David Moyes is back with Real Sociedad, but can he be successful at a top club in Europe?

Modified 03 Apr 2015
David Moyes
David Moyes with the club scarf of Real Sociedad during his unveiling as manager

Redemption is one of those mesmerising story arcs that draws viewers into the travails of an embattled protagonist. From being given the cold shoulder and left out to dry in public, left to fend off the relentless stream of admonishment, to making it back to the top and into the warmer confines of a secure job, it is a story that never gets old and one that the masses just love to see. None truer than in sport.

“We were lucky in that a name such as David’s, one that had previously been out of bounds for our club, ended up joining us and I think he has brought some good things with him.”

The ‘David’ in question isn’t the biblical one who ended up slaying the giant Philistine warrior Goliath, but rather David Moyes who got chewed out and left in managerial purgatory by a goliath of a club in Manchester, England after an infamous 10 months at its helm.

The quote above is from Loren, the sporting director of Real Sociedad, Moyes’ new club, in a recent interview with Spanish newspaper Marca.

Here’s more of what Loren had to say: “He has made the team more solid, more consistent, and you can see that with what he has done so far. I think we are seeing a team that is getting better all the time.”

What a difference a year can make. From being subjected to signs of ‘Moyes Out’ at every corner, including the one in the sky in a seven-foot high lettering at the tail of an airplane, ol’ ‘Moyseh’ is currently wallowing in the fresh Basque country air and the praises coming his way for his work since taking over as manager of the club in early November.

David Moyes (centre) celebrates a goal scored by his Sociedad team

The smiles are back for Moyes, back in a job as manager of a football club, in a top European league. Not only is he back in a job, but he’s got back some of what he’d lost in copious amounts through much of the 2013-14 season - respect.

The unmitigated disaster that was Moyes’ time in charge of Manchester United in 2013-14 led to him being shown the door even before the season could conclude, with Ryan Giggs taking over for the four remaining league games. United finished seventh that season, missing out on the UEFA Champions League and Europa League spots. It was for the first time since 1995 when Manchester United were not participating in the Champions League and had finished outside the top three for the first time ever in the Premier League history.

At Sociedad, since taking over, he’s reeled the club in from a precariously positioned nineteenth to 10 places higher at ninth with wins over Barcelona and Sevilla to show for. This after being consigned much of the blame (deserved or otherwise) for having torn asunder two decades of dominance instituted at Old Trafford.

Now going back about his business in his own silent, subtle way, he is far away from the position where his managerial worthiness would be questioned. He is also away from the glaring lights and blaring voices that surround the biggest of clubs, and instead is in a place he’s been comfortable with throughout his managerial career.

Which brings us to asking whether Moyes is destined for success, but only at a mid-table club?

Solidity, organization, discipline and a siege mentality

David Moyes (right) is congratulated by Barcelona’s Lionel Messi after Sociedad beat them 1-0

It is, of course, not in any way a belittling of his standing as a coach, but purely a theory that Moyes’ abilities best mesh with clubs in certain situations, such as the likes of Everton and Sociedad. Clubs that aren’t small in absolute terms, but from a relative standpoint; clubs that are clearly out of the title picture yet have a job at hand to finish just below the top four with constraints on resources and funds.

When you think of Moyes, a few words automatically run through your head – solid, organized, emphasis on discipline and defence – traits that all his sides, barring United, you could associate with. A David Moyes team is generally set up to be hard to beat; that’s primary.

To draw a parallel to some of the most famous British battles in history, you can just picture Moyes being the duke who oversaw a backs-to-the-wall job in defending an enemy siege against a fortress or the baron, who with a vastly outnumbered army, did a brilliant job of holding off the opposition’s offensive until reinforcements arrived.

Real Sociedad’s record this season pre and post-Moyes

Sociedad’s win against Barcelona (1-0) was done by being compact, stifling Luis Enrique’s side of space and cutting off passing channels. In the meantime, they knocked in a goal and were content to soak up pressure.

