April 21, 2008

All the way without Jose?

Chelsea this season stand on the brink of winning maybe one and possibly even two trophies- they sit in the semi finals of the Champions League and are second in the Premiership behind Manchester United. Other clubs will have something to say about that: obviously Manchester United are favourites to win the Premiership and in the Champion's League, the men from London will have to beat Liverpool over two legs (something they haven't managed so far in that competition) and then confront one of United or Barcelona in the final. But for the moment, Chelsea's season is ending well and given a disastrous start, its possible to even argue that Chelsea haven't done that badly this season at all. So what, you might be tempted to say- well the key thing about that fact is that whilst it has happened Chelsea have lost a manager, Jose Mourinho who almost everyone in football reckons is one of the great coaches of his generation and have brought in a nonentity Avram Grant. What does their continual success say about media perception of managers? What does it say about the cult of the manager?

Lets start with the first question. Its pretty obvious that Mourinho is a very good manager- he won the Champion's League with Porto, has two English Premierships and a couple of the more minor cups in the UK to his name. There is no doubt that he comes across as a very bright guy as well, swatting away the sports reporters of the BBC and Sky with the contempt that they deserve. The real point though is that the press have never taken Grant seriously- he hasn't managed in England or one of the big leagues- but he has got experience in Israel and has won championships with Israeli clubs. He might not come across as impressively as the Portugeese and scowls, but he is someone who has real acheivements and spent quite a considerable time in England as director of football in both Portsmouth and Chelsea. Not merely Roman Abramovich, who didn't get his money by being thick, nor Harry Rednapp, who hasn't got a long success in football management by tolerating fools, are idiots: and someone who both of them like has got to have a presumption of being at least competent.

But even so, Mourinho and Grant are still far apart. Journalists close to the Chelsea camp suggest that Grant hasn't had much of an effect on Chelsea players- some speculate that the backroom staff are having more of an effect. I disagree. And I wonder whether privately many chairmen would disagree- their bank balances would argue that. Cristiano Ronaldo takes home the astonishing 120,000 pounds a week from the Glazers, Alex Ferguson takes home a fraction of that. That suggests that players have more of an effect than managers on results- I wonder whether the Chelsea situation makes that point as well. Chelsea are still playing in exactly the same way as they were under Mourinho- its the same squad too with the addition of Nicolas Anelka- and largely we are seeing the same type of results, grimly grafted out by athletic players. Chelsea's totems are their central midfielders, industrious souls like Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, Obi John Mikel and others sitting in front of a terrifying back four, sternly safeguarded by John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho. The manager Mourinho had to bring them together and see how they would fit, he had to design the training routines that would make them tick- but seemingly since then they have been on automatic pilot. With a good plan they have just got on with it.

Of course that is a mischeivous point of view- but its worth thinking about. Afterall in the Victorian era, players did choose the team and make the decisions- there were reasons why that changed but it also reflected something true about any team game. I wonder whether the situation at Chelsea is more Victorian or Edwardian than we think it is, with figures like Terry and Lampard having more of an influence than their nominal superior. Without being inside the dressing room, we can't know. I wonder also about the margins that managers give teams- would Manchester United be worse off without Ferguson or Ronaldo- the directors pay the two as if that question is resolved in Ronaldo's favour but does that indicate anything real?


James Hamilton said...

I strongly suspect the Chelsea players, if not Terry amongst them, of keeping the ball in the air, so to speak, this season. Largely with a view to maximising their ability to get a good transfer at its end, or, preferably, to join up with Mourinho wherever he is in August.

So no, I don't think Grant's had a positive hand in it, and I suspect Abramovich of having had a negative one. But as you suggest, players are always the more important factor: all a good manager is capable of doing is providing them with conditions in which they can succeed. That's something far simpler to get wrong than to get right.

The history of the growth of football management is of interest to anyone with a historical background as it were - in England, I think you can draw a line between the growth of management (beginning just before WW1 as the game generated sufficient former players or players cut off in their prime with an interest in carrying on) and the arrival of proper coaching (which is still taking root over here).

soccer critic said...

Interesting point in your article as well as one made by James about the Chelsea players possibly playing well to drive their stock up come summer. But there is still a system required to make the players play well, and good players look even better. Without Ferguson, it might have been questionable as to how Ronaldo might have developed assuming he experiences the same sequence of events in the past few seasons.