Analysing the Moyes message: Hopeful and hopeless

Sarah Winterburn

I’m on the official Sunderland AFC mailing list, and among the perks is a short e-mail from the manager after every game. After an almost-must-win game ended in a 0-0 draw to Burnley, I received the weekly message from David Moyes, and I’d like to share it with you, somewhat annotated:

‘It was disappointing that we didn’t take three points because there were some good things that we made.’

This is already a bit worrying. The last part of the sentence sounds like a slightly desperate primary school art teacher who’s just finished a 90-minute class with enthusiastic but not particularly talented pupils. Which pretty much sums up Sunderland’s performance, at least in the second half, where they made some ‘good things’, meaning chances, but couldn’t finish.

‘It was a bit scrappy at times; I can’t say we played overly well, but I think Burnley make you play that way and they drag you into the sort of game that you don’t want.’

Burnley indeed like a scrap, and left their two most technical players, Steven Defour and Robbie Brady, out of the starting line-up. Defour was just back from injury and probably wouldn’t have started anyway, but leaving Brady out was a conscious choice to go with effort rather than skill. But then what can we say of Moyes’ very similar decision to start with two of his better technical players, Wahbi Khazri and Didier Ndong, on the bench too? Khazri isn’t a Moyes favourite, but Ndong had been in good form and would almost certainly have helped in maintaining possession.

It shouldn’t be necessary to add that Burnley can’t ‘make’ anyone play any particular way. They may try, but it’s your job to play your way if you can. Sunderland started with a 4-3-3 to Burnley’s 4-4-2, but made no effort to use the extra man to pass through midfield, instead going wide, where there was no such advantage, and a scrap was more likely. Seb Larsson, one of the central midfielders, spent most of the first half drifting toward the touchline. In the second half, Moyes gave up the pretence, and went straight 4-4-2.

Moreover, at no time did Sunderland make any special effort to keep the ball on the carpet. Billy Jones was used as a target man on the right wing, and Jordan Pickford was credited with 45 long passes. Before Saturday, Sunderland had averaged 20.7% long balls per game, but against Burnley the figure was up to 27.2%, more than the Clarets themselves, who were at only 22.8%.

Last but definitely not least (as Mediawatch pointed out on Monday), Moyes said he left Ndong on the bench, starting Jack Rodwell and Darron Gibson instead, because “I thought the game might suit more Britishness in the middle of the pitch”. This statement has received the derision it deserved, but more important for our purposes, it looks like he was ready to play Burnley’s way all along. Is it unfair to point out that in the 17 substitute minutes he was allowed, the non-British Ndong had more tackles than Gibson in 73, and as many as Rodwell in 90?

‘I thought our performance was better in the second half. We had been too passive, but I certainly thought we had some chances to score.’

Up to the ‘but’, it’s a concise and accurate assessment of the game. But if you come out for the first half of a vital home match too passive, there’s probably something wrong with the preparation. And when Moyes says he ‘certainly thought’ Sunderland had some chances to score, he catches the mood exactly. They absolutely did have chances to score, no ‘thought’ about it. He seems oddly unsure and indecisive, which is unfortunately the way he’s spoken (and the team have played) most of the season. Whatever strong leadership Moyes may have been able to project at Everton and Real Sociedad, it hasn’t been present at the Stadium of Light.

‘Unfortunately the point we’ve got today isn’t enough, but we have to use it as a positive.’

The latter part of this sentence is classic manager-speak, and you really have to feel for Moyes here. He was criticised for speaking too pessimistically early in the season, and has been persistently optimistic the last couple of months. There are some positives to take from the game, too. Sunderland were clearly the stronger side in the second half, and several of their chances were good: Fabio Borini flubbed one and was denied by Tom Heaton on the other; Januzaj was also stopped by Heaton, and Seb Larsson perhaps should have scored later in the sequence; Larsson’s probably still trying to figure out how Billy Jones missed the goal entirely after his perfect cross to the back post.

But notice that one very important name is missing here. Sunderland managed 14 shots, which isn’t bad at all. But Jermain Defoe had zero. Not once were they able to get the ball to him in a position to shoot, and he had only 11 touches all game. Defoe, we need hardly say, is the man who has to get the ball for Sunderland. It’s a bit ironic that while Burnley themselves had 16 shots, Sunderland limited André Gray, Burnley’s leading scorer, to zero shots as well. This would and should be counted as success under any other circumstances. But we’re late in the season, and as Moyes said, it isn’t enough.

‘Today was one of the draws that I had down as a win, but we now have to turn one of the draws I had in mind into a win, so let’s hope we can do that.’

At this point Moyes is fading, and it’s hard to watch. I suspect most managers fighting relegation do exactly what he did, pencil in certain games that can be won and others where a draw is more likely. But in that first sentence, he says ‘one of the draws’, the last word being plural. In his heart, he knows there will be others. The next match is at Watford, and there’s no reason Sunderland can’t win it. Does he really believe they will?

‘We didn’t lose, but we know it was a real chance to get three points on the board.’

Go back two excerpts and you’ll see a significant change. In the sentence starting ‘unfortunately’, Moyes ended with a positive. Now he ends with a negative. You can hardly blame him: since their rout of Crystal Palace, Sunderland have played four matches and been outscored 8-0.

‘We have to move on and hopefully after the international break it’ll give us the chance to get the players that we are missing back and hopefully in contention.’

An appropriate finish. Sunderland have struggled with injuries all season long – whether that’s bad luck or the training and treatment regimen, we don’t know. They lost Lamine Koné right before the Burnley game, although they still managed to record a blank sheet. As I’m sure you’ve spotted, though, the tell is the double ‘hopefully’. At this point Sunderland are living primarily on hope. The bookies think they’re dead already: they were 1/10 to go down before the weekend, 1/20 afterwards.

So there we are. But in a sense, this exercise has been grossly unfair to Moyes. He doesn’t write for a living, and you can hardly expect him to put together a carefully polished statement after a frustrating day with a very disappointing result. He’s also in one of the hardest jobs in the world.

But the lack of polish is the point. The manager’s wavering mood comes through very strongly here, and moods are inevitably transmitted to the players. Mathematically, Sunderland are still in it. They’re seven points behind Swansea City with a game in hand, and face the Swans in the next-to-last match of the season. If Swansea falter, Sunderland can push past them. But reading this message, even if I didn’t know what the table said, I’d guess this team is going down.

We should add, though, that Moyes would be only one of many reasons for the drop, and by no means the most important. Club management have been playing Russian roulette for some time, and eventually a bullet has to show up in the chamber. When the gun finally goes off, Ellis Short will probably have a team of publicists to help him compose his e-mail to the fans.

So let’s end on a respectful note. Moyes is a decent man given a very difficult task, and like many before him, doesn’t appear to have been good or lucky enough to succeed. Hopefully – and let’s give him a double hopefully, this time for emphasis – the future will find him the bearer of better tidings.

Peter Goldstein