How important is the role of ‘manager’ in the modern game?
Chelsea’s run to the Champions League final this season under the guidance of then interim boss Roberto Di Matteo was not the first time that the club have reached the pinnacle of Europe’s premier club competition, having achieved the same feat in 2008 with then interim boss Avram Grant at the helm. Noticing a pattern yet?
No, this isn’t a tirade against the clearly precious bunch that run the dressing room at Stamford Bridge (although that was a bit of a dig, admittedly) but rather a wider look at the influence that a manager has in the modern game.
Sunderland serve as a fine case in point. The much-vaunted honeymoon effect after Steve Bruce was quite rightly sacked for not having the foggiest idea what he was doing at the club, saw former Aston Villa boss Martin O’Neill take over thr reins. Bruce, rather bafflingly claimed that he was sacked because he was a Geordie managing in Sunderland, although I’m guessing that after significant outlay in the summer, winning just two of your opening 13 games didn’t help.
When Martin O’Neill came into the club, they lept up to 9th in the table and won four of his first six games in charge. He didn’t especially change the system, the personnel or the style of play early on, so why the sudden upturn in results? The honeymoon effect is directly linked to the point that football manager’s simply aren’t as important these days as they may have been in the past. The job is as much about managing and massaging egos as it is tactical analysis and recruitment. A change in a player’s mind-set is all it takes; give them something to aim for, to play for, and their peformances, both as a collective and an individual will sky-rocket.
Lee Cattermole stated this in the midst of the team’s fine run of form under O’Neill: “Martin brought a massive lift to the place, and if you look at the results after he took over it showed what an impact he had. He gave all the lads the confidence boost they needed and the fans got right behind us. With that we went from strength to strength.”
All seems very simple, right? New manager comes in, says some positive things, gives the players a pat on the back, they in turn go out on the pitch and start to play well.
Conversely, looking at Wolves, the fact that they botched the appointment of Steve Bruce and were left with a mish-mash, half-measure of Mick McCarthy’s assistant Terry Connor in charge had a huge bearing on their future. The mood around the club simply didn’t change, if anything it worsened with the departure of an experienced footballing man to be replaced by a rabit-in-the-headlights first-time managerial novice. The players knew nothing had changed, so their performances and results didn’t.
Half the battle is about perception. Footballers are famously not the brightest bunch of chaps about, by and large they’re quite simple people who think partaking in ‘banter’ is about as much fun as you can have with your pants still on. This is why a figurehead, such as a manager, who tells them what to do, when to do it and why is important, but not because of any real coaching qualities (although this may be solely an English disease) but because players lack leadership at times and need pointing in the right direction.
At some clubs, Chelsea for example, where the dressing room is filled to the brim with strong characters willing to speak up and put their point across, this figurehead becomes less of a leader but more someone willing to ensure that the status-quo is kept. It’s no coincidence that the two times that they’ve reached the Champions League final was with managers who basically changed very little to the team in terms of personnel.
Avram Grant was a penalty kick away from being the luckiest man in football, while Roberto Di Matteo merely restored the old guard and ensured them of their places. If anything, their performances under Andre Villas-Boas deserve even more scrutiny and criticism because of how brilliant they were after he was gone. The fact that they could lurch between two extremes of the scale simply because they liked one manager, and not the other is absurd, yet entirely true at the same time.
Looking back through history, Il Grande Torino serve as another excellent example. They dominated Italian football for nearly a decade, advancing the game with their revolutionary 4-2-4 formation, many of which have credited with being the inspiration for Total Football, until a tragic plane crash killed nearly the entire squad. They won five consecutive league titles, went four straight seasons at home undefeated and went an astonishing 93 games unbeaten in total in the league at one point.
They were at their peak between 1943-1949, but during that period they went through seven different managers. How is it even possible to go on such an amazing run without a guiding influence from above? Essentially, the team picked itself, they had nine of Italy’s starting eleven and each manager was instead not peforming the role we have come to associate with the position today, rather they acted as more of a fitness trainer and team motivator.
West Germany won the World Cup in 1974 beating Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels’ Dutch side 2-1 in the final. However, how they got there after losing 1-0 to and qualifying in second place in the first group phase behind political, cultural and geographical rivals East Germany is also worth drawing attention to.
Germany boss Helmut Schon had already coached the side to a World Cup final against England in 1966 and finished third in 1970, but the toll that it took on him emotionally and psychologically, losing to the East Germans, proved too much to take and he’s widely believed to have had a mini-breakdown while at the tournament as the pressure and context of the game proved too much to handle. Franz Beckenbauer, the team’s captain and future World Cup winning manager himself, took over responsibility for picking and selecting the side and they went onto beat Yugoslavia, Poland, Sweden and Holland en route to winning the tournament.
There are of course many examples of a manager having a huge effect on the shape and success of a club. However, the honeymoon effect is an unexplained phenomenon in football. A football manager will always be needed, to pick and select the side, but the influence of the manager has hugely reduced. Tactical advancements are now smaller, the gap between the best and the rest in terms of physical requirements has shortened and as a result, someone who instills the players with confidence will always trump a tactical master over the course of a season. The rest as they say, is history.
You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1