The Managerial Twelfth Man

Sunday 25th March 2012
Football is a unique sport for many reasons. One of the main ways in which the beautiful game can be distinguished from all others is the role of the manager. There are few sports today where the aura surrounding a coach has the power to eclipse that of his brightest star. Does anybody know who Usain Bolt's coach is? Football is different, and the current crop of managers have proved to be some pretty exceptional exceptions to the rule that the coach lurks in the shadows while the athlete basks in the spotlight.

Jose Mourinho, Arsène Wenger and Pep Guardiola all have one thing in common (and its not Prada suits and cashmere scarfs): star power. They get as many headlines, if not more than their players. Why? Because when Madrid and Barcelona take to the pitch for a clasico, the world is not just watching Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi, we are watching Mourinho versus Pep, anxiously waiting to see the self-proclaimed special one set his sites on his next eye gauge target.

The stunning events of last week's La Liga match between Real Madrid and Villarreal, which saw Sergio Ramos and Mesut Özil red carded, followed by Mourinho being sent from the dugout all in the space of three minutes, made big news on Twitter. Many tweets read, “Ramos, Özil and Mourinho all sent off”, implying Mourinho himself was a player. In many ways managers are a twelfth man, as they play such an integral role in their team's fortune. The glory of getting the three league points, or gaining progression into the next round of the Champions League, is shared between the eleven players and their manager, as is the agony of defeat.

It seems we are reminded weekly of the very real accountability that managers have over the results of their team – look no further than the demise of Andre Villas-Boas who, after only eight months in charge, became the sixth Chelsea manager to be sacked by owner Roman Abramovich in as many years.

For the biggest clubs in the biggest leagues in Europe, owners are ruthless in their quest to find the perfect manager who has the ability to create a vision, choose the players who will be able to deliver that vision (a bottomless pool of funds permitting) and ultimately bring home silverware for the trophy cabinet by the end of the season. If this cannot be achieved, to quote Generation Y, it's a very firm “kthxbye”.

A handful of managers have been able to achieve great things for their clubs, but they have all followed very different paths to success.

Jose Mourinho, despite his temper and inability to get through 90 minutes without at least one of his players being red carded (we all remember Mourinho's 10-man Inter Milan overcome reigning champions Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semi-final), has one of the finest records in the game. Swansea manager, Brendan Rodgers, likened his time under Mourinho's guidance to attending a “Harvard of football”.

Mourinho epitomises the change to a more methodical, technical view of the game. The teams he has managed, though in different leagues and with very diverse personnel, are tactically and technically similar, with a strong focus on defensive formations and a motivation to win even at the cost of playing beautiful football.

Central to Guardiola's Barcelona team is high quality possession football. He is not afraid to be aggressive and press when his team needs a win, perhaps a feature of the Spaniard's managing arsenal that his Portuguese rival could use a bit more of. However insistent Guardiola is on giving full credit to his players, his continual evolution of FC Barcelona, whose current team have come to be regarded as the greatest ever, must be lauded. His genius move to use Messi to drop deep and lure defenders out of the box has proved so effective over the past year.

Arsène Wenger might seem a strange inclusion in the company of the two great managers of the moment, but his story captures much of what it takes to become a great manager. An economist from Strasbourg University, Wenger revolutionized the game but did it with an evolutionary style. “I brought my changes in slowly,” said the man who introduced statistics into coaching and became revered for his knack in scouting quality players from outside of England on the cheap. His lessons have been adapted by so many teams which have achieved success that many forget how different the game looked in England before he began at Arsenal in 1996.

Barcelona's right-back, Dani Alves, said of Guardiola: “If Pep told me to throw myself off the second tier at the Camp Nou, I'd think: ‘There must be something good down there.'” That is the thing about a great manager. Regardless of the method, they possess a vision that their players are itching at the bit to deliver, and most importantly the confidence and belief that comes from star quality.

The best managers in the world may be perfectionists. They may be obsessive. Their arrogance may be almost too much to handle, but that's what you need to win trophies in Europe.
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