Player PowerNovember 5, 2019
In February 2012 Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich held an emergency two-hour board meeting that culminated in the reluctant dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas. After the meeting, allegedly induced by a call from Frank Lampard (after he and other ‘key members’ of the squad had been left out of the squad that lost 3-1 to Napoli in the UEFA Champions League), Abramovich personally and categorically told the then Chelsea squad, that they were responsible for Villas-Boas’ sacking! Villas-Boas, the 30-something-year-old protege from FC Porto, revered as the second coming of the most successful Portuguese manager- Jose Mourinho, had won the 2010/11 Primeira Liga, unbeaten- winning 27 of their 30 games, conceding 13 goals in the process, 21 points clear of their arch-nemesis SL Benfica; and the Taca de Portugal as well as the Europa League, becoming the youngest treble-winning manager in the upper echelons of European football.
AVB, the same manager under whom Radamel Falcao and Hulk combined for a total of 74 goals, had Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba chocking in front of goal like a septuagenarian lacking a certain blue pill needed to rise to a special occasion. Reportedly, Didier Drogba gave half-time team talks to the effect that the squad should ditch AVB’s high line for former manager, Jose Mourinho’s default pack-the-bus tactics. Reports that continue to make this life worth living. For Villas-Boas, then the most promising talent in football management meeting Lampard, Drogba and John Terry, without a doubt, turned a once-promising and erect career flaccid!
After getting to the peak of the Premier League, or any peak for that matter, there are only but two options: maintain the standard and remain at the top or fall. Leicester City‘s Claudio Ranieri couldn’t repeat the 2015/16 title-winning season, but he would have put his best foot forward, only for the colossal betrayal of, allegedly, the likes of Jamie Vardy, Shinji Okazaki and others who got into the head of owner, the late Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and stab Ranieri in the back, typical of conniving Foxes. There are further examples of players expressing their characters and showing their immense power and status over clubs’ and countries’ hierarchies:
France in the 2010 World Cup, ended up being a long drawn out scandal that left Raymond Domenech humiliated as an all-out player revolt, recriminations with staff and resignations that broke the French camp, because Thierry Henry, Nicholas Anelka and Patrice Evra had greater control in the dressing room and training ground than the manager. Jose Mourinho’s personality and management style have seen him lose the dressing room with Paul Pogba at Manchester United, Iker Casillas at Real Madrid and his second spell at Chelsea frustrated by players who refused to buy into his methods and were up in arms against his authority. His latest scuffing, whilst in charge at Manchester United, had him channel the spirit of club legend, Sir Alex Ferguson:
The day a player is more important than the club, goodbye.
This couldn’t ring truer than at one club in particular: Bayern Munich.
A man as decorated as Carlo Ancelloti had seen it all, from AC Milan, Paris Saint-German, Chelsea to Real Madrid before hitching a ride with FC Hollywood, succeeding Pep Guardiola. The German champions had a rough start with the Italian at the helm and a drop in training intensity and performances on the pitch since the days of the preceding Spanish manager, didn’t help Ancelloti’s case; as did his exclusion of the ‘owners’ of the dressing room in Robert Lewandoski, Thomas Mueller, Matt Hummels and especially the old guard in Frank Ribery and Arjen Robben, excluded on several occasions in matchday squads due to their age. It is more probable than not that, the five snitched on Carlo to club President Uli Hoeness, with CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge breaking down in tears after sacking his old buddy Ancelloti, his hands, together with Sporting Director Hasan Salihamidizic tied. The players had spoken!
The influence of players on Bayern’s board as well as that of cult-heroes in the person of Uli Hoeness is the perfect breeding ground for player-power. In hindsight, Bayern shouldn’t have appointed Niko Kovac, but Hoeness insisted that the former Bayern midfielder was the best man to take the A-list club forward. By November 2018, it couldn’t be clearer how wrong he (the board) was. On average, the Bayern squad is the oldest in the league, a fact that the board is aware of, but seems to drag its feet to revamp. Kovac’s defend low and play on the break tactics that served him so well at Eintracht Frankfurt and the obscurity before that, couldn’t cut it at Bayern. Bayern was, after all, Bayern! Relentless attackers! Oh, the joy of watching Niklas Suele run up the pitch to add more attacking bodies in attack,in defiance to Kovac’s orders to stay put at the back, lights up my soul with joy to date.
Kovac survived the winter, was torn to smithereens by Liverpool in the Champions League before, on the back of his players’ individual talent and fortitude, despite his tactical, coaching and managerial inadequacy, winning the Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and DFL SuperCup, confirming that the Bundesliga is a one-team-to-win-it league. But Thomas Mueller wasn’t happy, Manuel Neuer admitted that Niko Kovac’s ‘writing was on the wall’ and this month following a 5-1 loss to Kovac’s immediate former employers Frankfurt, the board accepted Kovac’s resignation, appointing assistant coach, Hansi Flick, the Salihamidizic hire, for this definite occasion: to replace the bad coach when the players finally had had enough. One can’t help but imagine that the next appointee as Bayern manager, hopefully Mon. Arsene Wenger, will look at this group of players and sneer: these are the same guys that had 2 of the last 3 of my predecessors fired!
So how important are ‘good’ managers to the best football teams?
The Economist in a 15-year study of Europe’s top five leagues, between 2004-2018, answers this question:
From the face of it, the lack of tactical nous and/or management has seen the likes of Niko Kovac, Unai Emery, Zinadine Zidane and Carlo Ancelloti win titles in Germany, France and Europe, almost wholly on the ability, skill and hunger of their charges. Although difficult to rank a manager’s skill or ‘level’, these men are ‘average’ coaches at teams with very good players. Today, sports data makes it easy to measure player performance and consequently, player skill. This is separated from a team’s projected and actual performance to establish these ‘star’ managers’ projected and actual performance:
Managerial performance in consecutive jobs:
Even the best tacticians cannot compete with players’ contributions with their limbs, head and heart on the pitch. That being said, there is a clique of managers whose contribution to average teams has been above par: Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, Jurgen Klopp with Borussia Dortmund and Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur, while Carlo Ancelotti and Zinadine Zidane at the opposite end of the spectrum, have their past Champions League glories propping their CVs. Despite this, Simeone’s impact on Atletico is nowhere near the contributions of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Sergio Ramos and David de Gea for their respective teams. Hell, Neymar Jr alone is more powerful than the entirety of French Football (with the exclusion of Kylian Mbappe)!
An eye for talent and tactical nous are the most important things in football management today; however, the old art of man-management and an appreciation for Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede’s Power Distance* are perhaps the only tools managers have at their disposal against the dangerous trend of player power, be it refusing to train, travel or play for the team to force a transfer out of the club and especially when it comes to getting their bosses fired. Till then, whose players’ do you reckon will get him fired…?
*Power distance refers to the extent to which the lower ranking individuals of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. It is primarily used in psycho-sociological studies on societal management of inequalities between individuals, and individual’s perceptions of that management. People in societies with a high power distance are more likely to conform to a hierarchy where “everybody has a place and which needs no further justification”. In societies with a low power distance, individuals tend to try to distribute power equally. In such societies, inequalities of power among people would require additional justification.