Let’s put it out there from the top: Being a successful manager has nothing to do with how technically accomplished you are at putting on intricate coaching sessions, or how many abstruse coaching courses you left at the top of the class. It’s a fact that has been proven throughout football history and is being proven in football’s present. It’s not a fact though that many journalists and others seem to like to admit. It’s the done thing to belittle managers without these qualifications or skills, as if it immediately discredits them as cave-dwelling knuckle-dragging bumpkins from some bygone epoch. Not that there aren’t such managers out there, but the point I will make is that it has nothing to do with their lack of ‘coaching’ ability.
I’ve decided to write why this essentially pompous view is so unfounded in response to many journalist’s comments down the years, but most recently and directly to this blog titled ‘The more football we see, the less we know?’ recently written by popular and much read European football journalist Raphael Honigstein. There’s also been a spike of interest in Joey Barton’s response in regard to a question of why English football is allegedly failing. Barton decided to use Alex Ferguson’s lack of technical coaching knowledge as an indicator of part of the problem. But back to the piece in question, because it’s indicative of a common opinion.
In this piece Honigstein dismisses the managerial qualities of Martin Jol due to a conversation with an agent and a few former players who told him he ‘wasn’t very impressive in coaching terms’. Honigstein says he used to think Jol was ‘one of the best in the business’, but these interactions with the aforementioned football agent about Jol’s technical coaching abilities ‘changed his view’ to believing Jol was ‘in other words: nothing special at all’.
Honigstein even takes time to mention how ‘engaging, funny and intelligent’ Jol comes across, and how ‘you sensed that the players responded’. He even mentioned how relatively successful Jol has been in his managerial career, with Hamburg, Tottenham, and 9th and 12th league finishes for relative minnows Fulham, just about and equal to their ‘expected’ success in relation to their wage bills. Nevertheless he concluded that because Jol did not put any interest in the minute coaching technicalities on the training ground, he essentially was a very ‘basic’ manager from ‘the old school’.
Honigstein also seems to feel there’s a need for ‘more journalists at training sessions’, so we can, you know, really accurately decide who’s a good coach, and who’s not. Yeah.
I don’t have much opinion of Martin Jol’s qualities as a manager. He may be good, he may be bad. His record seems to be pretty good. This blog isn’t about Jol. It’s about the misguided, haughty and aloof tone many journalists use when discussing ‘managers vs coaches’.
The great and greatest of successful trophy winning football managers have been so because of their leadership abilities, psychological intelligence, and ennobling characteristics. This is no secret. True greats as Ferguson, Herrera, Paisley, Clough, Mourinho, Shankley Busby, Happel and so on, have been masters of imparting their strong personalities onto their players. They didn’t build their successes on coaching ability. They built it on a keen and almost intuitive understanding of the game, and the players who played it. They built it also on a exceptional perception of the game, distilling it’s many complications and cloudiness down into a substance simpler and clearer than vodka.
They understood the nuances of football as astutely as any of the brightest technical coaches. This is simply a prerequisite. Bob Paisley and Alec Ferguson are both long noted for the encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, but does the most technically gifted guitarist equal the most inspirational? Picasso could paint with studious precision and technical brilliance, but that is not what made him a genius. Some of the greatest coaches may not have been putting on the most technical and intricate training session, but the point is did it matter? The trophies prove that it didn’t.
I would go one step further. I say not only were highly technical coaching sessions not needed to be done by histories most effective managers, their absence was an important factor in their individual successes. Overcomplicated tactical instructions and training is anathema to their success. The talent the truly great coaches of the past and present had in terms of the technical aspect of their management, was their ability to simplify the game with minimal effort in transmitting their ideas to players.
Simplifying something immensely complicated in it’s nature for practical use takes something close to a genius. Computer enthusiasts interested in the technical programming side of computers may prefer Linux as an experience, but Apple computers became the most successful brand in the world by making computing easily accessible to everyone else.
