time in charge of Everton

IN SPORT, history has a habit of repeating itself, and Manchester is no exception. Back in January 1987 two giants of the English game collided when City and United went head to head in a FA Cup derby that was as important to the clubs’ two new managers as it was to the clubs themselves.

In the red corner was an irascible Govanite whose job was already under intense pressure after his two-month tenure had started with a 2-0 defeat at Oxford United and had been punctuated by a run of draws and defeats at Wimbledon and at home to Norwich City.

In the blue corner, the West Coast tracksuit was on an even more shoogly peg. Former Greenock Morton and Oldham Athletic journeyman Jimmy Frizzell, who’d been drafted in as assistant manager by previous boss Billy McNeill and had been promoted just weeks before Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford when the Lisbon Lion moved on to Aston Villa, was faring equally badly. If McNeill, who that year was to have the rare distinction of overseeing two relegated teams in one season, had been doing badly, Frizzell was faring no better, winning just five of his 17 league matches in charge. The trip to Old Trafford was make or break for him.

The rest is history. United won 1-0 thanks to a Norman Whiteside goal and, making incremental but unmistakeable progress, decided to keep faith in a manager who would take another three years to deliver any tangible reward for that loyalty. City, who sacked seven managers in the 1980s alone, dispensed with Frizzell’s services at the end of a miserable season which ended with nine wins from 46 matches and in which they suffered the indignity of relegation. The Red Devils laid the foundations for a further 26 years of unprecedented success, City became a yo-yo comedy turn with a revolving door for managers (Ferguson saw off an incredible 15 City managers, including Alan Ball, Kevin Keegan and Sven Goran Eriksson) until an influx of Middle Eastern cash in the summer of 2008 changed City’s fortunes forever.

Although the venue may be different, this afternoon marks the first time since 1987 that these two clubs have met when both have new managers at the helm. And this time, instead of two ailing clubs, these are the top two sides in the Premiership, with United the reigning champions and runners-up City having won the previous year. Despite performances this season that have varied from unstoppable to insipid, both are in the top five and will undoubtedly stay there all year.

Yet, if there is one similarity with 1987, it is that both managers have some way to go to persuade their new clubs’ fans that they are managers who are capable of delivering the rarefied degree of success demanded of them. At the Etihad, Chilean Manuel Pellegrini’s issues are very straightforward. By common consent City recruited extremely well over the summer, which has in turn led to a profound sense of disappointment at their form.

After a poor pre-season, their promising 4-0 opening-day win over Newcastle was followed by three worryingly below-par and tactically confused showings that netted just four points from a possible nine. If City lose today, it will be their worst league start for seven years. For United’s David Moyes, however, the issues are far more complex. Although he managed to keep Wayne Rooney at Old Trafford and has successfully built bridges with the England striker, who has now passed 200 United goals (in 406 games), his summer transfer activity provoked a deluge of negative comment, with even the single high-profile transfer, that of Marouane Fellaini, drawing criticism after United had to pay considerably more than the £23.5 million buyout clause that Moyes himself negotiated and which expired in July.

United’s form so far has hardly been scintillating either – after thrashing Swansea on the road they were beaten at Anfield and fortunate to win 2-0 at home against Crystal Palace. Their seven points from four games is their worst start in five years and, if they lose today, it will be their worst start in nine years.

That said, it was the loss at Anfield that has really set the alarm bells ringing.

“It has been apparent for the last few weeks that there has been a tension building around Manchester United,” said Gary Neville after that loss. “There is a nervousness among fans because they have lost their comfort blanket. Sir Alex Ferguson’s presence was such that he inspired confidence and trust. They believe in David Moyes, but they need to see him perform.” By “perform”, Neville means dispatch one of United’s main rivals, and therein lies the rub. Moyes has a glittering CV but the one obvious major reservation about his tenure at Everton was his seeming inability to beat the major clubs on the road. Nor was this just a statistical anomaly. Moyes’ teams failed year after year to gain any traction against the top-tier sides, to the extent that he has never tasted an away win at any of the original “Big Four” of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea.

In fact, in almost 12 years at Everton, the Scot led his team in an incredible 47 matches at Anfield, Old Trafford, the Emirates and Stamford Bridge without tasting victory once. The conclusion that many have drawn from this is that, with his accent on fitness and his ability to motivate players, he was able to draw out some extraordinary performances in the tight spaces of Goodison but that, once in a more expansive arena – especially Old Trafford and the Emirates – against top players against whom sweat, aggression and a willingness to run all afternoon are no longer enough, his sides fall short. Hence the wailing sirens of distress after the Anfield defeat.

Yet, while Moyes has a startlingly poor record against the original Big Four, his record against Manchester City is outstanding. Indeed, over the past decade, no manager can match his record of turning over the Blues. At Everton, Moyes’s side played City 22 times, winning 12, drawing four and losing just six. Winning on the wide-open tundra at City’s Eastlands/Etihad Stadium wasn’t a struggle either. Of the 11 away games Everton won five and drew one, losing just six times (at home they only lost once, winning seven).

Nor does the theory that Moyes’ Everton couldn’t live with expensively-assembled teams which could play with flair and pace on the big stage hold much water if you look at his record against City after the deluge of cash from Dubai’s Sheikh Mansour. In the period before August 2008, Moyes’ Everton beat City five times (three at Goodison), drew with them three times (all at home) and lost four times (all away). But, since the start of the 2009-10 season, Moyes’ side have actually performed better against City, winning seven out of ten, drawing one and losing two. For those United fans who worry about this afternoon, Moyes has won at the Etihad three times in the time of milk and honey, drawn once and lost just once. In fact, Moyes has beaten City nine times after City first started spending big under Thaksin Shinawatra. Over the same time period, Ferguson’s United managed the feat just three times.

Last season the away side won both derbies, and that fact has stoked tensions that began to surface with Ferguson’s “noisy neighbours” jibe. Away wins can cause enormous rancour and City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford the season before last gave way to an explosion of animus at the Etihad last year when Robin Van Persie’s stunning injury-time goal gave United a 3-2 win and led to a fan invading the pitch in an attempt to attack Rio Ferdinand, who subsequently left the field bleeding from a gash above his eye after a coin was thrown. Still, if we’re playing statistics, at least City fans have grounds for optimism. For starters, after leading the team out against Viktoria Plzen, City’s most important player, Vincent Kompany, is back – with him, they win 58 per cent of games, without it’s 47 per cent. Edin Dzeko, who has scored five in six appearances against United is also back. Oh, and if we’re looking at managerial match-ups, then if you cast your mind back to eight years ago and Moyes’ only previous Champions League experience when Everton were controversially beaten 4-2 by Villarreal after Duncan Ferguson had a headed goal contentiously disallowed at El Madrigal, a defeat that Moyes has said remains one of the most painful of his career. The Villarreal manager that night? Manuel Pellegrino.