It isn’t like Moyes is offensively challenged, but when put in charge of bigger clubs, where the mantra is, more often than not, to take the attack to the opposition from the start and never back down, especially against the lower sides, he is bound to struggle.

That brand of flowing, attacking football hasn’t been something that he’d shown plenty of earlier and that clearly affected his reign in Manchester. Making matters worse was the fact that the man who’d just departed had set in motion a style of attacking play consistent for well over 15 years, and to break out of that mould was just too hard.

A steady, long-term guy

“The coach has said on numerous occasions that he is combining the work he is doing this season with a view to next year”, Loren also said about his manager.

It’s something that Everton chairman Bill Kenwright mentioned time and time again about Moyes; that he was a long-term guy, one who liked to build teams slowly and gradually. At a bigger club like United, the pressure to deliver was so much more immediate, fuelled by the dominant success the club had enjoyed in the English game for much of two decades.

He also had to be so much more active and quicker in his dealings in the transfer market. At the same time, the level of players being scouted was much higher than what he was used to at Everton.

Moyes Record
David Moyes’ managerial record at his four clubs

When the quality of players being scouted differs, the parameters that one looks out for while grading these players also need to change. It was here that Moyes failed to make that adjustment and found himself backed into a corner, especially with the United side he inherited needing a few tweaks.

An accompanying aspect with the added attention and pressure of being at a big club is that your methods and ways get dissected, examined, re-examined almost on a daily basis and there’s no shortage of people telling you how to do your job. Just ask Carlo Ancelotti, who can’t buy a break despite having delivered the La Decima last season and a quite brilliant first half of the season.

At Sociedad, a club already in the doldrums when he arrived, he’s had the time required to get his philosophy and ideas going, away from the spotlight and the constant critique.

Where there’s success there are egos

Many of Manchester United’s senior players such as Robin van Persie (far left) and Rio Ferdinand (far right) were said to be at loggerheads with Moyes during his tenure 

The average elite league footballer today has an ego. Players who’ve won silverware have bigger ones. Players who’ve had titles equivalent to the number of years in some players’ careers have egos the size of hot air balloons. Not just do they believe that they’re better than what they actually are, some even believe they’re the best in the world, no matter what – case in point, Joey Barton.

A common sighting in the papers through Moyes’ United reign was on the nature of his relationships with his senior players. Every so often you would read about either Rio Ferdinand or Robin van Persie or Ryan Giggs or _____ (fill blank with any other senior United figure of the time) not seeing eye-to-eye with the manager and reportedly looking to undermine his authority.

While a lot of it was rumour mongering, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise if indeed somebody confirmed it to be true. Star players are like that and Moyes would have experienced a huge difference in the way he needed to manage a player.

Carlos Vela, Xabi Prieto and Inigo Martinez are players more suited to Moyes’ personnel ways, like Tim Cahill, Leon Osman and Phil Jagielka and unlike van Persie, Giggs and Ferdinand.

So can Moyes never succeed at a big club?

For now he would definitely be an odd fit at a big club. For the reasons discussed above and the added pressure that comes with the big job, it would serve to be a mismatch. That said, there’s time for him to grow.  

He’s so far been a mid-table manager who’s good, but not great. Unlike say, a Brendan Rodgers, whose teams have showed consistent attacking wherewithal and an ability to cause an upset or two, Moyes’ teams regularly had trouble beating the top sides. Even in their best seasons, Everton inevitably came up short against the big four of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United.

Will Moyes make it to the big league and be successful?

His call-up to Old Trafford came a little too soon for his own good, it was too fast-tracked. As such the sudden change in environment made it unforgiving, hostile even.

A more gradual climb up the ladder with stints at clubs like Sevilla or Villareal in Spain or Tottenham Hotspur in England up front would prepare him better for any future job at the top of the tree as well as provide him time to expand his arsenal in the attacking side of the game.

For now though, Moyes remains the perfect hand-in-glove fit for teams such as Real Sociedad and Everton, teams that are big in absolute terms, but where success year-on-year is measured relatively. 

Published 03 Apr 2015
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