Welcome back, and welcome to part two. In part one we looked at the culture of a club, the treatment of its staff and the ambition and hunger of the manager. As was the case in part one, any quotes, unless otherwise noted, come from The 90-Minute Manager. The clock is ticking, let’s get back to the action.
Focus on strengths
Unless you are at a very talented club, or have hundreds of millions of pounds in the transfer kitty, it is very unlikely that you will have world class talent covering every position on the pitch. The best managers are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their team and they set up the team to maximise the strengths and minimize its weakness. If you have a squad of technically gifted, rather short players you are not going to play route one football with a target man centre forward. A team must play to their strengths and a manager must focus on the strengths of each player, rather than their weaknesses. When looking at a player you must be asking the question, “where would his strengths best be utilised?” With the aggression of Roy Keane it made sense for him to be at the centre of the action, right in the thick of it. With Dirk Kuyt’s work rate he did not look out of place as a wide midfielder getting up and down the touchline for ninety minutes. Some players are overlooked because their strengths aren’t being utilised, some are disregarded as the wrong type of player, and some are simply playing in the wrong position.
Again we look at Pep Guardiola as a perfect example of a manager who focuses on the strengths of his players. Whilst at Barcelona we saw Guardiola employ Javier Mascherano at centre back and Lionel Messi as a striker, now at Bayern Munich Philip Lahm has become a defensive midfielder. TalkSport wrote “as Spanish football writer Pete Jensen pointed out, one of Guardiola’s greatest strengths is to see the player beyond the position, as has been the case with Lahm. For the Bayern manager, a player’s qualities and attributes are key, rather than where he has played for the majority of his career”.
Gareth Bale is another example of a player in the modern game who has changed his position and flourished. Having started his career as a left back at Southampton he is now one of the best wingers in the world, playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid. The example given in The 90-Minute Manager is that of Arsène Wenger and a certain French winger struggling to make the team at Juventus. Wenger bought him, converted him to a striker and the rest, as they say, is history. Wenger “correctly identified those talents that would make Thierry Henry an explosive and world renowned striker”.
Though this is vague and intangible, and a concept which is hard to grasp and more than likely does not even exist, the mantra “you make your own luck” is applicable. The Germans are not lucky when it comes to penalties, they are well prepared, practised and confident, Lee Cattermole is not unlucky to get sent off so often, he is undisciplined, aggressive and times his tackles poorly, Luis Suárez is not lucky to nut-meg his opponents so often, he is incredibly skilled and a brilliant dribbler of the ball. “A Chinese proverb describes luck as the place where preparation meets opportunity”. It is said that “lucky people are those who prepare themselves to recognise random opportunities and then to seize them”. How many times did Manchester United, under Sir Alex Ferguson, score late goals? They were renowned for it. A never-say-die attitude and perhaps a bit of luck but “it was not luck that won the European Cup for Manchester United in 1999, but their ability to apply pressure in the opposition penalty area and consequently amplify the odds in their favour”.
When Greece miraculously won the European Championship in 2004 I put it down to luck. I was only 14 at the time and so did not fully understand the intricacies of the modern game. Since that time though I have realised that it was not luck, it was detail, it was tactical genius and it was a lot of hard work. Zonal Marking wrote a brilliant article on the Greece team of 2004 and in it they said, that the victory did not happen by accident, “it happens through immense tactical wisdom and careful deployment of tactics to suit each game”. Greece’s manager Otto Rehhagel was the mastermind behind the Greek success, and just like the great managers in the game, he played to his teams strengths. As mentioned earlier in the article teams should play to their strengths and Rehhagel and Greece did just that. “They had solid, reliable defenders and a hard-working midfield, with little attacking talent. To play open football would have been suicidal. They defended solidly, then countered at speed with numbers – and their set-piece organisation was superb”.
Coping with pressure
Stress is a major part of the job, but as a manager you must do your best to cope with it. Though it may affect you physically as well as mentally, this cannot be shown to the players you are in charge of. The effects of stress on football managers are well documented. In terms of health, Gérard Houllier was one of the highest profile names to have to leave the game, but in terms of mental effects Kevin Keegan’s infamous interview whilst at Newcastle is the best example. “An inability to handle stress reduces a managers effectiveness and inevitably communicates itself to the team, creating a negative impact on their performance”. In more recent years perhaps the best example is when Rafa Benitez gave his press conference about “facts”, an attack on Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson, which many in the media claimed was a sign of Benitez cracking under pressure.
