Influence of the unknowable may be only lesson from Moyes’s success at West Ham | Jonathan Liew
“The game has changed immeasurably in the two decades since Moyes first started,” an idiot wrote in these pages two years ago. “And so in he shuffles, a man who neither improves teams nor greatly degrades them but will simply be there, right until he isn’t. He won’t take you in the wrong direction because he doesn’t take you in any direction.”
As West Ham United sit fourth in the Premier League after a stirring cultural revolution that has transformed the club’s psyche and taken them into Europe, it turns out that one of us had been elevated to a position for which he was grotesquely and demonstrably unqualified, but it wasn’t David Moyes.
Still, you live and learn, although at first glance it is not immediately clear exactly what learnings we should take from Moyes’s second spell at West Ham, a resounding success that has defied not just the bulk of popular sentiment but possibly even Moyes’s own expectations. Was it proof that he was a good manager all along? That a career path which had taken him from Manchester United to Real Sociedad to Sunderland to West Ham to West Ham again was all somehow an illusion? Or is something more subtle and complex happening here?
Certainly it is worth remembering that in this business you are never more than half a dozen wins away from being hailed as a genius nor half a dozen defeats from being lampooned as a moron. Should West Ham fall away and finish ninth, then it is guaranteed the very same qualities for which Moyes is currently being lauded will become flaws: his tactical discipline, his down-to-earth demeanour, his squad rotation in Europa League weeks. This is, to a large extent, the nature of football’s patellar reflex.
But the curious thing about many of the judgments on Moyes’s career was that they were anything but knee-jerk. Since getting the United job in 2013 from a legend who recommended him, this was a trajectory that was seemingly headed in only one direction. Even if you still rated Moyes as a coach – and many always have – returning to West Ham and its potty ownership 19 months after his services were deemed surplus to requirements felt like an act of pure desperation on all sides. We had all seen this film before and it invariably ended in a calamitous 3-0 defeat at Burnley and leaked stories about how disgruntled players were fuming at Moyes’s decision to ban mayonnaise from the canteen.
This has to be the starting point for any dispassionate evaluation of Moyes’s work at West Ham: everyone seemingly knew how this would end. And so perhaps one of the reasons his success has flown under the radar is that to analyse it in any great detail would also mean analysing how so many of us got it wrong. Indeed, it would probably involve recalibrating the whole discourse around how we rate managers and why, and junking many of the preconceived ideas we have about why managers succeed and fail.
Central to this is the tyranny of the “X, Y and Z” feature. You are probably familiar with the format. “Eating meals together, daytime naps and Murderball: how Marcelo Bielsa transformed Leeds United”. “Bikram yoga, Flaubert and reruns of Colombo: inside Scott Parker’s Bournemouth revolution”. “Googling himself at 4am, weeping dressing-room laments on the savagery of man, playing Matt Ritchie at full-back: where it all went wrong for Steve Bruce at Newcastle”. This stuff is everywhere and in its reduction of coaching to simple, catchy tropes it encourages us to see the manager in the same way we view a household cleaning product: a mix of miracle compounds that either works or doesn’t.
You could easily reverse-engineer the same sort of narrative around Moyes. He has tried to make training sessions more enjoyable. His work as a Uefa technical observer has kept him abreast of tactical trends. His relentless focus on set pieces has turned West Ham into one of the leading Premier League sides in that aspect of the game. All of this may explain part of the whole but they barely scratch at the whole itself: the boring, incremental, unscientific day-to-day work of improving players, drilling their roles, cohering the various parts of a club into a cogent, happy unit.
And here’s the rub: for all our love of extrapolation, none of this necessarily means very much beyond itself. It doesn’t mean United should have given him more time, it doesn’t mean West Ham were wrong to let him go in 2018, it doesn’t mean he deserves another crack at a Champions League club. Thomas Tuchel can simultaneously have been the wrong man for Borussia Dortmund in 2017 and the right man for Chelsea now. The lesson, surely, is that management is one part aptitude to two parts happenstance: some unknowable brew of timing and sentiment, synergy and macroeconomics, the wind at your back and the squad at your disposal.
The point is that so much of football is about picking the empirical out of the contextual, when all the available evidence suggests that it is basically impossible. All we can really say for certain is that after spending half a decade as a walking punchline, a likable and hard-working manager is finally enjoying some good times. And you know what? For now, maybe that’s enough.