Do Soccer Teams Really Need Managers?

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Do Soccer Teams Really Need Managers?

Note: I owe the inspiration for this article to Blake Wooster, who jokingly wondered at this possibility this past weekend at the Sloan MIT Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. He didn’t bank on me taking it seriously.

After a relatively comfortable 45 minutes of play, Real Madrid walks off the pitch at halftime in the European Cup final. Despite their dominance, they only hold a slender 1-0 lead over Bayern Munich. The team moves silently to the dressing room. There, they sit down and take a few deep breaths together.

There is no manager in sight.

Instead, the team captain begins. “Okay, thoughts so far?”

There is a pause, and then the leftback speaks up.

“I’m a little hesitant to push up right now when we pick up the ball. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s one less option up there, and I noticed our strikers are having trouble getting through the middle of defense.”

The leftback turns to the centreback.

“I think you’re being a little free moving up in possession today. We talked midweek though about ensuring I’m covered back there so I can move up on the break.”

The centreback nods and says, “Yeah, sorry about that. A little too eager I guess on transitions. Let’s talk a bit more out there and I won’t move as quickly when we pick up possession.”

The team captain then goes over a few more problems. Before they leave, they quickly go over their general action plan for the second half before heading back out. As they walk out onto the pitch to stretch, both technical areas are empty; there are no managers today.

No managers ever, in fact.

If the idea of football without managers sounds ridiculous to you, consider for a moment the mythical role of the orchestra conductor. In his fascinating book, The Maestro Myth, Norman Lebrecht writes:

The ‘great conductor’ is a mythical hero…artificially created for a non-musical purpose and sustained by commercial necessity…the conductor exists because mankind demands a visible leader or, at the very least, an identifiable figurehead. His musical raison d’être is altogether secondary to that function.

One wonders if the same could be said of the modern football manager, a god-like figure if there ever was one, whose reason for being may be far more ‘secondary’ to the game than we would admit.

There is nothing, after all, in the original 1863 Laws on the Game that details the necessity of a man in tracksuit on the touchline, vigorously waving his arms with little effect. Countless schoolchildren have conspired over the last century and a half to spontaneously organize football matches without the need for a gaffer to choose a 4-2-3-1 formation and make substitutions. Football does not need managers to be football.

Of course proper grownup soccer, we’re told, is different. The modern game, with its emphasis on ‘transition play’ and gegenpressing and ‘Bielsification’, is too intellectually taxing for any player to properly understand on their own. It requires enlightened puppeteers like Pep Guardiola and Rafa Benitez—whom friends and love ones have revealed are incapable of thinking of anything but football, all the time—to yank the strings from on high.

But are players incapable of making tactical preparations on their own, as a team? After all, for every Maradona, elite players whose skills are so otherworldly they cannot communicate them to mere mortals, there is a Guardiola, players whose tactical skills complement or even exceed their playing abilities.

Maybe, but it’s important perhaps to remember that managers like Brian Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson are far more than astute tactical planning. They offer leadership, drive, inspiration—ethereal, irreplicable qualities that are nevertheless essential for winning.

But again, are these limited to the technical area? In the absence of a Clough or Ferguson, would some players not take it on their own to provide similar leadership within their team?

The truth is we don’t know for certain; there have been, as far as I know, no manager-less professional clubs or national teams to call on as evidence. Yet there are some compelling examples. Real Madrid’s European Cup winning team of the late 1950s was notorious for player power; players like Francisco Gento and Alfredo Di Stefano have spoken openly about how theirs was a unified team which worked closely to help beat any opposition system.

While one might claim it’s impossible to do the same today, there is a case for at least considering the possibility that football would survive, maybe even thrive, without football managers.

For example, before he revealed himself to be a racist curmudgeon, Arrigo Sacchi had some very useful insights on the growing technocracy in football player development.

“I see kids who are 14 or 15 years old who are already specialists. But football is not a sport of specialists,” Sacchi told the Guardian’s Paolo Bandini back in 2011. “I was watching the under-15s the other day – 14-year-old boys – and the central defenders arrived and all they did was mark their man. They took themselves out of the game. This is suffering, this is not joy, this is not football. If someone does just one thing over and over, they will get better at that thing. But is football just one thing?”

Should the idea that teenagers would stick to a single role in order to stand out shock us when so many footballers today act as cogs in a machine of their manager’s creation?

This is, after all, how some managers treat them. Former Liverpool player Jermaine Pennant once said of his time under Rafa Benitez, who was hired by Newcastle last week, “He would tell me to go to the byline and beat the man but sometimes you don’t actually have to. When I was on his touchline all I could hear was him giving me directions and I would think ‘Why don’t you just put the batteries in and turn me into a robot?’”

Even when players do enjoy some independence on the pitch, it is at the pleasure of the man on the touchline, and it can also be revoked at any time. We almost never regard managers as advisors or partners, but as parents, screaming at their players like boozed-up hockey dads. And when you treat adults like children they act like children, refusing to make a pass or take a shot unless mom and dad say it’s okay, acting petulantly when another teammate takes a penalty or crashing their expensive automobiles for fun.

So what would happen if football managers disappeared overnight? In the short term it would lead to glorious chaos, with players hopelessly out of position and unaware, looking out of habit again and again at the eerily empty technical area.

Gradually, however, some teams, tired of running around like headless chickens, would sit down together during the week and plan as a team like normal, human adults. The role of the team captain would elevate to Facilitator in Chief, and players would be forced to discuss in detail their tactical approach, who would do what and when, what to expect from the opposition, and what to do if something goes wrong. Players would begin poring over tactical books, learning to improve the team game as they work on their own fitness training. Rogue teammates incapable of taking direction or playing as part of a team would be shunned out of the game. Effective communication, leadership and listening skills would become vital to a sustained playing career.

You may wonder—how, in this scenario, would players decide who starts and who sits on the bench? Who would decide who to sub on and when? Who would work on set-pieces, on style and formation?

I don’t know, but the key point here is that the team that does know will win at the football, a lot. In the absence of a god-daddy gaffer, there is a huge incentive for teams to learn how to cooperate and accept criticism and self-sacrifice if they want to succeed.

This is not to say that teams should forego any outside direction or leadership. A writer, as the saying goes, is only as good as their editor. Teams might look to observer coaches for advice and direction (rather than orders) to see what they’re missing while on the pitch and what might be improved.

As for recruitment and development, that could be left to the oversight of a director of football, who would independently assess which players should stay and which should move on.

Of course, there would likely be countless other unforeseen possibilities, enough for another article. Yet even contemplating this possibility in a soft thinkpiece is for some tantamount to heresy. Even so, I know I’m not alone in wondering at the exalted place of managers in football; I know of at least one respected club director who believes they are vastly overrated in importance.

It’s a conversation worth having, no?

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