Succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford has become the job from hell as United falter and Moyes ties himself in knots
The task of managing England is supposed to be football's impossible job, but it turns out that succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson to take charge of Manchester United runs it pretty close.
The basic deal is the same in both positions. You are not allowed to be bad, and most of the time you can never be quite as good as people expect you to be with, ahem, the best players in the country at your disposal. Had David Moyes hit the ground running with United, as it briefly appeared he would when Swansea were taken apart on the opening day, people would have said – actually this is what they did say – that he was a lucky boy to be headhunted by Fergie and given control of such a talented, strong and well-drilled squad.
Now United are struggling somewhat, Moyes is in a bit of a bind. The squad is clearly not as wonderful as everyone thought it was, weaknesses in defence and midfield are becoming evident and the question of who plays alongside Robin van Persie has still not gone away, but the new manager dare not moan for fear of the treasonable offence of suggesting Ferguson left him with a botched operation to repair.
Moyes is hardly in a position to turn on his players, though his patience with Ashley Young must be close to exhaustion, and he cannot say the previous regime is to blame either. It is too soon to accept it is his own fault, though others are already beginning to point out that confident managers such as José Mourinho or Rafa Benítez tend to go into new clubs and make sure they do not start with a whimper, so all Moyes can do is soak up the criticism and internalise the pressure.
It is his problem to sort out, he will get it right and so on. The new United manager would have been wise not to come out with the immortal "I've been in situations similar to this at Everton and Preston North End" line the other day because, patently, he hasn't. There is no situation in the world similar to the one in which Moyes finds himself, but you could see what he was driving at. He is a good manager, he has proved himself at other clubs, and he was appointed at United on the strength of that. He would be foolish to try to change his methods or his management style, he needs to keep plugging away at what he knows he does best and results will eventually follow.
Ferguson himself can tell him what that's like, indeed probably has told him. "Was I doing something wrong?" Moyes's predecessor asks rhetorically in his autobiography, in the section that follows that hideous 5-1 mauling by Manchester City at Maine Road in 1989. "I was convinced the training was fine and the players' general fitness was good. Analysing my team selections, my preparation and my tactics, I couldn't see a major fault. I felt my own demeanour was good, but we weren't winning enough games. There was speculation I was about to be fired, and for the first time I was feeling uncomfortable about my position. No matter how much support was available from my staff, I was the one who had to put the club on the right path."
That sounds like Moyes's position now, except Ferguson was writing with hindsight, knowing that what came next in the story was the FA Cup win that launched the trophy-laden chapter. Moyes has no such comfort, and neither are United on the way up, as they were in 1989.
Ferguson was building upwards from a relatively low base. Moyes has come in at the top floor, his team are champions and, domestically at least, the view in all directions is downwards. On the European front there is scope for improvement – maybe Moyes can engineer a Champions League success to silence the doubters in the same way as Ferguson used the FA Cup in 1990, but here we come to the nub of the issue. United play at Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday evening, and Moyes has said in successive press conferences that United both can and cannot win the Champions League.
It does not really matter which version you choose to believe, the point is that Moyes himself is becoming the story. He is tying himself in knots trying to say the right thing, waiting for the team to back up some of his earnestness with performances on the pitch. Just like an England manager, even his body language is being scrutinised. Don't let the cameras catch you with your head in your hands, he is being told. It doesn't look good, you never used to see Fergie doing it.
England managers famously get frazzled by the job, their hair turns grey overnight, they eventually run out of excuses, and that is what everyone expects. Sometimes it appears the only reason people take the job, apart from the money, is the knowledge that you might get your life back to something like normal again in four or five years.
England managers never stay in situ for over a quarter of a century either. No one expects that to happen and it would be very odd if it did. But that is what has happened at United. That is what Moyes is having to deal with. If it is true, and it might be, that Ferguson won his last league titles by sheer force of personality, forcing an otherwise ordinary side to rise above mostly ordinary opposition through his own strength of character, then that character was forged by the 20-odd years in the job that went before. All the other title wins, the cups and the European successes, and not forgetting the "grim days" before he put a trophy on the Old Trafford sideboard.
Decent, likable and capable as he is, Moyes simply has not got that experience and authority to bring to bear. That much was established in the transfer window, when United could and probably should have acted more decisively.
Yet Moyes is not on his own, he has Ferguson right behind him. If United needed to spend big in the summer, and didn't, both men should take a share of the blame; Ferguson as a club director is there to offer advice and experience, and presumably he did. Ferguson chose Moyes as his successor, the two are in this together, yet only one man is getting it in the neck.
Loyalty to Ferguson means there can be only one casualty if the players, Ferguson's players, cannot relieve the pressure on Moyes. Football seems capable of serving up endless variations on the theme of the difficulties faced by clubs who have to replace hugely successful managers.
Looking at what is now a troubled transition at United, you can't help but feel David Peace might be already taking notes.