Why top managers are the reason English football is failing
Last week, the Daily Telegraph published its list of “the most 50 powerful people in English football”. The vague criteria for inclusion threw up some very idiosyncratic choices - Manchester United’s 18-year-old striker Marcus Rashford is rated as the 38th most powerful man while David Beckham (16th spot) is considered more powerful than Martin Glenn, the head of the FA. But then again, these pieces should never be taken too seriously. They’re designed to generate debate, not provide genuine analysis.
This is something José Mourinho should perhaps take note of. The ultra-competitive Manchester United manager once took so much exception to a Portuguese countryman naming Fabio Capello (then at Juventus) as the “coach of the Champions League group stage” in a football magazine - instead of him - that he blanked the long-term acquaintance for two entire years. José is listed as the fourth most powerful figure in this current list, two spots behind his arch-nemesis Pep Guardiola (Manchester City), who is only “over-powered” by Premier League boss Richard Scudamore.
But what does power mean in the context of management? The authority managers enjoy at their respective clubs, combined with the size of the club, affords them wider relevance. But they can only directly impact others through results and the use of transfer funds. By that definition, Guardiola, coach of the championship favourites and the club that has most aggressively targeted players from other Premier League clubs, does indeed wield a lot of external power.
Whether the Man City manager will be able to live up to his own, distinctly different standards for judging importance is another matter. Guardiola, in London for the book launch of Johan Cruyff’s posthumous memories, told an audience that his ilk should not be judged on trophies but on their lasting “influence on the culture you pass down”. And here is where things get interesting. Because English football doesn’t really work like that.
Here, the cult of the manager hasn’t spawned a series of epigones, ready to carry on their mentor’s work. The big, successful managers in the Premier League era have all been one-offs, either unable or simply not interested in fostering a football culture that can thrive without them.
What, for example, has been left of 27 wildly successful years of Alex Ferguson at Manchester United? There’s zero football expertise at the club above and beyond the incumbent manager. Former players versed in the SAF ways have yet to have any real impact on football – stellar punditry work notwithstanding. Ferguson’s failure to build a Cruyff-like dynasty will hold back the world’s richest club for many more years to come, as it will be forced to import knowledge wholesale, just like all of its rivals.
Arsène Wenger has been just as negligent at Arsenal. The Frenchman’s innovations - better training, better scouting, better nutrition, more football - have had a huge impact on English football but he’s not made any effort to include prominent players in his set-up. The absence of a corporate culture has served him well - it has extended the club’s reliance on him - but it will pose huge problems in the near future when someone else will be in charge.
See also: Mourinho at Chelsea, Rafael Benítez at Liverpool. Wherever the big beasts depart the stage, so does their power, and clubs have to start all over again, usually with another “cult” type who can shoulder all the responsibility himself.
The riches of the Premier League make it possible to absorb these huge, regular upheavals. But there’s no doubt that English football, in the wider sense, suffers from a complete lack of coaching networks and organised knowledge transfer that we see in other countries.
Former players play almost no part in the running of clubs, they rarely work as assistant managers and seem to regard a start in the lower leagues - or god forbid, at youth level - as beyond them. Thus, the dearth of indigenous talent at management level becomes self-perpetuating. There are no English manager in the top 50 list, in case you were wondering.