Do some players just rub managers the wrong way?
Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by NC-SA 4.0
We all encounter people we just can't stand to be around. Take it from me, the worst thing you can do is marry them. When you and your partner have different ideas about everything, it's difficult to build a functional let alone lasting relationship. When I run into old golfing buddies who ask me why I'm never around anymore, I tell them it just became too expensive. That's half true. The other half is I got divorced and didn't need the excuse to get out of the house anymore.
Occasionally, players and managers in football find themselves in bad marriage. Sir Alex Ferguson created the most functional dynasty in the game. He won 13 Premier League titles and 28 trophies, 37.5 if you count the Community Shields [the first of which was shared], during his 26-year Manchester United tenure. For all that, there were players who drove him up the wall. Jaap Stam was the best centre-half Fergie ever had but when the Dutchman revealed clubhouse secrets in a tell-all biography, he was quickly sold to Lazio. When David Beckham told reporters his black eye came from a shoe thrown at him by the boss, off he went to Real Madrid. Sir Alex and Roy Keane were oil and water but no Mediterranean hotspot awaited Keane-O when his presence became unbearable. Instead, Celtic Park became his destination.
Nor is it just football. As a boy growing up outside Toronto, I witnessed the feud between Maple Leafs all-time great Dave Keon and new club owner Harold Ballard. To escape the obnoxious boss, Keon jumped to the rival WHA and stayed away from the club for decades even though Ballard had passed away and the Leafs were under new ownership. Eventually, Keon built new bridges with the team and now attends ceremonies honouring other retired players. Similarly, Sir Alex patched his relationship with Beckham and confessed that selling Stam was the most foolish thing he'd done as United manager. He still hasn't come to terms with Roy Keane, however. Other than Martin O'Neill, who does?
For both Keon and Sir Alex, time was necessary to heal wounds. There are several relationships in contemporary football that might require decades of separation to soothe tensions. Here are ten especially dysfunctional relationships from contemporary football.
Having escaped the dysfunctional Jose Mourinho regime, United find themselves in a dead heat for fifth place in the Premier League with Arsenal. Following a 22-game unbeaten run under new boss Unai Emery, Gooners thought they had left the problems from the Arsene Wenger years behind. Then cracks appeared in the veneer lining the Emirates clubhouse walls.
Club CEO Ivan Gazidis departed for AC Milan. Transfer guru Sven Mislintat subsequently announced his exit. On the playing side, the club bottled negotiations with midfielder Aaron Ramsey, leading the Welshman to sign a pre-contract with Juventus that translates into him departing on a free in June. Letting your second-best playmaker go probably wouldn't seem so stupid if the manager hadn't exiled Europe's top assist man over the past five years to the end of the bench.
Fans have long-lamented Mesut Ozil's almost non-existent work rate off the ball but trying to get a full-grown leopard to change its spots by sitting him down is a futile task. In addition, recent struggles make it apparent that living without the German's offensive contributions is more troublesome than living with his defensive deficiencies. Emery must either play his number ten or sell him before the rancour between them infects the entire squad.
If Emery decides fences can't be mended, he'll find no shortage of parties interested in Ozil's services. He can sanction a sale knowing a direct replacement for his disgruntled playmaker might be readily available. World Cup Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez finds playing time difficult to come by at the Allianz Arena with Niko Kovac now in charge of Bayern Munich.
Because the German juggernauts have neither exercised their option to buy the Colombian from Real Madrid when his two-year loan expires in June nor paid the full balance on this season's loan fee, another club willing to gamble that they can persuade the Merengues to sell and the player to sign long-term can assume the loan by paying the outstanding €3 million in this transfer window. Admittedly, that's a big gamble. The price is cut-rate but the time wasted if a deal doesn't pan out is critical.
Some might ask why Unai Emery would rid himself of one troublesome playmaker to take on another but exactly what trouble James is causing is something of a mystery. Kovac claims Rodriguez has a role to play but, even at Bayern, World Cup Golden Boot winners aren't squad players. When the 27-year-old features, he plays well. In a meagre 481 Bundesliga minutes, James produced three goals and an assist from midfield and the wings. At this point, the Colombian just needs his manager to trust him.
James Rodriguez also struggled to earn playing time under Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid. Nevertheless, he was productive when given opportunities at the Santiago Bernabeu, just as he has been in Bavaria. When a talented player fails to produce under successive managers, however, the finger of blame must be pointed in his direction rather than theirs. That's the case for Alvaro Morata.
