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Are we right to kneel at the altar of the manager?

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‘Great Man Theory’ was popularised in the 1840’s by Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, who stated that ‘the history of the world is but a biography of great men’. The theory has largely been discredited in the 170 years since. In the culture of English football however, it is a widely accepted doctrine. We are all but alone in our belief that the best policy for our biggest clubs is to grant one man, the manager, a mandate for autocratic control.

Jürgen Klopp is an impressive and erudite speaker to be sure, and his work at Borussia Dortmund is a body of evidence to give Liverpool fans cause for optimism. The love-struck behaviour of the press however, was a reminder that nobody is quite so deferential to ‘great men’ in football than the English. The examinations of Brendan Rodgers’ time at Liverpool, as well as the analysis of Sunderland’s perpetual sclerosis has been very revealing. Directors of Football, transfer committees, data analysts, statisticians and Moneyball have all been thrown onto the fire. The orthodoxy that clubs need an omnipotent manager at the helm, unfettered by those deemed not to be ‘football men’, has been re-affirmed.

When you look at the success stories driven by managers allowed the control to forge a club in their own image, it is little wonder that we think this way. Hebert Chapman, Sir Matt Busby, Bill Nicholson, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Don Revie, Brian Clough, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are all examples of how giving one personality control can lead to success. There are other examples from all levels of the footballing pyramid in Britain. Stan Collymore reiterated this sentiment in a recent column following the sacking of Brendan Rodgers:

“Brendan couldn’t succeed at Liverpool because he was one part of 5 who simply don’t think or act big enough for LFC. They didn’t have the genius required. Average men making average decisions because the system which provides their jobs by its collective nature allows only average thinkers, not great men prepared to stand alone.”

Collymore cited the likes of Clough and Ferguson, as I have just done. There is a strong sense however, that English football is clinging to a rapidly fading past. The two most successful managers of the past decade in terms of silverware, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, have both worked on short term assignments under intrusive hierarchies. Manchester United tried to go down the ‘organic’ route by replacing Ferguson with David Moyes, but jettisoned that plan with less than a season gone and appointed Louis Van Gaal on a three year deal. Arsene Wenger is, to paraphrase Morrissey, the last of the famous dynastic managers. However, the chances of Arsenal finding another manager who they can trust with the same amount of power are very slim. The most likely outcome is a series of short term appointments, and the club must have a structure in place to deal with this change in culture.

The desire to give the manager ultimate control of affairs is understandable given that it is usually the manager who loses his job if things go wrong. Knowing the primacy of results at any football club, managers typically want power because they know that in the end, they will be held accountable. It is a form of compensation for their insecure position. Found here is the idea that if you fail you should fail ‘doing it your way’, with no excuses about the job done by a Director of Football or transfer committee.

However, the increasing rate of change in the football management business is itself an argument in favour of clubs having structures in place above the manager to absorb such change. If the anomalous Arsene Wenger is removed from the equation, the average time spent in a Premier League managerial job is just 473 days. However, clubs such as Swansea City and Southampton have been able to cope the loss of their managers without the ceiling caving in. Consistency has been achieved regardless of who has been in charge, and it’s a consistency not only in results but in recruitment and style of play. As Jeremy Wilson pointed out in a recent column in The Telegraph, the job of player recruitment at Swansea City is a collective one involving manager Gary Monk, Head of Recruitment David Leadbeater, Technical Recruitment Scout Tim Henderson and George Foster, Head of European Scouting.

Southampton have a team, led by 32 year old Ross Wilson, of 20 full time analytics experts at the club’s Staplewood Campus as well as 30 scouts around Europe. Wilson then reports back to Executive Director Les Reed who collaborates with the manager Ronald Koeman. There are innumerable examples from across Europe that this model can work.

There is however, widespread scepticism in England about such structures and the utility of those with backgrounds outside of professional football. This was Neil Ashton in The Daily Mail:

“Instead a new breed sits in air-conditioned offices, cutting up videos from matches all over the world and burying their heads in the stats. Edwards, along with his vast team of analysts, constantly monitors the opposition, providing detail about playing positions, style, routines, set-pieces and other important matchday information.”

Though well informed regarding who does what at Anfield, Ashton’s disdain for Head of Technical Performance Mike Edwards and ‘his kind’ is obvious throughout the article and evident in the quotation. How can men so soft and pampered that they have to switch the air conditioning on possibly have a career in football?! Liverpool’s recruitment under Brendan Rodgers was substandard; Edwards and his team deserve criticism and scrutiny. Ashton’s posturing however, smacks of somebody trying to prove how ‘old school’ they are.

A valid argument against the ‘continental’ model employed by Swansea and Southampton is that it seems to suit those clubs who regularly sell their best players for profit and have their manager poached by a bigger clubs. Therefore the need to have a cohesive and monolithic recruitment strategy across different managerial reigns is greater. This might not be the case at the bigger clubs who can keep their best players and only require a few additions.

Two debates that never go away are how we should go about improving the performance of the England national team and why our top clubs are underperforming in Europe. English football will never find a positive solution to either problem if it is not open and receptive to new ideas. The purpose of this article it not to argue that clubs should strip managers of their powers and appoint technical committees and directors of football. There is good evidence that both models can bring success and that is why we should not be dismissive of new or foreign methods. Stability and continuity of ideas are crucial to success, but Southampton and Swansea have shown that it need not be the responsibility of one man to provide such virtues.

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