The contrasting fortunes of Manchester United under Alex Ferguson last year, where they almost inevitably ploughed their way to the title, and under David Moyes this year, where they have plunged out of contention for the title before the end of January, gives us a somewhat rare opportunity to reflect on the importance of managers of football teams.
David Moyes has had at his disposal largely the same team as Ferguson. He inherited a team with a winning culture, rising stars like Januzaj and, while admittedly he has had a few more injuries to deal with, a squad with a lot of depth. However, the results have been disappointing to say the least.
Same may argue that the absence of Robin van Persie has had a large impact on United’s performances. While this may be true, the statistics suggest van Persie’s presence has not had that much of an impact on results: of the 16 games van Persie has played in, United has won 9. That is hardly a conversion percentage (56%) of champions.
While I have no doubt everyone recognises the importance of the manager, you nevertheless hear many comments to the effect, ‘the players are the ones who go out and play the game.’ This is why the Moyes/Ferguson comparison is, for me, particularly interesting. The players have remained the same, the culture was already there, and yet with a change in manager Man Utd looks like a different team.
This article is not a critique of Moyes’ tactical nous, nor will I seek to suggest an antidote to United’s woes – that is because I believe the reason United have failed to maintain a high level of performance under Moyes goes beyond tactics, beyond operational aspects of football. It comes down to leadership, and to personality.
There is an idea that some people are charismatic leaders – born leaders who influence their charges with the strength of their personality and pull everyone along with the grandeur of their vision. Sir Alex Ferguson was, in my mind, a charismatic leader in the world of football. A man who ruled the dressing room, who got inside the head of his players, opponents and match officials, and who inspired the club with the strength of his will to win.
Ferguson was known for his temper, and there have been many well-documented flashpoints. Whether it was kicking a football boot into Beckham’s head or having a row with club captain Roy Keane, Ferguson certainly was not short on controversy. However, he is also known for his ability to take players under his wing and develop them into superstars. Tellingly the key players who have contributed to Man Utd’s success in recent years – including Beckham and Keane – have paid tribute to Sir Alex, giving him credit for making United the football club it is today and for making them the players they are today. This season’s Ballon d’Or recipient, Cristiano Ronaldo, describes Ferguson as being like a father to him as well as ‘a fantastic man, a fantastic person’.
David Moyes has the unenviable job of filling Ferguson’s shoes. I said before that charismatic leaders are born leaders – this is controversial as some believe leadership can be taught and learned. Leaving aside the nature versus nurture debate, there is no doubt that charismatic leaders are rare to come by in any profession. Perhaps a fitting analogy is a political one – United had a Churchill at the helm and now they have a Chamberlain.