The Spaniard made a name for himself coming off the bench to score important goals for both Real Madrid and Juventus. Seeking starting minutes, he made the move to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea viewed his arrival as the solution to Antonio Conte's problems with Diego Costa [patience, Grasshopper]. Here was a player eager to prove himself who wouldn't be a thorn in the team's side whenever a dark mood took him.
Morata began London life well, scoring nine goals in his first 15 Premier League games. Two in the 16 to close out the 2017/18 campaign disappointed. This season, he has nine strikes in 24 appearances. Four come facing lighter competition, a brace against midtable Championship side Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and a goal each versus Vidi and PAOK Salonika in the Europa League.
Antonio Conte eventually benched him. Maurizio Sarri reached the decision quicker. Last week, word emerged of a possible return to Madrid with Atletico if the Rojiblancos can sell a forward to make room on their roster. Morata must hope the deal materialises. Gonzalo Higuain is already at Stamford Bridge on loan from AC Milan. With Eden Hazard in a false-nine role another preferred option under both Sarri and Conte, there is no future for the Spaniard in Chelsea Blue.
Coutinho falls somewhere between James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata, producing more than the latter and less than the former. Things haven't worked out for the Brazilian since his £105 million [plus add-ons] move from Liverpool to Barcelona. The 26-year-old playmaker was supposed to be the key to Barcelona winning their first Champions League since the 2014/15 campaign. Forget climate change, three years without a European Cup is apparently the end of the world in Catalunya.
Rather than Barca restoring former glory, Coutinho's Anfield mates were the ones to reach the Champions League final in Kyiv. Such ironies reveal the 'grass is greener' myth that deceives so many players. The thought process is simple: 'If I'm producing x-goals and y-assists at this decent club, surely my numbers and therefore reputation will go through the roof at a much bigger club!' Managers and fans buy into this as well, expecting more than they ought from new players.
The simple truth is Coutinho has always been a player whose influence isn't reflected in his average numbers. He makes key passes that lead to assists. He is not a finisher except when opponents foolishly commit fouls that result in free-kicks from dangerous areas. He was never going to explode at the Nou Camp but he can stoke the fire if Valverde lets him play his game. Unfortunately, the direct-minded boss is looking for something a little more tangible.
If Coutinho's production is somewhere between James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata's, Michy Batshuayi's at Chelsea exceeded them all and Antonio Conte still wasn't interested. With Diego Costa out of his life but Morata misfiring, the Italian needed a bonafide finisher. Every time he called on the young Belgian in the 2017/18 season's first half, the 24-year-old responded. Although his tally was 10 goals across all competitions, his dynamism made it seem he scored whenever he came off the bench or started in a cup match. Neither his energy nor goals mattered to Conte. As sure as royal nonagenarians drive no safer than the common variety, Michy would be back on the bench for the next match.
Finally, the Blues entered into a complicated three-party transaction in which Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang moved from Borussia Dortmund to Arsenal, Olivier Giroud travelled across London from the Emirates and Batshuayi found himself wearing Yellow and Black. While Giroud struggled as mightily as Morata, Batshuayi went off on the Bundesliga. He scored three in his first two league games, seven in his first ten and another two in the Europa League. A torn ankle ligament in mid-April stopped him from matching his total with Chelsea for Dortmund.
This season, Batshuayi was loaned out to Valencia where he struggled to recover his pre-injury form. Thierry Henry expressed interest in bringing him to Monaco to aid in the relegation battle. At the last minute, Chelsea put the deal on hold to spark a bidding war between the French club and Everton. Even with Antonio Conte long gone, the club can't stop messing with their Belgian prodigy.
Sooner or later, one of these relationships had to have a happy ending for the player.
As children we all grow up playing games, pretending to be our idols. When those happen to be real people rather than Han Solo or Lara Croft, a few lucky, gifted kids gain the opportunity to become their heroes as adults. Think on that for a minute. Would any of us fight for that dream if we thought it would turn out to be just like your mum making you clean your room morning, noon and night?
That is what playing for Jose Mourinho turned out to be for Pogba. And Anthony Martial. And Luke Shaw. And Henrikh Mkhitaryan. And Marcus Rashford. And Romelu Lukaku. And Alexis Sanchez. This is where someone mentions the money. Except who among us told Aunt Deb, when she pinched our cheeks and asked, that we wanted to grow up to be George Best but stay locked in our rooms with no women, booze or any kind of fun at all, even social media [if someone tells us what that is after they invent it]? No, we wanted to be rich and enjoy life. Still do. The money argument is simply petty jealousy.
