Ferguson the only winner in United demise
No way back for Moyes after Athens as horror season highlights contrast with predecessor
The David Moyes debate is now as hollow as his team's performance in Athens this week. The jury isn't so much out as in a coma, one induced by months of failure to find a case for the defence.
For some this may sound like a rough assault on the professional standing of a football man of unquestioned integrity, who for a decade gave Everton a life beyond their means.
But we are not talking about Everton now – or the merits of the old pro who kept them on the fringes of the serious action for so long. No, we are talking about Manchester United, a great club falling to pieces in front of our eyes.
We are talking about an accelerating rush to something that potentially runs far deeper than one season of missed targets. It is the kind of breakdown in belief, authority and, most crucially, expectation that will always be the lifeblood of the most successful clubs. When it goes, it has a tendency to be absent without leave for dismaying periods.
That is the nightmare that bedevils United now, and throws into harsh light the blithe belief that a massive summer injection of cash – as much as £200m – will be enough to set the embattled manager and his disintegrating team back on some kind of coherent course.
From where does such confidence flow? It cannot have anything to do with Moyes' performance so far. There was, we have to be brutally honest, a minimum requirement of him when Alex Ferguson the king-maker anointed him last summer.
It wasn't to seamlessly preserve the run of trophies. Everyone accepted that United's 11-point title win last season was more than anything a tribute to the enduring ability of Ferguson to galvanise a group of footballers – and his sure-fire reading of the short-term effect of signing a restless, trophy-hungry Robin van Persie.
Now the team is about as galvanised as a pot of gruel on low heat – and Van Persie, the erstwhile hero, has become a parody of a single-minded, hugely rewarded professional. His performance on and off the field in Athens was crushing evidence that Moyes has to look elsewhere for the kind of commitment and moral leadership he has so desperately craved these last few months.
Wayne Rooney is making the right noises now that he has become the corporate emblem of preserved ambition, at £300,000 a week, but then his past record is hardly a monument to consistent application. The rest, as Roy Keane, put it so scathingly at the disaster scene this week, is a body of workers which has become simply unfit for purpose.
Keane talked about the need for six major players – six major characters. Unavoidable, though, is the most pressing need of all. It is a manager who is plainly in charge of both himself and his players.
Moyes did that impressively enough at Goodison Park, but when he moved to Old Trafford he faced a whole new set of demands.
The most vital concerned his ability to preserve a thread of leadership, a capacity to affect players so long conditioned by the uniquely aggressive style of Ferguson. Here, by his own admission, he has run into a brick wall.
One statistic screamed from the 2-0 disgrace against Olympiakos. It was that United had produced one shot on goal. Translation: the United players didn't try a leg, certainly not a meaningful one guaranteed to disrupt the commendably committed but hardly devastating Greek team.
For the United hierarchy, it left a critical question which would have been answered, we can be sure, in only one way by such serious rivals as Real Madrid, Chelsea and, in their more stately manner, reigning European champions Bayern Munich.
All three of these football behemoths have made their statements about the kind of managers they would countenance at the first hint of failed momentum.
All three jobs went to Champions League winners – respectively, Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho and, the supreme example of seeking the best available leader for a team already favourites to win club football's greatest title, Pep Guardiola.
Instead of such certainties, United invested in Moyes' commendable but trophy-less track record. Essentially, they entrusted Ferguson to pass on the baton. So far, the only beneficiary is Ferguson's own reputation.
He won the title by a massive margin with a squad widely believed to be sub-par. Moyes is adrift of the minimum achievement of European qualification. Rightly or wrongly, football's big beasts would not have been prepared to live with such vertiginous decline.
In all of this there has to be a temptation to revisit the testimony of Moyes' admiring old team-mate and friend, Joe Jordan.
They shared digs while at Bristol City and tended to talk deep into the small hours. Jordan recalls that Moyes was unswerving in his desire to talk about football. Try as he might, Jordan failed again and again to introduce other subjects.
Moyes, certainly, is a driven man, obsessed with the challenge of winning football matches. His devotion to video assistance is inexhaustible.
He lives, breathes football, but as United's performances keep declining, could it be that his approach has been received as too one-dimensional?
Ferguson was obsessed with football too, but he also took pleasure in a wider life involving horse racing, travel and a good wine cellar. When he ripped into an errant Rooney or Rio Ferdinand, he had a perspective that ran wider than a football club. He carried with him the tough streets of Glasgow as well as all of that city's football lore.
Now when we look at Moyes we see a man plainly experiencing not so much the great, inspiring challenge of a previously fine career but some ultimate ordeal.
Above all, he seems to be someone who is trapped in the wrong place, where for him there might never have been the right time.
Given his nature, he will surely fight this bleak conclusion. But for how long can his employers indulge such a questionable luxury? Athens certainly brought a sense of the end of something.