BY BEN WHITE
I read recently, that on the second evening of Champions League Quarter Finals (15th April 2015), all 4 coaches (Enrique, Guardiola, Blanc & Lopetegui) had played under the late Sir Bobby Robson during his year in charge at Barcelona.
Indeed, if you look back at that squad, with which Robson won the 2 Domestic Cups, the European Cup Winners Cup and finished Runners Up in La Liga to Real Madrid, there are 5 more current top flight or international coaches, as well as Jose Mourinho who was Robson’s assistant.
Coincidence? Chance? I think not…
Current Barcelona coach Luis Enrique has said it was the Englishman’s spontaneity, flexibility and commitment to attacking football that impressed him most. He goes on, “It was a difficult season because it was the year after Johan Cruyff left, but as a manager, he had very clear ideas, with an attacking concept of play and a clear philosophy.”
All can appreciate that Sir Bobby was an inspiring football man who created an environment where his players would give everything for him. In this instance, that inspiration appears to have spilled over their playing careers and into management for many members of that squad.
Enrique continues, “His natural way of doing things, being very spontaneous, being capable of managing a group, being able to adapt himself to the high expectations of a big team with different circumstances. I remember that at half time he would grab plastic glasses to show us the tactics and movements he wanted to see. He was a very talented and easy going person.”
Spontaneous, Flexible, Committed (Obsessive in Robson’s case), Clear, Strong Man-Management, Adaptable, Easy Going and Tactically Talented. This is a list of superlatives that any coach would be proud to receive. Yet for all of Robson’s plaudits, his trophy count is surpassed by many other managers and coaches.
So is there more to it?
Lets look at some of the games more successful managers and the attributes they have that make them stand out.
Sir Alex Ferguson
His record cannot be contested, we all know that. He built several great squads at United, dominated the English Competitions and climbed to the summit of Europe twice. What characteristics does Sir Alex have that allowed him to reach those heights?
It is fair to say that Fergie’s system depended entirely on his Supreme Leadership. From the First Team Squad, through to the Youth Development, he had the final word on everything at Manchester United. This included the specification of every facility available to the club, and every member of staff that worked under HIM. He must have been furious when they renamed Old Trafford’s North Stand the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand without asking his permission.
He famously said, “I am the most important man at Manchester United”. His decision was final and his grip was tight. The moment a player stepped out of line, he was gone. Look at McGrath, Ince, Beckham, Stam and Keane. They all made a fuss, and they all got the boot (some more famously than others), yet United continued to win titles.
He wasn’t a tyrant, and for each example of a player fall out, there are countless examples of nurture and support from the Old Trafford Supremo. Who could forget the support he gave Eric Cantona following the Kung Fu Kick incident at Crystal Palace. He didn’t criticise his star man, instead he stood by him for 8 months, calling him daily to ensure he was keeping a clear head and maintaining fitness. Why? Because he knew Eric Cantona was worth it. When the controversial Frenchman returned from suspension, he inspired the team to it’s second Double in three years.
Transfer Market Expert
No doubt Ferguson bred a generation of talented youngsters in the middle of his tenure at the club. Giggs, Scholes, The Neville Brothers, Nicky Butt & Beckham all graduated at the same time and formed a golden generation at the great old club. However, there were several signings made at critical moments that turned out to be masterstrokes. Andy Cole plucked from the rising ‘entertainers’ at Newcastle United and the injury plagued, but always promising Robin Van Persie signing as Manchester City won the Premier League for the first time are two examples of inspired transfer deals.
Sven Goran Eriksson
Many of you will scoff at his inclusion in my article, but take a look at his record and you can see why the FA chose him to lead the national side. Eriksson won 17 titles during his time in Sweden, Portugal and Italy, following a career cut short by injury.
The polar opposite of Ferguson, Eriksson would address his team and ask them how they felt success could be gained. He was open to ideas, finding out what the players needed to perform and building his setup around those requirements.
A Calming Influence
SGE’s calm, motivational approach is incredibly different to the adrenalin pumping, ‘get in their faces’ method, adopted so frequently in the UK and US. He would ask the team to appoint a spokesperson with whom he would discuss match preparation and get squad feedback. But that wasn’t his only interaction with the team, as he approached individuals on a 1-2-1 basis, encouraging a top performance without the fear of failure.
The self proclaimed ‘Special One’ has tasted success wherever he has managed, and love him or loath him, is one of the largest characters in the game. The media love his psychological warfare, his adversaries love to get one over on him (although it doesn’t happen that often). He is rarely gracious in defeat, but he’d probably see that as a pro rather than a con.
Never has a manager possessed so much bravado and bluster than Jose. His mumbled press conferences ooze charisma and tend to set the narrative for the weekend’s action. This perceived arrogance isn’t just the manifestation of Mourinho’s enormous ego though. This is his final contribution to his meticulous preparation of every match. He regularly outthinks his opponent, and more importantly takes every ounce of pressure on his own shoulders. His players are rarely under the media scrutiny experienced by Mourinho himself.