Pogba and company [we miss you, Mikhi] are certainly enjoying life in Mourinho's absence, scoring goals, playing entertaining football, smiling and laughing. Even if the perfection can't last, the enjoyment should continue. They call Old Trafford Theatre of Dreams for a reason. Mourinho made it a nightmare.
If that rant about Jose Mourinho wasn't enough to make the point, Antonio Conte's third appearance on this list ought to prove that managers can often rub players the wrong way as often as the other way around. And if we're going back to the money argument, google the salaries of the managers at the Premier League's top six clubs. One group of millionaires doesn't have the right to abuse another just like your boss and mine must observe certain courtesies.
To be fair to Conte, however, Diego Costa was no Michy Batshuayi or Paul Pogba. No one would call the transplanted Brazilian happy-go-lucky. He had a way of getting under your skin like a little sister with a black belt in Muay Thai. For all the difficulties he caused in the clubhouse or on the training ground, he was ten times worse on the pitch against opponents. The goals he scored and trophies delivered made him worth the hassle.
Conte didn't see it that way. Conte is no longer employed. Enough said.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a bit like Diego Costa albeit three inches taller with three miles more talent. You wouldn't call him happy-go-lucky either but he does know how to have fun and really does have a black belt.
As a kid, his dream was to play for Barcelona. Pep Guardiola never entered that dream. Unfortunately, the current Manchester City boss inhabited the reality when Ibra arrived at the Nou Camp. Like Michy Batsuayi, Zlatan contributed when given the chance but it was soon clear Guardiola had no use for him. The indifference he showed the Swede begged the question what was so wrong with Samuel Eto'o that Pep would agree to the swap that left him with Ibra?
Unlike Michy Batshuayi, Zlatan was an established superstar with a few centuries of goals under his belt and a moving lorry filled with silverware. He wasn't at the club or manager's mercy. Tactfully, he kept his own counsel and engineered his departure at season's end, never looking back. To this day, his only response when asked about the problem with Guardiola is that he had no problem and the interviewer should ask Pep.
It's a good recipe for life: chase your dreams; catch them; leave the shite where it lays.
How does a player go from being Spain's best player in an otherwise disappointing World Cup to riding the bench at the Santiago Bernabeu? Apparently, a dip in form isn't necessary. Isco notched a goal and an assist in his first five games in La Liga under Julen Lopetegui. Another strike came in the Champions League and a brace in the Copa del Rey. His numbers in the early going set a pace beyond the nine goals and ten assists registered in 49 appearances for Zinedine Zidane in 2017/18.
The Spaniard struggled to find form after an October appendectomy but has enjoyed little more than cameos under new manager Santiago Solari. He was a never a full-time starter for Zizou or Lopetegui but a key member in the rotation always. Under the Argentine, he is yet to start a match.
Coy on the subject, Solari insists no personal issues are involved in the decision not to play the Spanish international. On the other hand, he told reporters he wasn't the man to "advise" the player on what is necessary to return to the first team and that the player has been around long enough to know. My wife used to tell me I ought to know why she didn't want me in the first team, too. Did I mention a lack of communication was an issue in our separation?
A manager's job is to communicate his strategies to the team so that they are executed effectively. That doesn't sound like Real Madrid these days. To admit to leaving his most promising player out of tactical discussions, if he's having them with any players at all, brings into question his suitability to lead the club.
Ask fans about Mauricio Pochettino's personality and you're liable to hear words like calm, cool and composed. Rational, flexible and openminded also filter into the conversation. Professional, certainly. It's odd then to discover there's a striker he refuses to consider amid an injury crisis.
Harry Kane is out six weeks. Heung-Min Son is with South Korea at the Asian Cup. Fernando Llorente struggled against Fulham. Dele Alli left the match early clutching at his hamstring. Yet, the Argentine has no time for striker Vincent Janssen.
The Dutchman's numbers for Fenerbache last season were acceptable. In 16 Super Lig matches, he produced four goals and four assists. In two cup matches, he added another strike. Foot surgery shelved him after returning to Spurs in the summer but he has a goal in 108 minutes with the Tottenham U23s.
When specifically asked about Janssen with regards to the manpower shortage in attack, Pochettino was terse.
"He is not in my plans."
Wow. If ever there was a time to give someone an opportunity, this is it for Spurs, but Janssen has no path back into the first team. Rumours about work ethic surfaced but that's a changeable condition. Poch's decree was far more final.
Apparently, we all have our lines in the sand.