Why do we ask whether a manager knows what it takes to win at this level?
If you know your KFC, which is Kentucky Fried Chicken not Kensington Football Club, Colonel Sanders boasted a secret recipe comprising “a belnd of 11 herbs and spices.” Similarly, it’s a football manager’s job to combine 11 different players with a shape and strategy better than the opponent. A football match is essentially a taste test between two different recipes for winning football.
The Football League cranked up its 2018/19 season this weekend. Taste tests were happening in the Championship and Leagues One and Two. The “finger licking good” National League is underway, too. If you read any of Round and White’s league previews, you came across several managers “who know how to win at this level.” Understand that this comment is always directed at a manager with success in whichever division is being discussed.
If a club’s new boss is coming up in the world or stepping down, then we question whether he possesses this critical knowledge. Obviously, the higher one climbs in the game; the more knowledge one needs to succeed. Tactics and techniques become more subtle. It’s right to ask if an inexperienced manager can learn on the job. But one who has cut his teeth in stronger, broader, deeper competitions? Come on. It’s just silly. If anything, such a manager should have more to teach than learn.
Two-and-a-half seasons ago, Rafa Benitez took over Newcastle United. He arrived too late to save the Magpies from relegation. To many’s surprise, he chose to remain with the club and guide them back up to the Premier League. Some expressed doubt his tactics and methods could withstand the rigours of the Championship. Please.
I understand the fear behind such doubts. We live in a shrinking world. Languages, cultures, religions are mingling together in a way they never used. It’s even gone so far that we are contemplating something called ex-situ nationhood.
Kiribati, a South Pacific nation of 33 sinking islands [courtesy global warming] must soon relocate its entire population. Not everyone will end up in the same place, but the United Nations is debating whether a dispersed population can retain its nationality and citizenship even if the land to which they were tied no longer exists. Virtual nations, if you will.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU out of fear that the influx of other nationalities, religions and cultures will erase their own right on home soil. English football has already undergone that transformation at its top levels. The lower divisions are struggling to retain their identity. There is an emotional need to stake out and defend territory. Imagining some ethereal quality that makes each level distinct and unique accomplishes this.
The problem is it is imaginary. Whether you follow the Premier League, Championship, National, Isthmian, Wessex, Hellenic or Wearside League, the game is football. Eleven players take the pitch for ninety minutes. They try to kick a spherical leather ball of a universally specific diameter and weight into a goal that stands eight feet tall and 24 wide and, alternately, to stop the other team from doing the same. One referee and two linesmen officiate. They all compete in the FA Cup on equal terms under the same rules they try to get around in their respective leagues.
There are differences, of course, but they are reasonably quantifiable. Skill rises as you climb the pyramid. So do fitness levels, as larger budgets allow for progressively increasing wages, better training facilities and medical attention. Physicality and recklessness gradually dissipate. If you’re travelling down, then it gets rougher, but your bag of tricks gives you an edge.
Thus a coach with experience at a higher level must mitigate his expectations to a degree when dropping down, but can also expect to hold an advantage if he can communicate his knowledge to younger players eager to learn. That is exactly what Rafa did with Toon in 2016/17. As he taught his team to dominate the second tier, he prepared them for life in the Premier League. If the Spaniard could rouse Liverpool from three goals down at halftime to decision Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan on penalties in Istanbul in a Champions League final, why would anyone think he couldn't trade blows with any manager in the Championship?
Not unlike Benitez, Pep Guardiola was buried in criticism for not “adapting to the Premier League” in his first Manchester City campaign. He stuck defiantly to his philosophy and, with more suitable personnel, ran way with the title in his second campaign despite the English game's physical nature. While Pep remained true to his ways in 2016/17, Antonio Conte tried to play a traditional four-at-the back formation to start his debut season with Chelsea. Only when he stopped believing the myth and began using his Juventus and Azzurri 3-4-3 did he taste success.
In the end, football is football. Recipes for winning will work whether you’re cooking in an English, Spanish, German or Italian kitchen. They’ll work if you have all the fancy appliances and the expensive ingredients or if you can only afford a dented stainless steel pot, a wooden spoon, matches to light a campfire, and a can of pork and beans.
Asking whether a manager knows how to win at this level is needlessly complicating matters. You need only ask if he knows how to win.