Unity and teamwork
It is cliché, but true, to say that there is no “I” in “Team”. The unity of the team and the cohesion of its members is perhaps the most important aspect to get right when managing a club. There is no use having world class talent when they all play for themselves, and are selfish on the pitch. A team is more than simply the sum of the parts. It is the cohesion, the teamwork, and the cooperation. Everyone must put the team first and work towards its goals rather than their own. A star player may have to get sold if the team is more compact and works better as a unit without him. Juan Mata at Chelsea was a prime example of this.
Individually the Real Madrid galacticos team was the greatest club team of the last twenty years. Their team was a who’s who of individual awards and superstars. David Beckham joined Roberto Carlos, Luís Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and Raul, and yet despite the abundance of talent, the team won surprisingly few trophies. There have been many suggestions put forward as to why this was but the most obvious was that their performances on the pitch showed a lack of balance and cohesion. Individuals were considered more important than the team, and this cost Real Madrid greatly.
Unity is just as important off the pitch as it is on it. One of the oldest tricks in the book of management, and one José Mourinho employs regularly, is the “us versus them” situation. At once it creates a siege mentality within the team, where the belief is that the rest of the world is against them. “The presence of an external enemy, imagined or real, induces the team to forget about any internal disputes and focus on sticking together”.
As a manager you should always have an eye on the long term, even if you will not be around to reap the rewards. Short term gains should not be at the cost of long term sustainability. The best managers achieve sustained success, year after year, collecting silverware and breaking records. Motivation and man management can bring short term success but hard work on foundations and laying the groundwork is needed for sustained dominance. The ultimate goal for any manager should be to create an empire, season after season, year on year, squad development and repeated success. Buying ageing stars may give benefits for a season or two but once they have left or retired your team is in trouble once more.
Sir Alex Ferguson is not considered one of the greatest managers of all time because he won the league a few times. It is because he consistently created teams that dominated a number of competitions. He did not see the success with just one set of players, he had two, or three, or four squads over a period of two decades. His ambition and focus on longevity is clearly seen by what he is reported to have said when he arrived at Old Trafford in 1986. His brief was to “knock Liverpool off their f*****g perch”. Perhaps one of the only complaints that could be made against Ferguson as a manager was that once he knew he was going to retire the longevity of the team became unimportant. This is something I have written about previously here, arguing that Ferguson took his eye off the ball and left an extremely difficult task for his successor.
The great football managers understand that they need to build a viable system of long-term success. “Constant emphasis, through words and deeds, on the long term. This [should be] apparent right from the early stages of their tenure”. Unfortunately being a manager does not guarantee you a place on a long term contract and this could explain why so many managers fail to focus on longevity. It is only through the safe knowledge that he will not be replaced that Wenger is able to rebuild Arsenal’s team every few seasons. His investment in youth, careful transfer spending and long term goals are only possible because he has the full backing and assurances of the board. “Insecurity breeds short-termism”.
As stated earlier, there are short cuts to success, loaning players, signing ageing stars, spending lots of money on transfers and wages, and though these are good strategies for self-preservation and short-term gain, they are not good strategies for greatness. Chelsea have learnt this recently and in the last few seasons I believe we have seen a shift in the strategy of the team. Upon returning to the club, Mourinho stated he wanted to stay for a further twelve seasons thus providing the stability and longevity. During the last few seasons the team has also begun to invest heavily in younger players, a new generation of stars brought through the ranks, and the spine of the Chelsea team for the next decade under Mourinho. Christian Atsu, Bertrand Traore, Wallace, Oriol Romeu, Victor Moses, Romelu Lukaku, Gael Kakuta, Thibaut Courtois, Marko Marin and Kurt Zouma are all well known names but are yet to even break into the Chelsea team. The future looks to be very promising.
In the third and final part of this series of articles I will turn my attention more towards the recruitment and development of players, how a manager should act in the transfer market, and what skill is essential for any great manager to possess.
This is part two in Paddy’s three part ‘Coping in the Dugout’ series on the skills necessary to be a great football manager. If you missed part one, you can catch up here, and the third and final part is now online here.
The book on which this series of articles is based is available on Amazon : The 90-Minute Manager: Lessons from the Sharp End of Management