Ahead of Manchester United’s do-or-die Champions League second leg against Bayern Munich, manager David Moyes would do well to arrest his most alarming travail – an alarming lack of self-belief, most noticeable in his feeble interactions with the media.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s ability to spin any mildly negative news story about his team into a show of defiance, harnessing an “us against the world” mentality, was possibly his most under-appreciated asset. This mind-set frequently transferred onto the pitch, his players simply never giving up, no matter how high the odds against them were stacked.
This season the odds have indeed been stacked ominously – unusually – high against Manchester United on a weekly basis. As such, it is more pertinent than ever that the manager stands up to his team’s critics, swats away any negative reports, and provides a united front – a show of unity in the face of wavering certainty, no matter how truly genuine it really is. Simply put, thus far in his United reign Moyes has repeatedly failed to do this.
He has frequently let up the opportunity to address the issues lobbied against his team in the public eye. He has not exuded the required swagger that should be a pre-requisite for any manager of a club with United’s aspirations. United are widely considered to be the biggest club in the country, maybe even the world. Their fans expect to win every match, fearing no opponent. This must be conveyed through their manager – the man who is the most public face of the club as a whole.
A case in point of his failure to convey the necessary confidence ahead of a match is his comments before the clash with Newcastle United at Old Trafford back in December. The match followed a home defeat to Moyes’ former club Everton and the fans were – perhaps for the first time – openly showing their displeasure at his tenure thus far. Moyes responded to ringing criticism of his team by telling a pre-match news conference, “Obviously they (Newcastle United) are coming to Old Trafford and we are going to make it as hard for them as we possibly can,”. This comment alone had the air of ceding control of the tie before kick-off. Quelle surprise, Moyes’ side proceeded to lose the match 1-0, turning in an appropriately feeble performance lacking any sort of cutting edge – almost poetically reminiscent of their manager’s pre-match ramble.
Any authority figure – let alone one in the position Moyes enjoys – must convey a message of unwavering support; he must either ignore his critics altogether, if not effortlessly brushing them off with ruthless detached emotion. One of Moyes’ primary problems is that he has often failed to do either. His defeatist attitude – his alarming lack of persona – was most noticeable in the build-up to the fixture regarded by most fans of the Old Trafford club as their biggest in any season – Liverpool at home. More than ever, Moyes needed to convey a message of belief from within the club that they could turn their fortunes around and prevent yet another defeat at the hands of their greatest rivals. With what seemed like a sense of ironic audacity, Moyes almost pre-empted his side’s fifth home league defeat of the season by conceding his team were not widely expected to win the tie – an unforgivable comment in the eyes of many of the United faithful. “Their league position suggests they are ahead of us and they possibly do come here as favourites. Liverpool are having a very good season and we will have to do everything we possibly can to beat them.” Moyes’ admission that his side’s most fierce rivals came to Old Trafford as favourites was widely perceived as a shockingly defeatist, and his Liverpool counterpart Brendan Rodgers relished condemning Moyes – “I was probably surprised before the game when I heard we were supposedly coming to Old Trafford as favourites. I would never say that at Liverpool – even if I was bottom of the league.”
However, it is what Rodgers said next that particularly resonates with regards to Moyes’ failure to instil a winning mentality befitting Old Trafford – “Anfield is Anfield. We expect to win and we have a mentality that has been developing over 18 months which we expect to win home and away and the belief is in the players and you see that in their game.” Perhaps Moyes does expect to win, perhaps his players do too, but this is certainly not the message he is getting across at his weekly media briefings.
During Ferguson’s tenure, when the performances on the pitch would be below par, he would come out fighting post-match. Every word spoken would be carefully calculated, every gesticulation would have a desired response, and every answer would be appropriately measured to invoke the required reaction from the media, fans, and – most importantly – the players. When things aren’t going to plan on the pitch, the players and the fans will look to the manager to provide reassurance that things will turn around. Moyes simply does not currently embody the charismatic, bold leader one in his position is required to – perhaps a more assured handling of the media would transfer to more assured performances on the pitch.
More recently, Moyes has indeed seemed to have become more aware of his misgivings, telling a pre-match press conference ahead of the Bayern game, “We’ve given ourselves every opportunity and prepared really well. We have to go into this game knowing it’s a cup final for us. We want to be in the Champions League final but we have to win this cup final first. From that point of view we can’t leave anything [behind] on the night and make sure that we go through.”
This is precisely the kind of fighting spirit the United manager must radiate if he is to win over his critics. Coupled with victory over Bayern Munich tonight, it could just prove the spark he so needs if he is to bring the glory days back to Old Trafford.