aManchester United go to Chelsea on Sunday, and there may be regrets about not using the roads. Six months after United appointed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as coach, Chelsea also switched to their own coach. But they were a lot tougher, and despite Frank Lampard’s affection from fans, they fired him in January. The improvement under Thomas Tuchel was immediate, and 10 months later, Chelsea were European champions and topped the Premier League.
Would United have been in a similar situation had they turned to Tuchel earlier in the year? Mostly not. The job Tuchel has undertaken has been remarkable, but he is building on a solid foundation: Chelsea are well-run and reasonably recruited, in part with funding from an academy that is now producing first-team players.
John Murtaugh, who was appointed United’s first director of football in March, may well create an efficient structure at Old Trafford, but for now they are still adrift in the wilderness and desperately hoping for a Messiah to emerge.
The skip from David Moyes to Louis van Gaal to José Mourinho to Solskjær was worrisome not only because it signaled a lack of direction and reiterated the post-Busby mayhem half a century ago, but because it suggested an extremely outdated view of what a manager should be. This is why the appointment of Ralph Rangnick, first as interim manager and then as background advisor, seems so important, a shift to a more modern vision of the game.
Football became a popular cultural phenomenon in England sometime in the early 1960s. Crowds were large before that time, but it was the advent of television that moved him into a new field. Within a few days, the great cricket writer Neville Cardos identified the 1953 FA Cup final – where Stanley Matthews-inspired Blackpool beat Bolton 4-3 – as the moment when football replaced cricket as the national sport.
Perhaps the impact of that game was greater than he knew: It was the first football match in England to attract such a large live television audience, with many people buying kits before the coronation. The launch of the .. the launch of the .. the take off of the Today’s match In 1964, it both confirmed and boosted football’s popularity, with the World Cup winning two years later amplifying it further.
In that boom, a lot of our preconceptions about football were shaped. It was the era of outstanding and superior individuals—Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Alf Ramsey, Don Reeve, Tommy Docherty, Brian Clough—and that shaped the manager’s model.
There may be a superficial realization that the job is more complicated than that, but there is still a deep-rooted feeling that the new manager can still come in, deliver some well-chosen words to the media, kick some backsides, put an arm around a few shoulders, buy players and make Transferring the club’s fortunes.
Messiah is easy and exciting. The reality of modern clubs – networks of exploration, long-term planning and accurate data analysis of teleportation, brand management and youth development goals – is slow, complex and often boring. The idea of a charismatic leader inspiring revolution is much more attractive and requires much less effort: we believe in him until the point where we don’t, since he can be sacrificed as we move on to the next Christ.
For some clubs, the religious dialect is overt. “Cruyff built the cathedral,” Pep Guardiola said of Barcelona. “It’s up to us to keep it.” Because it was so obvious that he was from the fabric of the club, an academy graduate who became a general on the field with Guardiola just as Guardiola was with Johan Cruyff, Xavi seemed a natural fit for Barcelona.
His coaching experience could be up to two years in Qatar, but that’s more than Guardiola had when he got the job in 2008, and his record is better than that of Frank Rijkaard (a disappointing semi-final exit with Holland at home. Euro in 2000 and first touchdown in History of Sparta Rotterdam) when it was set in 2003, and both are working fine.
The question is to what extent Xavi understands philosophy. Has he absorbed it to the point that he is able to modify and evolve it depending on opponents and changes in the game? Is he able to pass it on to others? Or is he just parrots parroting the creed, a merchandise cult coach who knows what Cruyff looks like but has no real idea of how it works? This is something that will only become clear with time; It’s definitely not something that can really be evaluated in the Qatari league.
Few other clubs are quite as philosophy-driven as Barcelona – Ajax, to be sure, and perhaps in a more local way, Liverpool in the boot-room era. But most clubs have nothing but a vague sense of “DNA,” which rarely stands up to scrutiny. And the idea that “knowing the club” is a good reason to hire anyone is dangerous.
After Valery Lobanovsky’s death in 2002, Dynamo Kiev went through six Lobanovsky lieutenants before eventually breaking the cycle of slow decline with the appointment of Yuri Semin. One of them, Joseph Szabo, said that whenever he faced a difficult decision he would ask himself: “What would Valery Vasilyovich do?” A dead man’s second guess may be the basis for religion, but it’s no way to run a football club – especially when Lobanovsky’s genius was his adaptability.
The same can be said of the similarly stubborn Alex Ferguson. He did not work with tactical doctrine as Cruyff did. What knowledge of the past was Solskjaer, the returning hero in his hour of need, supposed to listen to? The atmosphere of the Fergie era was enough to dissipate the toxicity of Mourinho’s late tenure, but it was of limited use after that.
As United contemplate their next permanent appointment, perhaps they should bear in mind that Tuchel did not have Chelsea’s DNA and that none of the three coaches they have won the league under had had any previous connection to the club. The innate “Manchester unity” is not enough. Messiahs are all fine, but in modern football operations it is somewhat more important.