The Premier League is in transition, so we’re told. The old fashioned man-management type ‘gaffers’ are gradually being replaced by slightly more aloof tactical masterminds. The English domestic game will change to resemble the more technical games we see throughout Europe but Tottenham and Liverpool’s respective starts to the new campaign seem to suggest that the men wishing to take it immediately to the next level may well be martyrs to the cause.
Bill Shankly’s famous quotation “Football is a simple game made complicated by those who should know better” is often wheeled out when football’s tactical geniuses and sports scientists go too far in their prescriptions for the modern game. It’s a phrase that seems particularly pertinent at a time when Andres Villas Boas and Brendan Rodgers are struggling to make their ‘progressive’ policies stick, perhaps due to a stubborn incumbent culture both on the terraces and in the dressing room. So how much do Shankly’s immortal words still ring true in an ultra-technical modern game.
The Premier League is in transition, so we’re told. The old fashioned man-management type ‘gaffers’ are gradually being replaced by slightly more aloof tactical masterminds and new flexible formations such as the 4-2-3-1 are now commonplace in England. Seemingly new-fandangled terms like “false number 9’s” and “floating 10’s” have long become part of our everyday footballing parlance; the midfield hatchet man has given way to the deep lying playmaker; and the defensive clogger has been replaced by the more cultured footballing centre half.
All developments we can be grateful for but how much was Harry Redknapp correct when he bluntly echoed Shankly in saying “These days you are getting 70 page dossiers on this and that. Bull**** can baffle brains at times.” These comments were initially dismissed as eccentric when they were made at the start of the season, but judging by the confused looking nature of Tottenham and Liverpool’s respective starts to the new campaign, he may have a point when it comes to the English game. Man-management is the ability to communicate a complicated message clearly and if the message gets too convoluted it’s easily lost in translation.
Perhaps all that number crunching formational talk is in part a media created pseudo-science in a game that still amounts to little more than pass-and-move. In the words of Shankly: “Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple.” This summation seems like a pretty accurate description of what we now call Technique.
It’s hard to doubt that the likes of Biesla and Guardiola have revolutionised the Spanish game with their intricate visions of perfectly fluid formations and their chess-like expertise as strategists, but has this level of strategy crossed over into the English game yet or is the most motivated, determined, and disciplined team often still the winner? Spanish kids are coached in the art of keeping the ball whereas English kids have these traits coached out of them, often being told to play it safe in defence and kick the ball long. Appreciation of tactics and strategy in England has for a long time taken second place to strength and general athleticism – look at the questionable calibre of some of the Premier League’s ‘hard man’ defenders.
Redknapp’s statement appeared to be a dig at AVB and it could be construed as the comments of a footballing dinosaur, but like all things, it may also contain some elements of truth. The most successful and respected manager in the English game, Alex Ferguson, never outwardly appears to be a man for elaborate chalkboard illustrations or ultra-technical fluid formation changes. He simply seems to extract the best from players by pressing upon them the responsibilities of playing for Man United. Players aren’t allowed to shirk responsibility or become overawed, and they are instilled with that all-important ‘winner’s mentality’; something teams like Arsenal can’t seem to get to grips with despite their enviable talent, probably a major factor in Van Persie’s move to one of his clubs nearest rivals. Man United were on paper a lesser team than Arsenal for a few weeks at the start of the season, now with his addition they are back in championship contention. Van Persie couldn’t resist the lure of a team where winning is a part of its DNA.
Ferguson is as renowned for his ‘hairdryer treatment’ of insubordinate players as much as his tactical nous; a disciplinarian and a wise guiding hand at the same time.
Many of the best modern managers in the English game have prided themselves on their man management skills as highly as being tactical trailblazers. Bobby Robson, Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho all enjoyed the complete respect of their players without straying too far from simple variations of the 4-4-2. These managers seemed to recognise that the English game is a blood and thunder duel; pace and determination were inherent facets of a simple and wildly entertaining Premier League brand. Fair enough, Mourinho is one of the most tactically astute managers in the game, but in Chelsea’s championship winning season he built a campaign largely on team spirit and a simple diamond shaped 4-4-2/4-5-1 with Makalele sitting deep.Many even accused him of ‘route one’ tactics with Drogba bulldozing a path up front. The core of the team, Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba carried the fringe players with an unshakeable belief that it was Chelsea against the world; an idea propagated by Mourinho himself.
Even at a team like Real Madrid it seems that psychology and a ‘winner’s mentality’ is every bit as important as tactical knowhow, with Alvaro Arbeloa outlining this attribute as Mourinho’s main quality: “He’s made winners out of all of us. He’s got an exceptional winning mentality, which is out of the ordinary… The coach’s main quality is that he’s a winner and he knows how to bring that across very well.” Said Arbeloa, in an interview with ABC newspaper.
In the Premier League the prime importance of simple psychology and man-management may well be further intensified. Running out in front of 50,000 people who struggle to tolerate a slow and patient build up or a backwards pass must be a daunting prospect for any player. Most successful footballers need an element of arrogance which probably explains their sometimes questionable behaviour off the pitch. To express yourself in front of a seething crowd sat only yards from the pitch – as it is in the English game – requires a certain self-belief and when this is shaken a player needs a man-manager to get him back on track. The importance of a player knowing his role without confusion is paramount in a hectic Saturday afternoon battle. Overloading a player with stats about his opponent and overcomplicating his basic role may curb his abilities to express his own game and think freely.
The Circulation Football or Tiki-Taka that we see from Barca and Spain is craved by the media and public alike but the English football fans ability to tolerate its fundamental characteristics – patience and sideways passing – is still missing. Whether we like it or not, we’re still bound to a distinctly English game which may involve a distinct type of Leader, as well as tactician. A manager who is a tactical maestro but can’t communicate his ideas is only half a product.
This means that when a manager such as Brendan Rodgers tries to instil a slightly alien idea such as ‘the possession game’ into Liverpool, he’s on distinctly fragile territory if he doesn’t have the full support and belief of the players. Rodgers has a convincing determination and belief in his own ideas but if results aren’t going his way, he’ll need the patience of fans and players alike, and importantly he’ll need to be able to show the man-management qualities of some of his predecessors. Rodgers could be pursuing a game that contradicts the Premier League’s basic cultural leanings.
It remains to be seen whether the likes of Andres Villas Boas’ can implement their highly technical ideas into a culture that thrives on determination, action and incident, until then we may be stuck with a game where man-management takes precedence over tactical tinkering, although the ideal manager obviously exhibits both characteristics, and knows at what point a footballers brain loses sight of the tactical message. The English domestic game will change to resemble the more technical games we see throughout Europe but the men wishing to take it immediately to that level may well be martyrs to the cause.