Thursday, February 20, 2014

Manchester United, David Moyes & the Middle Income Trap

In an earlier post, I described the circumstances that led to David Moyes being hired by Manchester United, as well as the mediocre form the team has shown this season. Sports writers and fans can point to several reasons for United's poor performance. As a starting point, I'll take this handy summary from Republik of Mancunia. Alex Ferguson is gone, the Glazers aren't selling, and injuries are presumably just bad luck so the things you can do something about are: (1) a thin squad, and (2) Moyes.

Clearly, all the above have played some role. But watching Moyes at close quarters for the first time this season, I've become increasingly disillusioned with his inability to draw the best from his players. It's precisely because of the squad's deficiencies that it's been painful to watch Moyes repeatedly consign Shinji Kagawa to the left wing, a mistake he seems to be repeating with Juan Mata. This tactical rigidity is the hallmark of someone who doesn't trust his players to express themselves. I'm not suggesting that tactics and formations have no place in football. I'm saying that strategy should be designed to harness the assets one has, and that to compete in the upper echelons of football, you need to give players a license to be creative and unpredictable. The great Brazilian sides have successfully married technical ability and unpredictability ("in Brazil, the land of improvisation, nothing ever goes quite as planned" - former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.)

From an organizational perspective, one could argue that Moyes's Everton never made the leap from Good to Great. In the world of macroeconomics, we see this with countries who get stuck in the middle income trap, which is "the phenomenon of hitherto rapidly growing economies stagnating at middle-income levels and failing to graduate into the ranks of high-income countries." Think, for example, about Latin American countries such as Peru, Mexico & Brazil, who have not reached the income levels of countries like Taiwan, South Korean & Singapore.  

Without going into too much detail, researchers of national growth break it down into labour (total hours worked), capital (machines & other productive assets which complement labour) & total factor productivity (or TFP, mainly consisting of technological and institutional improvements). The IMF reports that "Steep falls in TFP growth appear to have played an important role in past growth slowdowns... It may be that at very low levels of income, the development of a basic framework of property rights and contract enforcement has a large impact in staving off slowdowns, but once this condition is more or less satisfied the capacity of the private sector to grow and innovate becomes relatively more important."

We can ignore capital (in the economic, not the financial sense) since it doesn't really apply to football teams. Other than that, this is the David Moyes era in a nutshell. He's been great at building solid defenses and competent midfields, which are the equivalent of property rights and contract enforcement, but he can't for the life of him seem to figure out how to get his teams to consistently innovate (and for the record, he's doing a pretty poor job of settling the defense right now). This is exactly why he favours players like Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley - you know exactly what you're going to get from them. This consistency is reassuring when you don't trust your players. What's worse is that Moyes seems to think that increased labour (more frequent and more intense training sessions) will do the trick. Sadly, just as the Chinese growth model would not work in the U.S., this version of David Moyes seems to be a poor fit for the attacking players at his disposal.

If I've convinced you that Moyes is the biggest problem now, then the next question is, what should the board and owners of MUFC do about it? Paul Ansorge argues (convincingly, in my opinion) that it would be better to concede that Moyes was a mistake, sack him, and move on. I think it comes down to this: do you think Moyes can adapt, or will he constantly be one step behind other top managers? I fear that the latter will be true. If his post-match comments are anything to go by, he's generally clueless how to adapt mid-course. Even his adaptation has taken on a predictable form (taking off Rafael and putting Valencia on at right-back, even though it inevitably results in United conceding a goal.) And if that's true, he has to go. The competition at the top has become far too close for any part of the organization to function at a sub-optimal level.

I don't think Moyes will be sacked in the summer. And I wish him the best because he seems like an honest, hardworking man, and it would be wonderful for him to succeed at the biggest club in England (yes, I said it!). But I wonder if the veneer of humility is for real. The activist Jane Jacobs had a long-running feud with New York City's "master builder" Robert Moses, and said of his meticulous plans: "Only an unimaginative man would think he could; only an arrogant man would want to." Perhaps that's harsh on Moyes. But as a United fan first and foremost, I can only hope that this crucial organizational decision won't become another kind of cautionary tale. Miller, Kleberson and Djemba-Djemba all got three seasons at United. At the rate Moyes is going, that would be too long.

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