The average Manchester United fan must wake up shaking his head, those vivid flashbacks of David Moyes, eyes on stalks, walking down the touchline towards the Stretford End after another home defeat, set against new impressions of a team banging in goals for fun and led by a man with a vision.
Did last season really happen? Was the red diaspora dreaming? It is only pre-season, and the setting in North America is far removed from the intensity of the Premier League, yet the aura about the team is radically altered since the arrival of Louis van Gaal. This is not just about Van Gaal understanding the Manchester United message but about the club adjusting to him.
This is the point that Moyes never realised. It was not enough to respect the traditions and heritage of a great club. It never is. History is made as well as inherited. The requirement is to make the thing your own, not to blend in. Moyes was far too deferential, concerned from the outset about appearing at the home of Sir Alex Ferguson in jeans. Had the call come to Van Gaal while he was out shopping with the missus he would have made Fergie come to him after, of course, letting the initial approach go to message until such a time as he was ready to take it.
You wonder what Moyes makes of it all as he observes from a distance the panache and swagger Van Gaal brings to the job? All those laboured press conferences; the weary trier dug into some kind of mental bunker churning out defensive lines about the size of the job, the massive challenge of rebuilding the squad, of working hard to turn things around. He was in all respects a million miles wide of the mark.
With every gesture, every utterance, every reflection, Van Gaal projects authority, a sense that he is in the right place. And while he is in situ it will be his place. So fences are going up around Carrington to keep out the wind. Pitches are being relaid to replicate the Old Trafford experience. Oh, and on the pitch wingers have gone. The crosses will still come in but not from the same bloke anchored to the touchline.
You might recall the crazy 2-2 home draw to Fulham near the end of his wretched time in charge when Moyes, so glued to the historic United template of flying wide boys, instructed his team to cross the opposition into submission. The penalty areas resembled flight paths at nearby Ringway airport, balls coming in on routes so predictable they might have been ordered by air traffic control.
Poor Moyes. He thought he was playing the United way, meeting a special demand, when all he was doing was revealing how much the environment was controlling him, never grasping the fundamental issue that he was supposed to be controlling it. Van Gaal is helped by the distance put between him and the reign of Ferguson. Nevertheless, you suspect he would not have been as insipid as his predecessor, who had no identity other than being Mr Not-Ferguson.
This produced in the players an inevitable reaction, a state of anomie. They needed leading, cajoling, directing, managing, but Moyes brought no recognisable philosophy, no big idea, and no identifiable sense of what he stood for as a manager. His decade in charge of Everton conveyed a sense of half-decent husbandry but nothing like the statement required to command the respect and the attention of someone else’s millionaires.
Another central point Moyes failed to grasp was the need to deliver immediately. He thought he had time. That six-year contract was seen as a licence to build in the manner of Ferguson 28 years ago. That world is long gone. United is not just the domestic juggernaut Ferguson resurrected, it is a global proposition that transcends the game. Ferguson’s principal objective was to knock Liverpool off their perch and establish English hegemony. The requirement now is to paint the world map red, to ensure little boys and girls on five continents reach for a United shirt ahead of the colours of Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich.
Moyes’ next move is almost as fascinating as Van Gaal’s at United. The Old Trafford experience showed him to be not only a manager out of his depth but out of his time, a relic of old Glasgow and a culture of “football people” no longer relevant. This is not the game of Shankly, Busby and Stein, not even of Ferguson. The era of the empire builder is over. The empire is already here, United’s global position long established. The new man comes in and must keep the machine oiled.
Even his work at Everton is being reconsidered, downgraded perhaps, in the light of the great Roberto Martinez project, which has raised the pulse rate at Goodison Park as well as expectation. The big challenge facing Moyes is not necessarily to take a new club forward, if there is one, but to reposition himself as a coach at one with the times.