An exception that proves that rule? Could it be Dutchman Rinus Michels? Famous for his tactical and stylistic invention of Total Football. He was named coach of the century by FIFA in 1999. He’s popularly known as a manager who brought success through thorough, intelligent coaching methods. He had good, if not truly spectacular, career as a manager, winning 1 European Cup with Ajax, 1 La Liga, 1 European Cup and 1 World Cup runners up medal with Netherlands. What is somewhat less noted about Michels, is that he was a highly practical man, charismatic, and somewhat unique, and his teams merely reflected that effectively. Michels was nicknamed The General, due to his overtly authoritarian and highly disciplined ways. He was a workaholic, and his highly intense quadruple training sessions reflected that. His Ajax teams were also often far from the liberal, free-wheeling teams they are often made out to be. They were often highly conservative, defensive, and stoic. Essentially, they mirrored the personality of Michels, often reserved, and also often the overt showman. They often showed a willingness to give nothing away, much like their famously economical manager (“No one knows the colour of his wallet”, was the joke in the Ajax dressing room).
The point in this is that, even the most vaunted ‘coach’s coach’, was far from just a clever coach studying the minutiae of tactical efficiencies. Even Helanio Herrera, famed populariser of catenaccio, the door bolt that Jock Stein’s Celtic finally broke through, was more of a master manipulator of men. Obsessive with the psychological and motivational aspect of the game, keenly aware of his own personal influence on his teams through his character.
Rinus Michels used highly flexible and dynamic tactics, but they were not what made him as a manager. His charisma, intelligence and effective transmitting of his personality onto his team was what brought his success, he was but one of many coaches with their own ideas on new formations, but his worked because he and his charisma was the one putting them into practice, and was brilliant at developing players.
Brian Clough once said “the trick - if it is a trick - is to say exactly the right thing at exactly the right time.”. This quote is taken from him talking in context of the psychological influence he has on his players. This style of ‘limited’ management has been reported down the ages in great managers. Bob Paisley was a man of very few words to his players, but at the same time known to them as someone who clearly knew the game back to front. Arsene Wenger, a man whose teams pull off some of the most intricate and stylised football of the last 15 years, is also reported as not being so ‘hands on’ during training, and very careful and often sparse with his words to his players. Famously, during one half time in the dressing room with Arsenal, after a particularly disappointing 1st half, he sat and said nothing, and the team sat in silence. They went out and won the game.
Non of the great managers in history seemed to have any interest in overloading their players with technical coaching instructions. What was more important was a keen eye for an effective player, brilliant reading of the weaknesses of their opponents (like Dalgleish and Ferguson), and a natural or carefully learned psychological intelligence of how to get the most of of your team.
Of course tactics play their part, like I said it is a prerequisite in effectively setting up your team to effectively reflect your leadership skills. Hired assistant coaches also do their job in ensuring the manager isn’t burdened with the abstruse side of preparation. It goes without saying all these great managers were great strategists also, but did they need to be overtly technical on the training ground? Not at all. They understood the game in it’s barest form, and they put very conscious limiters on their technical input.
Let’s take Marcelo Bielsa. Surely football’s most obsessive minutiae-men. A tactical innovator, for sure. He plans everything to every last possible detail and covering every possible tactical eventuality. He spends hours working on tactical prep with his team in training sessions. Bielsa can easily be argued as the most meticulous ‘coaching’ manager in modern football. There’s just one thing missing: Success. His managerial honors are paltry. A Primera division win back in 1992 with Newell’s in Argentina, a clausura with Velez in 1998. Two fairly minor trophies in a career spanning 23 years. He does occasionally bring brief flashes of brilliance from his teams, he did win the Gold medal for Argentina in 2004, but all too often it burns out too quickly.
So, why? Where is his success that his effort and tactical genius surely merits? The reason is ‘El Loco’ Bielsa never mastered the art of managing or understanding people, individuals, players who weren’t born to fit into his systems. He is completely inflexible with his tactical ideologies, and doesn’t adapt to the players he has available to him. For Bielsa, tactics are king and technical coaching preparation comes above all else. If his players can’t understand or deal with it, that’s their problem. He is the Linux programmer.
