The David Moyes era at Manchester United didn't last long and yet, it just ended.
You know the details by now. Sir Alex Ferguson retires as the most successful British manager of all time. He hand-picks his successor before he leaves, tipping his fellow Scotsman to be the club's next longtime steward. After taking Everton from relegation-fighter to Champions League qualifier, Moyes makes the move to United and brings Marouane Fellaini along with him.
Moyes bans fish and chips from the Carrington. Fans unfurl a banner for their new coach with the words: "The Chosen One" but he turns out to not be Ferguson because no-one is, nor ever will be. The team finishes seventh a year after finishing first. By the spring, the banner turns into: "The Wrong One." Moyes gets fired before the season ends and his ensuing managerial career resembles a two-dimensional video game character bouncing down a gigantic staircase, a series of thudding, often-comic and exponential disappointments.
Moyes hasn't coached since 2018, but his initial deal with United expired just three months ago. His contract was set to be for six years, running through June 30, 2019, and despite getting rid of him, United haven't made any real on-field progress since. In Moyes' one season with the club, they reached the Champions League quarterfinals, won 19 games and finished outside the top four. In what could've also been Moyes's last year with the club in an alternate universe, they reached they reached the Champions League quarterfinals, won 19 games and finished outside the top four.
Revenues keep growing, the players keep changing, the managerial chairs keep getting shuffled and the team's performance remains the same. So what if Manchester United had never fired David Moyes and instead allowed him to see his six-year contract through to the end? It couldn't be any worse, right?
Among the six post-Ferguson seasons, Moyes's one year with United ranks last in points (64), but that's perhaps slightly unkind. That team scored more goals (64) than all but two of the others and allowed more (43) than all but one. Their goal differential (plus-21) was the fourth-best of the post-Fergie years. They may have even been slightly unfortunate to finish where they did. Injuries limited Robin van Persie, who'd scored 56 goals in the previous two Premier League seasons, to just 1,579 minutes. And according to TruMedia data, United's expected-goal differential under Moyes was fifth-best in the Premier League in 2013-14.
It's true that "but our underlying statistics suggested we were the fifth-best team in the league!" would be a pathetic rallying cry, especially for one of the three richest clubs on the planet. To judge the success of a manager, then, the consultancy 21st Club looks at two things: Did a team's performance level improve under that coach (based on 21st Club's World Soccer League ratings)? And how did the team's performance compare to what we'd expect based on their resources?
The context is important because if you coached Real Madrid and Pep Guardiola coached, say, Oxford United, well, your team would likely win more points, but that wouldn't make you a more effective manager. Some of the names that grade out best according to this method: Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, Julian Nagelsmann and Jurgen Klopp.
But what about what we've seen at United, post-Ferguson? The club has not once exceeded -- let alone met -- their spend-related expectations and none of their managers have left the club with a higher rating than when they arrived. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has now been in the job for longer than Moyes and the team has declined since he took over, too.
"Relative to all other managers, Jose Mourinho oversaw the largest increase in quality: his peak being in the early months of the 2017-18 campaign," said AJ Swoboda, managing director for the Americas at 21st Club. "But compared to Moyes or Louis van Gaal, Mourinho ultimately left the club in a worse-off position relative to when he started."
Before arriving at United, Moyes oversaw an improvement in performance and an over-performance at Everton: that's why he got the job. After leaving Old Trafford, his Real Sociedad team declined in performance but outperformed their resources. At Sunderland, neither indicator was positive and the team was relegated but at West Ham, the team did improve, although not enough to match their wages. There are a select few managers who improve performance, another select group who hurt performance, while the majority don't have much of a long-term impact on a team's fortunes at all. Moyes probably falls into that big group in the middle.
"You could argue Moyes was a roughly average manager among 'Big 5' managers," Swoboda said. "And so you would have expected him to have as good of results as United's front office 'would have allowed' had he not been sacked."
That front office is, of course, led by Ed Woodward, a former investment banker who helped the Glazer family buy the club and has no previous experience running a soccer team. He's grown the sponsors list to an absurd degree; the club has an Official Global Lubricant Partner, an Official Transformation Partner and an Official Denim Partner. (If you really support Manchester United, you must wear True Religion jeans.) Except not one of the club's major signings from the Woodward Era has been an unmitigated success: five of the 15 most expensive transfers no longer player for the club and most of the ones who've stayed have struggled to even maintain a starting spot.
With Woodward seemingly still leading the way, United still doesn't have the kind of modern front office structure that have helped enable the rise of their major rivals, Liverpool and Manchester City. While Liverpool have invested in analytical decision making, United still don't even have a Director of Football.
"In United's case, there is a pretty big question of what is really driving inefficiency -- i.e. the coach or front office operations?" Swoboda said. "I'd be inclined to argue the latter given all the coaches that have come through since."
The transition from Ferguson's incredible tenure was bound to be complicated. He's arguably the most successful manager in the history of the sport and he turned United into a powerhouse at the tail end of an era when the word "manager" still meant something different than it does now. You weren't just the coach; you managed all of the club's affairs. On top of that, he handed off a team that seemed bound for regression (they scored 86 goals on 78.65 xG in 2012-13) and was relying on an aging core, with stalwarts like Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra,\ and van Persie all soon aging into their 30s and out of their peaks.
However, United have been in the top four of global revenue in every year since SAF stepped down, and they've spent at least £77 million on transfer fees -- to go along with higher salaries than just about any other club -- in every season since he left. Despite the continued financial advantages, five of the six most recent seasons have produced point totals that were lower than any of the club's 21 Premier League campaigns under Ferguson. Given their resources, the expectations for United are "one of the three or four best teams in the world". Instead, right now, they might not even be one of three or four best teams in their own country.
Barring some kind of self-sabotage or large-scale internal mutiny, it's hard to envision a team with Manchester United's money being any worse than they've been since 2013.
Would a more patient approach with Moyes have prevented that decline? Maybe the club would've continued to invest in proven Premier League performers like Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, rather than chasing big names like Falcao and Angel Di Maria whom they quickly got rid of. Maybe Adnan Januzaj would've become the star he looked like at times during the 2013-14 campaign. Hell, maybe the team would've even crested during the strange 15-16 season when it only took 81 points to win the Premier League.
The most probable outcome, though, is that Moyes, like van Gaal, Mourinho, and Solskjaer, would've piloted the team to the same level they're at right now.