Manchester United v Swansea City - Barclays Premier League

This is less about analytics today and more me thinking aloud about something, so apologies. It took a long time for some reason. Anyhoo, let’s talk about David Moyes and Man United.

Now, I can hear you groaning “Not again!”, but that exhaustion is the precisely the point. Do we get any closer to figuring out whether Man United made a colossal mistake in hiring the former Everton manager by publishing yet another op-ed with the word ‘crisis’ in the headline? What if there was a way of looking at this that allowed us to finally take a mental break from constant speculation over his future? Particularly as we don’t have a clear idea of the intentions or motivations of the United board?

To do this, I don’t think we need access to sophisticated ‘big data’ or even detailed financial information about the club. Rather we just need to critically think about our assumptions over United’s motives, speculate a little over their actual motives, and the range of risk they face in keeping Moyes on as manager.

I’ll start with an (hopefully) uncontroversial general premise: football is subject to a myriad number of decisions, and each of those decisions carry with them a certain level of risk. But acceptable ‘risk’ in this case depends on your perspective. For example what might be an important risk for fans or the media (what if United don’t even make the Europa League this year?!) might not be for those with the power to sack Moyes (what is a reasonable timeline for Moyes to adopt and acceptable level of financial loss before we are forced to act?).

Following from that, at what theoretical point would the Man United board decide to sack David Moyes?

To understand that, it serves to look at some possible motivations for hiring him, beyond the fact he was recommended by Ferguson. Maybe United believed that Everton’s success relative to the club’s transfer spending, plus his long tenure at a single club at Everton for eleven years, made him the ideal candidate. They might have reasoned that as United have a far more substantial transfer budget than Everton, Moyes could come reasonably close to replicating Ferguson’s success over time with access to more transfer money.

There are some major problems with this; acquiring players in the transfer market is arguably a skill in its own right, as United fans noticed this summer as Moyes and Ed Woodward failed to make any major moves materialize, with Fellaini proving to be a giant flop. But if it’s accurate, it would mean United would base any decision on the future of David Moyes after a significant squad overhaul (perhaps forgiving him for a terrible summer transfer window—the jury’s still out on the January one re: Mata, Dante etc.). That would be reason to wait. Just how long is a matter of ascertaining just how much the club can lose in the short term without threatening their ability to pay the bills (including servicing the Glazer debt) or maintain their lucrative global brand.

Or, alternatively, the board might have believed Moyes’ speciality would be winning without breaking the bank on players (or bothering the board to ask for more money), crucial for the Glazers who purchased the club with expensive leveraged funds. In which case they might want to wait for Moyes’ tactics to “take” before moving on. The problem here too is how long exactly will this take? We don’t really have good evidence whether certain managers need time for their tactics to be “understood” by players, so that will be up to the board based on their own, as yet unknown criteria.

These unknowns are the reason media members call United losses a ‘crisis.’ I mean, maybe the board is panicking as we speak! Though they’d be silly to, particularly if they knew the enormous short risk in taking on someone who had no experience at the elite level. I’d be willing to suspect they knew exactly what they got themselves into, and for that reason are willing to wait.

Finally, and this is the most important point: the chances there will be another Ferguson in football, let alone at Man United, are extremely low. This means that, one way or another, United will face a long and difficult process of rebuilding, whether under Moyes or another manager. Moyes managed something very difficult at Everton: he consistently finished relatively high up the table despite a limited budget. But that is not the equivalent of the kind of success that Alex Ferguson produced at United.

United may improve over time with Moyes, but it may never be to the standard the club enjoyed under Ferguson. But there is no reason to think that United will not wait a long time before deciding to follow the expensive course of their rivals, who spend increasingly lavish amounts on players while cycling through elite managers every two years.