Football players may walk away with the lion’s share of the applause, but it’s their managers calling the shots from behind the scenes who are responsible for a team’s fortunes. A tactician, psychologist and support system, a football manager has to don many hats in the quest for silverware
By Shriya Roy
In 2015, when Jurgen Klopp took over the reins of Liverpool, no one would have thought that five years down the line, it would win the coveted English Premier League (EPL) title. A team that had been struggling for the past 30 years to lay its hands on any silverware became the champion in England. What led to the turnaround was not just the brilliance on the field, but the leadership off it as well by Klopp. The football manager wove himself into the very psyche of Liverpool, paying attention not only to his A team, but also to the junior players at the academy level.
In the world of football, unlike most other sports, the role of the coach, or manager as the English call it, is much more crucial. A football coach is not just a person who devises tactics, he is also responsible for running the team, making changes and calling the shots. The result of the game not only depends on the 11 playing on the field, but also that one person who micromanages every move. Star players are undoubtedly important in the quest for silverware but so are star managers. As per the League Managers Association, the trade union for EPL and national team managers in English football, the current average tenure of an EPL manager is roughly 1.8 years, putting intense pressure on them to show quick results. Clearly, the stakes are very high and that toughens up a manager.
When Liverpool lost the 2018 Champions League final to Real Madrid, Klopp zeroed down on the weaknesses of his team and worked on strengthening those rather than on assembling stars unlike most modern-day football managers. By making star players out of those he had, Klopp was able to lead Liverpool to an impressive 17-game winning run in the 2019-20 season, which eventually led them to the coveted EPL trophy. Klopp’s achievement at Liverpool is considered phenomenal because none before him could take the team to a title for over 30 years.
Former Indian national football team captain Renedy Singh says that it’s important for a coach to help the team bounce back after every defeat. “Losing is inevitable in any game. The important thing is to come up from that. The job of the coach is to think as a unit and about the whole team,” says Singh, adding that playing the game is easier than coaching it.
Not just Klopp, there have been many great managers in the history of football. While some were instrumental in turning the fortunes of their teams, others went on to etch their names in the hallowed portals of football glory by making champions of players. Amongst the greatest in world football is perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson, widely known for managing Manchester United from 1986 to 2013. During his 27-year tenure, Ferguson built four great Manchester United teams, knowing instinctively when to nudge or challenge his players. Most importantly, he knew how to change the winning combination. “What makes Sir Alex the greatest is that he knew when to change a winning team. More important than building a winning team is changing it when the need arises. Most managers are apprehensive to do it when things are working out,” offers Delhi-based author, sports commentator and football expert Novy Kapadia.
During his time at United, Ferguson won 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two UEFA Champions League. He also picked up the ‘World Manager of the Year’ award given by Fifa four times in his career. Needless to say, he is revered by football players across the world. “If a coach can give players an identity that they are proud of, they will fight to the last drop for him… and will turn defeat into victory,” says Stuart Baxter, head coach, Odisha FC, an Indian Super League (ISL) team.
Motivation & management
While great players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo pick up awards and top the goals tally, they are made better by the motivation and man management skills of their respective coaches. Teams and players can’t possibly reach their full potential without the manager who is responsible for not only building the players, but also taking care of the team. He has to be a tactician, a psychologist, as well as a sound support system to the players.
Spanish professional football manager and former player Pep Guardiola is regarded as one of the greatest in the business. While at Barcelona, from 2008 to 2012, Guardiola practised and perfected the art of ‘tiki-taka’, a style of possession-based football. In his first season, he guided the team to a treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and UEFA Championship victories. Showing an impeccable sense of decision-making, Guardiola assembled a team-with stars like Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Carlos Puyol-that had great technical ability with the ball. In 2013, he joined German professional sports club Bayern Munich and stayed there till 2016, winning the Bundesliga title every season. He then joined Premier League club Manchester City, which he currently coaches, and guided them to a Premier League title and their most successful season in 2018, breaking numerous records on the way as the team became the first to attain 100 Premier League points. One of the most overlooked aspects, however, is Guardiola’s style of football, which is based on the rhythm of passing the ball. “Barcelona under Guardiola played a game where they tired down the opponents, which led to their eventual victories. There’s no magic in tactics. As a manager, one has to use a system that suits the tactical ability of the players,” says Kapadia.
The best managers are those who can gain the unflinching trust and respect of their players, as teams tend to eventually become a reflection of their managers. “A coach’s ideas must be related to the skills of the players in the squad. It is about trying to get players to understand a game model, to work on it day by day and to allow that model to grow,” says Juan Ferrando, head coach of ISL club FC Goa. Talking about the importance of adapting to the players’ talent and abilities, Syed Sabir Pasha, assistant coach of ISL club Chennaiyin FC, says, “A coach can’t force or impose things on a player. He needs to adapt and modify the plan according to the talent and qualities of the players.”
When Jose Mourinho took over EPL side Chelsea in 2004, they were quite the underdogs. Mourinho adopted the ‘park the bus’ tactic, motivating players to play with an attacking mindset and constantly telling them that “the world is against you”. His style of play stirred controversy, but the strategy worked, as Chelsea soon became a formidable Premier League side, earning Mourinho the sobriquet, ‘The Special One’. He also introduced Chelsea to unconventional formations, mind games and dominant tactics on the field, guiding them to many victories.
As far as players are concerned, they want to play for someone who is different, cool and has unusual ideas. When a new manager takes over a team, he breaks the monotony and gives a new lease of life to the team. “New ideas, new motivation, new ways of approaching the game uplift the players and their performance,” says Pasha.
When Real Madrid’s star footballer Zinedine Zidane came back as coach of the Madrid team, though, few expected anything extraordinary from him. But today, the Frenchman-who was a newcomer in football management when he took up the job in 2016-is counted among the best managers in the world. In 2017, he led the team to Champions League, as well as Spanish League victories in the same season by instilling in them the fighting mentality, which was missing in the past years. Having played for the club himself gives him the added advantage of connecting with players both as a peer and a coach. “There are successes that are coach-driven, but in the end those successes are a reflection of the co-operation and understanding between the player and coach. A good coach is one who is a leader and not a dictator,” says Baxter.
All great coaches have one thing in common: a firm belief in their players. We have seen this quality in the likes of Klopp, Guardiola and Mourinho. It’s their silent push that propels the Messis, Ronaldos and Neymars of the world to do better and fight against all odds. As former French national team coach Aimé Jacquet once said, “The coach is the most important person in football.”