Beware the myth of the manager
The impending arrival of Pep Guardiola to the Premier League has led to the entirely predictable reaction of the British press of over-the-top knee-jerkiness. From next season apparently, there is no point in any other team entering the competition as Pep’s Chinese-backed tiki-taka revolution will sweep all before them with barely a cursory glance. This is the end of football in England as we know it, no more unpredictability, drama or excitement as City will have the title wrapped up before the Champions League resumes in the spring and the league will become a glorified, countrywide lap of honour for Saint Pep and his disciples. Guardiola is being portrayed as a Darth Vader-esque empire builder, who will transform the Etihad campus into a giant Deathstar from which he will destroy any who try and rebel against his inevitable serial trophy collection.
No matter that the City squad, despite the scale of the investment into it, is seemingly unable to overhaul a Leicester City side tipped for relegation at the beginning of the season or even a Tottenham team with an average age of about 19, to win a title which is about as easy to win as it has been since football was invented in 1992. And no matter that His Pepness, or whatever City fans will call him, tends to only stay at a club 3 years before getting bored, leading to his conspicuous absence from elite football for a year which only enhances his myth further, exactly as you suspect he intends. Pep is no doubt a good coach, you don’t win the Champions League twice in 3 years if you’re not, but you equally don’t win it unless you’re coaching some of the world’s best players in the first place. I don’t mean to sully his achievements but achieving what he has in Barcelona and Munich with this Manchester City squad, in this much more competitive league, will be far harder than people imagine. You can coach teams as well as you like, but the players are the ones who play the game. Jesus Navas and Raheem Sterling will not suddenly be transformed into Messi and Neymar over the summer just because Guardiola has altered their training regime slightly.
I think the effect that a manager can have on their players is significantly over-estimated by the press. This idea gained traction because of Mourinho’s arrival in England in 2004 and his public displays of arrogance which were backed up by immediate success. Never mind that Abramovich had assembled the most expensive squad in history and they were up against a transitional Manchester United side and an Arsenal side being broken up due to stadium building, Mourinho said he would win and he did. Had Mourinho been up against the 1999 United and Arsenal sides I doubt he would have enjoyed the success he had in his first Chelsea spell.
Mourinho’s legend grew with his treble-winning exploits at an unfancied Inter Milan team which included knocking Guardiola’s Barcelona out of the Champions League, when Barca were the best team in the world and probably the best team I have ever seen between 2009 and 2011. Add to this his winning of La Liga ahead of this Barcelona team and the reputation as the best manager in the world was entirely justified. But again, he too was working with some of the best players in the world, without whom he could not hope to have won what he has in his career.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and United’s struggles since he departed also has contributed to the myth that managers make such a difference to a football team. Ferguson was undoubtedly a very good manager but his biggest skill was in team building and man-management, not coaching or tactical brilliance. He understood that the players were the ones on the pitch and made sure that his teams were full of character and personalities which would show themselves when things got tough. He got huge credit for the mentality of his sides which was apparently instilled by him, but many of these players already had that belief and will to win that he had before he came to coach them. He recognised that character in players and that was a key part of what he looked for when scouting them. A player’s fight and competitive spirit cannot be created from scratch.
Maybe the obsession with the manager comes from a nationwide lack of characters and personalities from those on the pitch, at least publicly. Players are now media-trained to say nothing apart from well-worn cliches and platitudinal drivel so as to not bring the club’s reputation into question. There are no more Paul Inces, Roy Keanes, Gary Nevilles, David Ginolas or Paul Gascoignes in the Premier League, just dull, Eurotrash professionals who all apparently like nothing better than going to bed early with a night-time Horlicks. Whenever someone does do anything different or even remotely interesting they are suddenly castigated and gain a reputation for being trouble at the training ground and not conducive to good team spirit. Jack Wilshere and Chris Smalling have both been forced to publicly apologise and deliberately discolour their personalities due to isolated incidents of appearing to enjoy themselves. The clubs, who’s proud names they do not want dragged through mud, quickly relieve themselves of such apparently difficult characters. Mario Balotelli, Emmanuel Adebayor, even Peter Odemwingie who now has Deadline Day named after him due to his exploits, have all been moved into obscurity because of their idiosyncrasies rather than their sporting ability, which is a shame in my opinion.
The irony is, it is media pressure and the public perception they create of players with personalities that has lead to the all around beigeness of Premier League footballers. They’ve created their own black hole of material to report on so have seized on the only thing they have left, the managers. With a ridiculous amount of media appearances from the managers, surely up to 5 in a week is overkill, they have created the opportunity to create over-exaggerated characters from these men, who probably would like nothing more than to tell the journalists to sod off and mind their own business.
Oddly, the narrative of genius managers is not applied to all. Claudio Ranieri is not being hailed as the Messiah, well apart from in Leicester itself probably, despite his team defying all logic and pre-season predictions to continue to look like champions-elect. Their success is being put down to them having good players in good form. Arguably, Ranieri should be getting more credit than he is doing. Their title charge is based around what most good title challenges are based around, in whichever country you’re in. They have a good goalkeeper, a solid defence, fantastic work-rate and forward players who are high-quality and in, at times, rampant form. Look at any Premier League title winner and I suspect you will see identical qualities in all of them, that the manager sometimes gets the credit and sometimes the players is interesting.
Taking Leicester’s example, the press have obviously decided that the rags-to-riches story of the players, signed on a relative shoestring and led by Jamie Vardy’s rise from non-league irrelevance to England international and potential title winner, is a bigger seller than remarking that in the twilight of his career, Ranieri has become as good a manager as any and is performing miracles with a bunch of Championship-quality, nomadic pros. Maybe though, after the general skepticism surrounding his appointment in the summer, the papers just don’t want to admit they were wrong about him.
Realistically in all successful teams, everyone has to be very good at their job, from the manager to the kit-man, from the centre-forward to the left-back. The manager may be the public face of the team, but he should not be overly praised for the success of his players and neither should he be overly criticised when results are not going well. The players are the ones on the pitch and without them the Mourinhos and Guardiolas would not be the geniuses they are made out to be.