After yesterday’s game against Burnley I typed David Moyes’ name into the search bar on twitter to see what the reaction had been. Quick as a flash I was given the option to search for ‘David Moyes sacked.’ Was that an assumption from fans across the country that another limp display, coupled with a visit from our traditionally trigger happy chairman meant a decision had been made or was it wishful thinking on the part of our own fans? Either way it feels like the pressure is building on Moyes again. Whether that pressure is entirely external or whether the club are considering other possibilities is ultimately the important question.
After years of instability and managerial changes there has been little appetite to go down that route again and sack Moyes. Famously Ellis Short had tried to get the Scotsman to the club on numerous previous occasions and so would be reluctant to jettison his man after less than a season. Added to that is the strong relationship between Chief Executive Martin Bain who is also the man primarily advising Short on footballing matters. It will be Short’s decision whether Moyes stays or goes, and we know that he isn’t above a ruthless cull if he thinks it would secure Premier League football, but Bain’s support counts for a lot and it feels like while he is in place Moyes is relatively secure. Which begs the question, should he be?
With Middlesbrough axing Aitor Karanka mid-week Sunderland are now the only team in the bottom six not to have made a managerial change this season. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong not to, at least two of those sides are likely to still go down despite their change, but it does represent something of an anomaly that the bottom team haven’t acted. Undoubtedly the clubs recent history of sacking managers and the uncertainty and instability that has followed is a large part of that. Moyes’ side are in their second dire run of the season following the clubs earlier worst ever start to a Premier League campaign. Both runs would have seen the end of previous managers reign at the club, but the desire for time and stability has prevented any drastic action being taken. In many ways it’s an admirable change of direction for Short and the club. A show of faith in a manager with a good career record to be able to turn the club around. The question is are the club showing faith in Moyes because they genuinely believe he is the man to turn things round or is it because they just don’t want to sack another manager and face all the inevitable upheaval that will cause.
On the pitch with the exception of a brief period of encouragement mid-season there has been little sign that we have found the man to lead us forward. More worrying still is the sense that Moyes himself doesn’t really believe. He was criticised early in his tenure for his fairly negative demeanour and his statement that a goalless draw against West Brom was probably the best we were capable of was an early concern. Moyes did an amazing job at Everton on fairly limited resources, but while his tenures at Manchester United and Real Sociedad were not quite the unmitigated disasters that they are sometimes portrayed as they were not successful either. It’s fair then to question whether he himself has lost a little faith in his own ability. His experience at United in particular must have been a huge dent to his confidence as he received his dream job, one of the biggest in world football and found himself out of work almost before he had got his feet under the table. That leaves him attempting to rebuild his career with Sunderland.
In the modern game a strong reputation cultivated over years in the job can be seriously damaged in the space of just a couple of months. With that in mind his next choice of job was always going to be crucial and he must be questioning the decision he made. He is now in a situation where if he left the club he would surely find it difficult to find another job in the Premier League. If he isn’t happy and he isn’t enjoying the job, and looking at the way he carries himself it’s hard to think that he is, then he still seems stuck with us. Whether we should be stuck with him is now the decision Short has to make.
Of course Moyes isn’t blessed with a hugely talented squad and after years of successive relegation scraps and underachievement it would be wrong to throw all the blame his way, but he hasn’t helped himself. As well as his generally negative attitude mentioned earlier he has also made some pretty odd tactical decisions. Yesterday’s decision to leave out Didier N’Dong was the latest to leave fans a little bemused. He has come under pretty constant criticism for not using Wahbi Khazri and while he may well have a point about his laziness at times it is hard to reconcile that with his faith in Adnan Januzaj who doesn’t exactly recall the Energizer Bunny when he plays. He was unfortunate that injuries meant that when a settled formation and style of play seemed to have been discovered he had to make a switch, but there’s a sense that he only stumbled on a working formula by mistake rather than judgement in the first place. That run of form with Victor Anichebe and Duncan Watmore providing support for Jermain Defoe represented the high point of his reign so far, but it was a light that only flickered briefly.
The amount of injuries that the club suffered from that point was unfortunate, but not wholly unexpected. Anichebe has famously been injury prone, while Kirchhoff, Cattermole and Rodwell have all been regular absentees over the years both for Sunderland and previous clubs. Added to that the fact Kone and N’Dong were always likely to miss games away at the African Nations Cup and it wasn’t too hard to see that the squad was always likely to be woefully short of depth, as well as quality. Which asks a question of Moyes’ transfer dealings. If as seems inevitable the club do drop to the Championship then a giant rebuilding job will be needed. For once we actually have a few salable assets which will hopefully bring some money to the club which can then be reinvested in the playing staff. Whoever is in charge therefore, whether it’s Moyes or someone else, has to be someone the club has faith in to spend that money wisely. The evidence so far isn’t great that Moyes should be that man. He has struggled to get signings over the line and when he has they have been a mixed bag at best. Papy Djilobodji has been a disaster, while his most expensive signing N’Dong has had a decent enough season without making the kind of impact that the club has needed to really lift them to a new level. Januzaj has been a disappointment as a loan signing while Jason Denayer has generally been fine. Away from that we have seen a collection of ex-Everton players, Pienaar past his best, Anichebe effective, but injured, Lescott barely used and recently Darron Gibson and probably the best of the bunch Bryan Oviedo.
I can easily imagine that Sunderland isn’t an easy sell for players right now. That may explain the raft of players joining who Moyes has worked with before. Players who see the opportunity to reunite with a manager they like and are therefore willing to put aside the clubs league position and the fact they could probably get better pay elsewhere. Nonetheless it’s an area we need to do better. It’s hard to believe that there aren’t players in the lower leagues who could have improved upon the likes of Pienaar and Lescott and it’s a legitimate alternative reading of Moyes’ business to wonder if a lack of knowledge of that market is why he has had to fall back on players he knows. It’s to be hoped that is a conversation that is happening behind the scenes and if Moyes isn’t able to demonstrate a knowledge of that market then now would be the time to find someone who can.
Even if a new man wasn’t able to turn things around quickly enough to salvage this season it would at least give them an opportunity to assess the current squad and who is up to the mark for what will be as ever a highly competitive Championship next season. Who that person would be is another question. We are used to hearing of the potential of Sunderland as a football club and the quality of the stadium and training facilities are undeniable. Years of struggles and managerial merry-go-rounds though mean attracting the biggest names is unlikely. Moyes’ choice to join us was in itself an indication that his star had fallen dramatically following his two most recent jobs. Gary Rowett was a name circulating with some regularity until he took the Derby job last week and Steve McClaren’s availability will strike fear into the hearts of Sunderland fans worldwide. What is clear is that whatever decision Ellis Short makes, be it to stick with Moyes or bring in a new man the club has the potential to go sharply in either direction from here.
His next decision has to be the right one.