Friday 13 December 2019

Moyes and Martino look like managers caught in headlights

Gerardo Martino, head coach of Barcelona FC
Gerardo Martino, head coach of Barcelona FC

James Lawton

An end of an era was proclaimed this week when the fabled Barcelona and Manchester United fell at the quarter-final stage of the Champions League.

Yet in all the mourning for the decline of legend, the point may well have been missed. It could, after all, also have been described not as the end of something – but the beginning.

The start, that is, of the age when the role of the supercoach is becoming not just key to the maintenance of old and glorious traditions, but to the creation of new ones.

In both Madrid and Munich, where Barcelona were run to earth by the relentless defence of Atletico and United were overwhelmed by the trademark possession game of reigning European champions Bayern, the message to every football owner, and corporation, had surely never been more explicit.

In the Vicente Calderon stadium, the presence of Argentinian coach Diego Simeone on the touchline was quite as immense as Barca's former Svengali Pep Guardiola at the Allianz Arena.

Beside them, the embattled Guardiola successor Tata Martino and United's David Moyes had the demeanour of men caught in the particularly harsh glare of the headlights. Football, at its highest level, was plainly moving on at an alarming pace.

From Moyes (right) there was the familiar glazed expression and optimistic talk of a major re-tooling operation at Old Trafford. From Martino there was a look of unrelieved desperation.

But neither could escape the impression that they had been caught in a vortex.

Moyes' position was once again rendered especially hopeless. At least Martino can pray for the redemption that might come with the pegging back of Atletico's one-point lead in La Liga, but, as United midfielder Michael Carrick glumly agreed, his club's best-case – but hardly guaranteed – scenario was a return to Champions League football in 18 months. That in today's football is not so much a pause as an abyss.

For United's American owners and the ruling committee of Barcelona, the lessons of Wednesday night could only be searing. When they lost Guardiola, first to a year of reflection in New York, then a triumphant return to powerhouse Bayern, they mislaid more than a winning coach. They lost the leader philosopher who created a way of playing, a style and a hauteur that, for a while, made the team unique.

Maybe Barca were not, as some of the more gushing critics claimed, the best team in the history of football, but there was no doubting that they had carved an extraordinary place for themselves in the annals of the game.

Guardiola's move to Bayern certainly defined the new understanding that the future belonged not so much to high-powered businessmen in the executive suites, but men who could understand the value of truly talented, and original, football men.

Bayern were, of course, not exactly in a tight spot when they turned to the self-exiled Guardiola. They were led by the ageing, but still eminently successful Jupp Heynckes and his parting gift was a brilliant Champions League triumph.

Alex Ferguson may not have been many people's idea of a football philosopher, but plainly he was one of the game's most enduring and successful enforcers of winning values.

He also presided over a style of football guaranteed to create maximum excitement on the terraces.

Unfortunately, his parting gifts to the club he served so superbly for nearly three decades came in a distinctly mixed bag. He delivered a final Premier League title, but also strongly and successfully nominated his own successor.

Moyes professional credentials were impressive enough by most standards, but, perhaps, it is easier to conclude now, not belonging in the category of those coaches with a track record for creating a winning aura.

The result is that grave question marks have to be placed against Moyes' chances of being granted the time to work a vital transformation at United.

His prospects of doing this receded still further when Guardiola, appalled by his team's indifferent start to the second half of Wednesday's tie, and concession of a what might have been a decisive goal, made crucial tactical changes and created a fresh and crushing momentum.

Around about the same time the 43-year-old Simeone was orchestrating the downfall of Barcelona. They said it was the end of an era, but, of course, in Madrid and Munich very few were listening.

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