A Winner (at any cost)
Mourinho’s other ‘fantastic vice’ is his understanding of the age-old saying ‘Horses for Courses’. In 2007 Frank Lampard was quoted saying: “Everyone wants us to play like the Harlem Globetrotters, we want to win with great football, but first of all we want to be winners.” He continues, “If I watch any sportsmen, I respect the sportsmen who are winners, born winners. That’s what Jose Mourinho is.” Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0 in the FA Cup Final the following day. It wasn’t a match for the purist, but who will remember that in years to come?
The Professor. Wenger has overseen a transformation of the ‘Boring, Boring Arsenal’ that would ring around the terraces in the early 90’s. His teams’ performance on the pitch has transcended through every element of the club, as the Gunners have moved into an incredible stadium and become a centre of excellence for youth development.
I was lucky enough to attend a dinner party with a guest speaker through my work a few years ago. However, the speaker turned out to be Paul Merson, who awkwardly stumbled through 30 minutes of football memorabilia and rehab horror stories. He did leave one impression of some note with me though. And it was that of the rigorous preparation Arsene Wenger used to put his squad through before 3pm on a Saturday. It is no longer a secret formula though as coaches monitor and tweak every element of their squad’s preparation. From their diet, through to the analysis of exercise via GPS and spread sheets that would make a nuclear experiment look tame. Indeed, he founded the principal of preparation as a science. Meticulous, detailed and with no stone unturned, this is Wenger’s way.
Total Football – A Philosophy
People grew frustrated at Wenger’s 9 years without silverware – fair enough. However, I can’t help but feel that if I were an Arsenal fan, I’d feel a great sense of pride in my team. Wenger has installed a culture at Arsenal, compatible to that of the France ‘98 Squad, the Spain 2010 squad or more appropriately, Barcelona over the last decade. A team built on a philosophy of playing a style of football that everyone appreciates. Then playing it at all levels over a period of time, with long lasting success inevitable and a legacy that will continue long after he leaves the club.
Does Luck Favour The Brave?
I fear I’m about to pay a disservice to a national hero (Alf Ramsey), but the final attribute I feel compelled to cover is luck.
You know the story. It’s the 1966 World Cup Final. The hosts (England), have been forced into extra time by a resilient West Germany who equalised in the 89th minute, making the score 2-2.
After much pressure from the England team, Alan Ball crosses to Geoff Hurst in the 11th minute of extra time, he controls the ball, pivots and his thunderous shot from close range hits the underside of the bar and bounces down, on the line. A German defender immediately makes it to the bouncing ball and clears for a corner.
The referee looks to his linesman for a moment, nothing. The alarm on his watch has not gone off. Phew. Thank goodness for goal line technology. It seems the ball did not cross the line, and West Germany go on to win on penalties. England came so close, but nobody can complain with the outcome.
True, Sir Alex earned much of his luck in ‘Fergie Time’, but you cannot doubt that the occasional rub of the green is capable of creating heroes, and confining all that potential into ‘also ran’ status.
Conquering the Circus
If I had to pick the attribute that I think all of these Managers/Coaches share, it’d be their obsession for the game. This is the foundation that they all build upon.
When I finish work I go home. I have a clear work/life divide and try to strike a balance to ensure neither suffers. I don’t think it is possible for a successful top-flight manager to maintain this balance. Sure, it is a life of privilege for all involved, but to live a life under that pressure and scrutiny must take its toll. I therefore have to bow to those that find success in the Beautiful Game. Their ability to manage pressure also sets them apart from the competition.
From there on in, it is the blend of the traits I have covered that determines the level of success that they are capable of achieving. In the circus that ensues season after season, there are winners and losers, but the cream always rises to the top.
It is the Chairman’s and billionaire owners of our clubs that call most of the shots these days. They are indeed the Ring Masters of this circus. The referees, who have the ability to make us laugh whilst living in total fear of them, they are our circus clowns. Acrobats, the stars of the show whose talent never fails to wow us, the players take on this role and frequently it is their performance that we talk about over and over.
So what then of the managers? There are few people capable of wielding the kind of influence that Sir Alex Ferguson did over all elements of a club the size of Manchester United. I think he was truly a master of spinning plates.
So there ends the analogy. They are the jugglers and plate spinners of the big top, with everyone looking on as they add ball after ball and plate after plate to their act. Everything is in their hands, until it all comes crashing down.
As a paying audience, we savour that moment when 20 balls are whizzing through the air as the juggler balances a bowling pin on his chin. But lets be honest. We also love watching, open jawed, 5 minutes later, as the same genius is stood, red faced, in a pile of smashed plates.