Soccer managers have become completely irrelevant
Tipping Point: Arsene Wenger’s departure underlines increasingly obvious trend
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger ahead of his team’s Uefa Europa League semi-final against Atlético Madrid, at the Emirates Stadium in London, Britain. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
Arsene Wenger is leaving Arsenal and my CV is already at the Emirates. I figure what the hell: prowling the sideline is a sidelined job anyway. Wenger’s exit simply accelerates it further towards irrelevance.
It’s not like I don’t fit a lot of the traditional management criteria: a middle-aged, male, white blowhard juggling a thin-skin with a hide like a dehydrated rhino.
Okay, being crap at soccer is a problem – sorry, a challenge.
But that didn’t stop the Italian shoe salesman Arrigo Sacchi from creating a great AC Milan side. He also had the perfect putdown to his credentials being questioned: “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.”
Sacchi took Italy to the 1994 World Cup final, where they lost to a Brazil side managed by Carlos Parreira. He never played either. His only link to sport was as a fitness coach. So being in the bullshit game, sorry, media industry, might rate as a similar qualification for soccer credibility these days.
The role of soccer manager is mostly PR anyway, a branding hook putting a “morkoting” face to a franchise, a symbol for sponsorship deals that put the cherry on top of all that TV money. Just look at speculation about the eminently underqualified Steven Gerrard going to Rangers. It’s showbiz.
It’s why most managers have become little more than lightning rods, cartoon blame figures prowling their technical areas in a “look-at-me-look-at-me” Punch and Judy show.
There has to be a fall-guy and who’s more convenient than the patsy in the suit. That in substantive terms it’s little more than a gesture makes it even more convenient.
Because in terms of soccer performance, if players are the orchestra then most managers are glorified conductors, waving their arms for effect. After all, it’s a poor musician who can’t keep time on their own.
As for soccer Stokowskis supposedly putting in vast preparations behind the scenes, an environment where the average length of time in a Premiership job is a single year means any input is usually of the firefight variety.
No, this is a show where everyone knows their lines: initially talking the talk about a club’s great potential and/or history, then pleading for time; jumping up and down with “passion” a few times, and then pocketing the fall-guy severance cheque. I could do that. Anyone could.
There’s a reason Sir Alex Ferguson’s priority throughout his career was control: being in charge but with no authority is the worst of both worlds. It’s the manager’s lot now. Wenger’s fate proves it once again.
When there’s a can to be carried it isn’t going to be owners, shareholders and their assorted executive apparatchiks who carry it. Neither will it be the players. They’re assets too valuable to be upset.
Managerial authority once rested on withholding team selection. Such a threat is a thing of the past for hugely paid players who simply generate a remunerative move elsewhere if not taking a shine to the gaffer’s face.
That sort of asset depreciation provokes the ultimate own-goal of upsetting club owners, which in turn creates a commercial reality whereby management has mostly become an exercise in shouting into the wind.
And it’s actually no bad thing, because the fact that this concept of soccer shaman is a grotesquely inflated three-card-trick piece of hucksterism has stayed hidden in plain sight for too long.
In the history of the game, there have been rare exceptional managers who have briefly made the difference between glory and defeat through either innovation, spotting a gap in the market or managing to drown out the wind.
But in their wake have come countless self-serving spoof-merchants. Masters of their own hard-sell, they spout tactical jargon and cod-psychological balls which help pump a “leadership” industry that by now soccer really should have grown out of.
Because ultimately the mundane reality has always been that soccer is about players. And the best players cost the most. It’s that simple. It doesn’t sound great in a PowerPoint job interview but the richest club gets the best players and wins the most.
Not acknowledging it permits a narcissist like Jose Mourinho to flog himself as a guru. Or encourages Pep Guardiola to be portrayed as some ascetic Gaudi of the game, although to his credit Guardiola has never pretended to do anything bar tweak Johan Cruyff’s original vision.
But he’s playing his beautiful game at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, with the world’s best players: try pulling off 85 per cent possession with tiki-taka in Port Vale and the more puddling eulogies to his supposed third-eye might be merited.
The table really doesn’t lie. The richest club in England has won the Premiership, followed by the next richest. They are top because they can pay the best players the most money. Can anyone really believe that’s just coincidence? Finance trumps philosophy.
Of course, Leicester’s glorious ascent to Premiership glory in 2016 is invariably given as a riposte. Except in many ways that’s simply the exception that proves the rule. And it certainly points to proving the rule about how superfluous so much management actually is.
Claudio Ranieri’s subsequent fall from grace only seemed to confirm how he best served title success by interfering as little as possible. When he tried to “manage” the following season he quickly found out where the real power lies – with the players and those who pay them.
Ultimately it comes down to no one ever having paid through the gate to watch a suit jump up and down. So it’s about time this tired conceit of pouring faith, hope and money into some totemic sideline Generalissimo is binned.
It was a questionable idea in the past. Now it’s just become a pantomime.