The real problem at Manchester United?

Much has been made of the (relative) struggles of the great Manchester United in their first season with David Moyes as manager. The short version is that a team largely unchanged from the one Sir Alex Ferguson led to the BPL title last year is quite middling this year. The longer version would involve descriptions of confusion on the field, retrospectively poor tactics, reports of locker room dysfunction, and so on.

On Sunday morning I watched ManU get trounced (putting it kindly) by their hated rival Liverpool, and look downright pathetic in the process of doing so (pathetic being a relative term, as ManU is probably still a top-30 club in the world). Then today on LinkedIn I read an article by Dan Pontefract, The Leadership Collapse of Manchester United, and it got me thinking a bit more about the situation.

What’s really going on?

Pretty much everyone with an opinion on the subject is placing the blame quite neatly on David Moyes’ shoulders, and justify their opinions with arguments including:

  • He erred by jettisoning most of the back-room staff and bringing in his own crew
  • He’s in over his head
  • He can’t handle the egos on a world-class team
  • His tactics are too conservative
  • The team looks disjointed/out-of-sync on the pitch
  • His team selections are head-scratchers

…and don’t get me wrong – I agree with most of those, especially the one about him replacing the back-room staff (which also went against Sir Alex’s advice).

I should mention that other camps aren’t so quick to hang Moyes; they’ll point out that this team is a year older than the one Sir Alex led, that competition across the BPL is tougher this year, and so on. Plus, it should be noted that Moyes was signed to a multi-year contract, so from the get-go the team’s ownership sent out a message that they were committed to the man and would show patience.

So, opinions are technically divided but a majority think Moyes has botched it.

I must say, however, that I’m a bit dismayed that so little of the blame has fallen at the well-paid feet of the players, and I think most observers are missing the real reason why the team just isn’t that good this time around: player apathy. The players came into this season with a built-in excuse to lose, and so losing is what they’re doing. With so many pundits predicting a trying season for the perennial powerhouse, in the back of everyone’s mind was a voice saying “It’s OK to lose – it’s not your fault.”

The players came into this season with a built-in excuse to lose, and so losing is what they’re doing.

This little voice might cause a player to nod and agree to a manager’s tactics, and then go out and execute something different. It might cause them to give up on a strategy after a single poor outing. It might cause them to passive-aggressively undermine the new staff. It might cause them to speak out about how the new manager doesn’t listen as much.

In short, it might cause losing to become acceptable, if not inevitable.

An obvious counter to this viewpoint is that it’s a leader’s job to make sure this type of thing doesn’t happen, and I completely agree with that (as I said above, I think Moyes seriously erred by replacing much of the support staff). Moyes introduced too much change and probably ruffled a few feathers along the way. I just think the players should not get a free pass, and there’s been so much grumbling, so many leaks to the media, and so much on-field dysfunction that it seems to me that while the players’ outside voices are saying “We want to win”, their inside voices are muttering “That’s OK, a few more losses and he’ll be gone”.

If the players really cared, then they’d get together, they’d get on the same page, they’d put out a public message of unity, and they’d work with the manager to succeed as a team.

The delicious irony in this situation is that if the team turned in a great season, then it would reflect brilliantly on the players. The narrative would be that it really was the players who won last year, not Sir Alex all by himself, and that they proved it by winning under the new manager.

But that’s just one Sunderland fan’s opinion.

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Posted in Everything, Leadership, Soccer

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