Alarm bells rang for me during one of David Moyes' first interviews as Sunderland manager. Questioned about Ellis Short’s claim that he had been the first choice for all of Sunderland’s recent vacancies, Moyes stated that the main reason he did not take the job "…was because I didn’t think they (Sunderland) could stay up, so what Sam (Allardyce) did was amazing".
Moyes was convinced that we were relegated in October of last season, sitting on three points after just eight games. For such a successful and experienced manager to have so little confidence in his own ability that - despite the prospect of being given the majority of the season to turn things around - he did not think he could keep Sunderland up, betrayed a stunning lack of self belief.
However, refreshed from a short hiatus from football management and boasting an experienced Premier League C.V, Moyes appeared to most to be a safe choice. Though not my preferred candidate, a majority of fans were satisfied that he was capable of transforming a club like Sunderland to a solid, if unspectacular, Premier League team.
Moyes’ plan was to turn Sunderland into a club that would no longer be flirting with relegation quite so closely. He stated his intention to build a team that had the competition and quality within its ranks to be good enough to compete in the Premier League and - having claimed to have been given certain "guarantees and reassurances" by Ellis Short and Martin Bain - all appeared rosy in the garden.
But while claiming to respect the previous seasons achievements, Moyes was also insistent on his own policy of young and, if possible, British acquisitions. In came the likes of Paddy McNair and Donald Love. Most of the summer signings, including the aforementioned duo, had a prior connection to Moyes in some way, while last season's squad looked increasingly unlikely to reassemble as the summer progressed. Out of the door went Kaboul and Lens, while conspicuous in their absence were last seasons loanees DeAndre Yedlin and, of course, Yann M’Vila.
There is of course nothing wrong with targeting players that you know and trust, as long as those players have been scouted properly and are the best players for the positions and style of play you wish to implement. There is also nothing wrong with building for the future, as long as you already have a team in place who can take care of the here and now. Unfortunately, particularly in attack, our team looks young, inexperienced and lacking cohesion.
I don’t feel particularly good about criticising young players. The likes of McNair, Watmore, Gooch, Love and Januzaj are all victims of Moyes’ decision to build a squad which necessitates their exposure to such high expectations. It is a baptism of fire for all of these youngsters and, without the presence of senior professionals who can earn us results should the pressure on occasion prove too much for the younger players, Moyes has placed survival squarely on their shoulders.
With Paddy McNair, we have the perfect example of the confused and cobbled construction of Moyes’ Sunderland project thus far. Upon his arrival, McNair declared himself a defensive midfielder, a point which Moyes immediately corroborated. However, after several instances of being withdrawn or overlooked when defensive midfielders were in short supply, he scored two goals against a weakened QPR and suddenly Moyes is wondering out loud if we might just have a potential number ten on our hands. Mere days later, in the dying embers of the Crystal Palace game, the Northern Ireland midfielder entered the fray as a left midfielder.
McNair in particular seems to be a player signed because he is dependable, known to Moyes, unlikely to cause trouble and is a solid addition to the squad, rather than a player signed to fill a specific role or position within the team. Considering our outlay this summer, the £5m spent on him looks excessive for such a player.
This is far from an isolated phenomenon. Rodwell has been deployed as a centre back, with Moyes and the player postulating it could be his best position. Centre back Jason Denayer was deployed at right back against Spurs, despite Donald Love being on the bench. Duncan Watmore, who is a centre forward by trade is deployed as a winger, despite Khazri sitting on the bench. Not only does Moyes not know his best team, he doesn’t seem to know where a lot of his players should play.
It is apparent that Moyes was signing players while he was not sure what sort of formation and thus what sort of football Sunderland would be playing. That, I can almost hear people saying, is not his fault. ‘The FA stalled our season and Moyes had no time’. Well, sort of. But if you are an experienced Premier League manager with very little time and money to work with, one thing you don’t want to do is change too much. Particularly when we had settled upon an effective and fairly entertaining brand of football that earned consistent and deserved results last season.
Moyes could have taken the job and, observing the success we had last season with our formation and recruitment, prioritised keeping the squad together, preserving the optimism and energy at the club and adding four or five players with the same system in mind. In the background, he could have set about targeting younger players to gradually transition us to a style and approach that he preferred for the long term.
Instead he has loaded the squad with young utility players who have yet to discover their best position, and thrust them into a team with an unknown identity, asking them to perform unfamiliar roles. It seems an almost egotistical move, as though Moyes has jettisoned a promising team and approach that achieved so much because it wasn’t of his making or to his liking, regardless of the lack of finance or time for the seasons preparations.
He has, however, failed to replace it with anything near as tangible or reliable, while spinning an intense PR campaign that allows him to blame others for the changes that he sought and the minimal time he had to make them. He stares deep into the camera and decries the incompetencies and chaos into which he has walked. I am of the opinion that he has not been the victim of chaos and upheaval, he has actively pursued it. He told us himself he wanted young and British players and the signings appear to be ones he is familiar with and approves of. He has decried institutionalised instability at the club, while overhauling a squad that proved it could earn results in the Premier League consistently over a sustained period.
He appears to be pointing fingers, making excuses and exonerating himself for the type of collapse we witnessed against Palace, while ironically bemoaning the inability of players to accept responsibility. It’s true he cannot be on the pitch making tackles and blocking shots, but I would argue that in order to retain the trust and dedication of the players, Moyes must present the teams failures as his own, at least in public. He looks to be a manager struggling desperately to, first and foremost, insulate himself from the fallout of a third failure in a row. His priority does not seem to be the success of the football club, nor the confidence of the new or young players that he has identified and introduced.
Contrary to his opinion that there is very little more he can do, he needs to get to work on deciding his formation, what type of football he wants to play and where the players best positions are, instead of shoehorning players into unfamiliar roles and failing to support and protect a young team that he has put together. If he is truly intent on building a young squad for a long term project, he cannot demand time and patience for himself, while simultaneously denying a similar period of grace for his players.
By speaking about his desire to bring in British players and younger players, he showed his hand that his intention was to fundamentally alter the approach that Allardyce had begun in January, despite knowing he was short on time. It seems disingenuous to then bemoan and criticise a culture of change and upheaval, while orchestrating a fundamental switch in approach that has immediately looked to the future, but failed to consider and appreciate the demands of the present.
I would argue that it is Moyes’ approach, his paralysing lack of self belief and the decision to overhaul the recruitment system - despite a shortage of both time and money - has made the start to the season painfully predictable. Of course it could get better. Given time and a bit more positivity and support, the players may develop an understanding, a consistent system and a settled starting eleven.
It’s been said a million times that you don’t become a bad manager or player overnight. But for Moyes it hasn’t been overnight - it’s been years. And that is an awfully long time in football. I’m not saying he’s a bad manager, but I fail to understand people who believe that a manager cannot suffer a crisis of identity and self belief, just like any other human being. He is trying to get his career back on track, but wouldn’t you rather that he wasn't trying to do that here? Those who seek to excuse him for mistakes and errors of judgment just because he was a success at Everton and has proven himself a good manager there, are letting their heart rule their head. No one can take the Everton success away from him, but he also can’t dine off it here when making errors that, to me, are plain as day.
He needs to find an answer and start proving his critics wrong quickly. After all, based on his own assessment when he rejected the job last season, we’re almost relegated already.