'The 3 Rats – Hazzard Cesc and Costa'. That was the best of the banners at Stamford Bridge last Saturday, as thousands of Chelsea supporters vented their anger at the players they blame for getting the manager sacked. This is the mess that gets left behind when a club decides it's had enough of José Mourinho.
Mourinho has just put in probably the worst five months of work any manager has done in the Premier League. He was finally bundled out the door fulminating about rats and betrayal, leaving behind the charred hulk of a club smoking with acrimony and bitterness.
Four days later, all the talk is about whether he could be about to replace Louis van Gaal at Manchester United.
From a sporting point of view, this seems bizarre, not only because Mourinho has just been through a serious career crisis. His underdog football is the opposite of everything United have supposedly stood for since the days of Matt Busby. They're the club of "attack attack attack", not "whoever has the ball has fear". Everything about the idea of Mourinho taking over at Old Trafford seems wrong.
The key to understanding why it could nevertheless happen is to remember that Manchester United no longer sees itself as a sporting institution. According to group MD Richard Arnold, Manchester United now sees itself as “the biggest TV show in the world.” For the biggest TV show in the world, the most important thing is not long-cherished club values or prudent footballing decisions or even Premier League points. The only thing that really matters is eyeballs.
Most of United’s income now comes from TV, and indirectly via the sponsorship deals they can strike on the back of the global TV audience that follows them. The TV-related income now dwarfs the share of income that depends on sporting performance.
For instance, this year United will earn about €45 million from their short-lived Champions League campaign, of which just €16 million is performance-related prize money (the rest is a divvying-up of TV money from the lucrative English ‘market pool’). They earn comfortably more than €16 million a year to let Aon put their name on the club training ground. Going out of the Champions League in the group stage is regrettable, but its impact on the bottom line is negligible. Failure, where is thy sting?
What matters now is not the old-fashioned kind of success, so much as excitement, the kind of buzz that gets people tuning in. In Arnold’s words: “If you think about why people watch soap operas, it’s what will happen next. That uncertainly is part of what makes sport exciting.”
Now that sport has been superseded by soap opera, the worst crime any manager can commit is to be “boring”.
United fans have been complaining about Louis van Gaal’s boring football, but you wonder if it’s really van Gaal himself they have the problem with. The 64-year old is a throwback to the time before football realised it was actually the world’s biggest soap opera. He’s failed to update his style to serve the demands of the new age. A frequent complaint in the YouTube interviews with angry fans coming out of the stadium is that he never gets up off his seat to direct the game from the sideline.
Van Gaal says he doesn’t do that because he doesn’t believe it does any good. It’s up to the players to play, and a manager who stands there shouting at them is just trying to look more important than he really is.
But these days the superstars of coaching all engage in sideline showmanship – none more so than Pep Guardiola, whose performances in the technical area are reminiscent of an orchestral maestro. Van Gaal’s low-key approach makes him seem old-fashioned and, well, boring.
It’s as though he’s failed to grasp that the modern manager is supposed to play a larger-than-life character at all times. He acts like he thinks it’s enough simply to be himself. Consider his words after the defeat to Norwich: “I always evaluate. This is why I am, or maybe I now have to say was, a very successful manager. Yes, I worry about my job because I know that belief in a manager is very important and when you lose the games, the belief in the manager will decrease. That is happening now. I cannot close my eyes to that.”
Doubt and anxiety
In an age when everyone in sport has been trained to deny even thinking about failure, it was almost incredible to hear a big-time football manager actually admitting to feelings of doubt and anxiety. Van Gaal was talking like a human being – the way sportspeople sometimes used to talk before creative visualisation and the other techniques of self-brainwashing conquered their world.
Van Gaal’s startling moment of candour was at the opposite end of the scale from Mourinho’s reaction to losing to Southampton, when he ranted for seven minutes about how he was the best manager Chelsea could ever hope to have.
His honesty will do him no good. Being a regular guy is no longer enough in a profession dominated by guys who act like supermen or at least superstars. Mourinho might be toxic but he’s never boring, and for the biggest TV show in the world, that’s all that counts.