The idea that a manager is successful because of some form of puritanical tactical system is really a grand misreading of the sport. Arsene Wenger is winner of 3 Premier League titles, 3 FA Cups, 1 French League and Cup, and still the only manager in England in modern times to take his team unbeaten in the league. He is credited with revolutionizing English football and tactics, yet as we’ve mentioned before, is far from a technical orchestrator on the training ground, even though his knowledge of the game is unparallelled. He has achieved success through an understanding of what makes a good player, and a clear and simple identity of play. He once said this at a league manager’s conference:
“There is no better psychological education than growing up in a pub, because when you are five or six years old you meet all different people and hear how cruel they can be to each other. You hear the way they talk to each other like saying ‘You’re a liar.’ And from an early age you get a practical psychological education into the minds of people. It is not often that a boy of five or six is always living with adults in a little village.”
When you hear former players talk candidly about Wenger’s influence on his team, it’s not his coaching, or his tactics, it’s his psychological influence. The great football follows.
Honigstein finishes his piece on Rudi Voller, and his run to the World Cup final in 2002 as manager of an impressive Germany team, finally losing the final without their captain Ballack, to a brilliant Brazilian team. Honigstein said, after Germany were eliminated the 2004 Euro (in a tough group with Czech Republic and Netherlands) even though Voller wasn’t known to be the most studious of coaches “No player complained about it until long after he was gone. No journalist wrote about it since everyone liked Voller and appreciated his efforts. He himself probably knew that he wasn’t a great manager in a technical sense.”
Again, I’m not commenting on the qualities of Voller as manager, but why is Honigstein confused by the lack of criticism of a manager who took a team no one expected much of, to the World Cup final? Honigstein seems to be disproving himself at every turn. Maybe he should be asking what it is that Voller had that motivated the German team to the World Cup final? Especially, if in Honigstein’s view he “wasn’t a great manager in the technical sense”, yet he was still able to take an unfancied team to a World Cup final, and almost win it?
Do these journalists even possess themselves, the expertise, knowledge and experience in technical coaching methods to establish who was a great coach, and just a good one, from the technical aspect anyway? I would chance a guess at not.
A quick look at the current crop of modern upcoming coaches shows no change to historical trends. Dortmund’s charismatic leader Jurgen Klopp is renowned for his extra-ordinary man management skills, and funneling his enthusiasm and cleverness effectively into his team’s play. The bonds he builds with players is unique (his 20 minute crying session with Shinji Kagawa when he left Dortmund, an example). Klopp’s training methods are often far from technical, focusing more on unusual psychological strengthening methods. Klopp’s teams play simple, clearly outlined football. Attack with verve and high pressing if required, while at other times, soak up and counter attack. Klopp achieves his simple strategic aims by the types of players he selects, young, energetic, and skillful. Klopp places an emphasis on team spirit more than any other aspect. This is the key to Dortmund’s recent successes, not their tactical style of play.
To mention others, such as Antonio Conte and Juventus, and Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, tactically astute of course, but more importantly they are grandmasters at instilling a grit and fire into their teams, that leagues upon leagues of the most ‘technical coaches’ could only dream of. Do you need this type of leadership ability to be a successful manager? Probably not always. But it’s difficult, if not impossible to be a great without it, and you simply won’t rise to the top without a combined deep knowledge of the game. The crucial point is, it’s simply not imperative to be a great coach to be a successful manager. To stretch an analogy one last time, take how easily the technical genius and understanding of computers possessed by Bill Gates, was simply superseded by Steve Jobs, a relative technical (but not complete) novice, but understood about transferring computing to people intuitively in a way that Gates and his successors could never grasp.
I have a strong feeling if the likes of Honigstein and other scoffing journalists were granted their entitled wish to be present at club’s training sessions, they would be absolutely non the wiser, or have any greater insight about what truly makes a great manager of a football team. Because it’s already been staring them in the face for decades.