There was a bleakness about David Moyes’ appointment as West Ham United manager. It was rooted in the events of his recent managerial record, an episodic narrative of unmitigated disasters.
Perhaps no one could have thrived as the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson. Equally, though, one would struggle to find someone who suffered as severely as the Scot in the Old Trafford dugout. Far from sunshine and sangrias, Moyes then found an environment at Real Sociedad that considered him distant, conceited, and strangely pessimistic. His subsequent time at Sunderland showed he need not venture outside England to face the same backlash.
Perhaps his first stint at none other than West Ham could qualify as an exception, having kept them in the Premier League after arriving mid-season. But it was telling how, when he was swapped for Manuel Pellegrini after a mere six months, few mused over the glorious future or even modest development the club could have enjoyed had Moyes remained in charge.
As time wore on, it appeared that the only genuine bright-spot on his resume was Everton which, as it faded further into the past, seemed increasingly irrelevant to Moyes’ qualifications for the modern game.
That was the greatest mark against Moyes. He belonged to a different era of British football, where physicality, crosses, and a well-drilled low-block would suffice to get results. He didn’t belong in a football cycle where philosophies carry more cache than ever. Where training is based on automatisms that are mechanically rehearsed to perfection. Where the high priests of possession and pressing reign supreme. In short, Moyes didn’t belong in modern football.
So when he was called upon once again to steer the Hammers away from the danger zone, that was seen as the limit of his influence. Moyes was a steady hand, someone who would do an adequate job of keeping West Ham afloat. But to evolve the side, or give them any sense of direction and progress in the future? He was deemed outdated, too steeped in coaching practices rendered obsolete by the dominant tactical ideas of the day.
And yet, here we are. As we enter the final stretch of the Premier League season, West Ham are in pole position to qualify for the Europa League or, dare we say, Champions League. Perhaps in the early weeks of the campaign, one could call it a hot streak. More than two-thirds of the way in, that argument is untenable. The underlying numbers point to the same conclusion. Since the turn of the new year, only Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City have a better xG differential than the East London outfit in the league.
It defies all logic of how modern football is meant to function. For it’s not as if Moyes has dramatically adapted his tactics to achieve this unexpected good form. Yes, he’s used a back five at times this season, a system he once eschewed. Yet one could hardly call the approach modern.
By most pressing metrics, West Ham are the most passive side in the league. They score a significant proportion of their goals from set-pieces. Their prime attributes are their diligence and discipline, with a group of players capable of carrying out specific roles ordained by their coach. It’s a typical Moyes team in a proverbially anti-Moyes tactical culture.
Moyes and West Ham are not alone in being anomalies, either: Aston Villa, Everton, Manchester United, Roma, Atletico Madrid. All successful given their relative talent. All with coaches who implement different styles and strategies. None, though, are wedded to the axioms of modern football tactics and the coaching methodologies that underlie it.
No tactical philosophy can usurp the truism that coaches who best accommodate the needs of their squads earn the best results. Certain styles and ideologies may come in and out of vogue, but those who stick to so-called old school methods shouldn’t be chastised as “finished” for doing so. Moyes at West Ham is the ultimate example of that. He’s shown that, with time and savvy recruitment, any approach can make a team greater than the sum of its parts and earn results at the highest level. The contemporary predilection for high pressing and structured possession hasn’t changed that.
Moyes’ success at West Ham is evidence of the fact that various coaching philosophies, even those that seem archaic, can still thrive in the modern game.