The importance of managers is massively overstated in football

Sunderland manager Martin O'NeillWatching Sunderland slump to defeat at home against a side they were expected to beat was nothing new to Sunderland fans, in fact the game resembled that of many Black Cats’ performances over the past few years.

The main thing which struck me as the North East side stuttered to a 0-1 defeat against Aston Villa was the bizarre sense of deja vu the contest gave me. Watching a Sunderland team toil and try and work the ball forwards into the Aston Villa area with wild panic but looking increasingly vulnerable on the break, lacking the fast players to cover ground quickly and cancel out two-man counter attacks. This match was nothing new, I saw the same game when Sunderland drew 0-0 with Fulham last year – it had many of the same characteristics as did the 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Wigan Athletic in the same season.

It also resembled the forgettable home performances following last year’s FA Cup exit, where the Wearsiders fortuitously drew with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Bolton Wanderers. Without going off on too big a tangent, my point is, a year on under Martin O’Neill there isn’t a great deal of difference to what Sunderland do tactically at home and how they perform, compared to how they played under Steve Bruce.

I believe too much emphasis from fans is based on what a manager does and doesn’t do, when really nine times out of ten the teams with the best players win football matches. Using my club first as an example, a year into his stay on Wearside Martin O’Neill’s changes to the side are minimal, Sunderland offer slightly greater resilience away, some players such as Lee Cattermole have improved due to a slightly more defined role in the team, there’s a slightly more clear style of playing but that’s about it for my money.

Watching Sunderland in their most important matches, (at home, against teams outside of the top six), it’s almost impossible to separate the approach this year from that of the way the team played before under Bruce. Begging the question apart from club transfers which now in England is completed more and more by people other than a manager, what is the great importance of those in charge?

The Black Cats did enjoy a great up-turn in form instantly under O’Neill, due to a vast number of reasons. The introduction of James McClean into the team added more width and creativity to the side, fans patience was restored with the new manager, results such as the 1-0 over Manchester City may not have been possible under Bruce where fans were more restless and wouldn’t have been so reserved seeing their side concede so much possession. Luck also played a part – an offside goal gifted Sunderland three points against the league champions and against Blackburn in the Ulsterman’s first game a wrongly disallowed goal and failure from the referee to award a stonewall penalty to the visitors are often overlooked when discussing the turning point in the Black Cats’ season.

Tottenham Hotspur are a curious club sat fifth in the table after an indifferent start, the London club appear well-placed to achieve their goals for the season, yet there’s a great sense of unrest at the club. Much of this seems to be surrounding their manager Andre Villas-Boas, who has been hammered by some fans and some sections of the press in the wake of their 1-0 to defeat at home to Wigan.

Using the context of his sacking at Chelsea, many have labelled the Portuguese as clueless. Yet when comparing him to his popular predecessor Harry Redknapp a great point has to be made about the disparity in the teams the two managed. One of the best play-makers in Europe was present for Spurs last season in Luka Modric. While many of the London club’s disappointments this season have come when the superb Moussa Dembele has been missing – suggesting that players play a greater role than the man who puts them on the pitch.

A storm was also caused when Jermain Defoe was substituted for Emmanuel Adebayor, but under Redknapp the diminutive frontman was often second choice to the former Manchester City striker suggesting there could be plenty of logic behind the switch. Watching Tottenham when they were at their best against Chelsea, it was also hard to see a great deal of difference in approach, they moved the ball at a high tempo and were dependent on width to stretch teams, much like under Redknapp.

Other teams with good off the pitch structures can overachieve and succeed on it. Swansea City have established a style of play and that remains the same regardless of manager and also have assembled a squad that suit that approach. In my view transfers are the most important part of management with everything else being overstated.

City are a good example of this, the most important thing Michael Laudrup has done in Wales is bring in technical players who work their system. He did that well signing Ki from Celtic and Jonathan De Guzman, the acquisition of Michu is also among the most important things he’s achieved. While the team’s style is more direct and the Danish legend likes inverted wingers, the main reason Swansea are still over-achieving is because he’s signed good players.

West Brom also continue to maintain Premier League status despite having had three different managers during their current run in England’s top division. While undoubtedly their gaffers deserve some praise, the Baggies also have an underrated team; James Morrison, Shane Long, Jonas Olsson and Youssuf Mulumbu are among the most underrated players in English football.

Do we overstate managers importance, let me know your thoughts on Twitter: @jimmylowson


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