As Manchester United travel to Chelsea on Sunday, there may be regrets for the roads not taken. Six months after United appointed Ole Gunnar Solskjær as manager, Chelsea have also turned to one of their own. But they were far more ruthless and, despite the affection Frank Lampard was held by fans, they sacked him in January. The improvement under Thomas Tuchel was immediate and 10 months later Chelsea are European champions and Premier League leaders.
Would United be in a similar position if they had turned to Tuchel earlier in the year? Probably not. The work Tuchel has done has been remarkable, but it is built on a solid foundation: Chelsea are well managed and have recruited wisely, partly funded by an academy which now produces first-team players.
Maybe John Murtough, who was named United’s first director of football in March, will create a working structure at Old Trafford, but for now they’re still adrift in the wild, desperately hoping for a messiah. emerges.
Going from David Moyes to Louis van Gaal to José Mourinho to Solskjær was alarming not only because it suggested a lack of direction and reproduced the post-Busby chaos of half a century ago, but because it suggested a extremely old-fashioned view of what a manager should be. This is why the appointment of Ralf Rangnick, first as an interim manager and then as a background consultant, seems so important, a shift towards a more modern take on the game.
Football became a popular cultural phenomenon in England in the early 1960s. The crowds had been huge before, but it was the advent of television that took it to a new world. Within days, the great cricket writer Neville Cardus had identified the 1953 FA Cup final – in which Stanley Matthews-inspired Blackpool beat Bolton 4-3 – as the moment when football replaced cricket as the national sport.
The impact of this match was perhaps even greater than he thought: it was the first football match in England to attract a large live TV audience, as many people had purchased sets before the coronation . The launch of Match of the day in 1964, both confirmed and bolstered the popularity of football, with the World Cup victory two years later inflating that even more.
In this boom, many of our preconceptions about football were formed. It was a time of idiosyncratic and colorful individuals – Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Alf Ramsey, Don Revie, Tommy Docherty, Brian Clough – and who shaped the role model of a manager.
There may be a superficial realization that the job is more complicated than that, but there remains a deeply ingrained feeling that a new manager can always come in, deliver a few well-chosen words to the media, kick some ass, put an s’ surround a few shoulders, buy a few players and turn a club’s fortune.
Messiahs are easy and exciting. The reality of modern clubs – scouting networks and long-term planning and careful data analysis of remote transfer targets, brand management and youth development – is slow, complicated and often tedious. The idea of a charismatic leader inspiring a revolution is much more attractive and requires much less effort: we believe in him to the point where we do not believe him, when he can be sacrificed as we move on to the next. Messiah.
For some clubs, the religious tone is obvious. “Cruyff built the cathedral,” Pep Guardiola said of Barcelona. “It’s up to us to maintain it. It was because he was so obviously in the fabric of the club, an academy graduate who became a general on the pitch for Guardiola just as Guardiola had been for Johan Cruyff, that Xavi seemed so natural for Barcelona. .
His coaching experience may amount to a few years in Qatar, but it is more than Guardiola had when he got the job in 2008, and his record is better than that of Frank Rijkaard (a disappointing exit in the semi – final with the Netherlands at home Euros in 2000 and the first relegation in Sparta Rotterdam history) when he was named in 2003, and both have worked well.
The question there is how well Xavi understands philosophy. Has he assimilated it to the point where he’s able to tweak and develop it based on opponents and changes in the game? And is he able to pass it on to others? Or is he just a doctrine parrot, cult freighter trainer who knows what the Cruyff-ism looks like but has no real idea how it works? This is something that will only become apparent over time; it is certainly not something that can really be rated in the Qatari league.
Few other clubs are as philosophically driven as Barcelona – Ajax, certainly, and perhaps, in a more family-friendly way, Liverpool in the Boot Room era. But most clubs only have a vague sense of ‘DNA’, which rarely stands up to scrutiny. And the idea that “knowing the club” is a valid reason for appointing someone is dangerous.
After the death of Valeriy Lobanovskyi in 2002, Dynamo Kyiv passed through six Lobanovskyi acolytes before finally breaking a cycle of slow decline by appointing Yuri Semin. One of them, Josef Szabo, said that whenever he was faced with a difficult decision he asked himself: “What would Valeriy Vasylyovych have done?” Guessing a dead man may be the basis of a religion, but that’s no way to run a football club – especially when Lobanovskyi’s genius was his adaptability.
The same can be said of Alex Ferguson, just as enduring. It didn’t operate on a tactical dogma like Cruyff did. What was the knowledge of the past that Solskjær, the hero returning in time of need, was supposed to draw? The ambiance of the Fergie era was sufficient to dispel the toxicity of the late Mourinho period, but was of limited use beyond.
As United contemplate their next permanent appointment, it may be worth bearing in mind that Tuchel lacked Chelsea’s DNA and none of the three managers they won the league under had. previous link with the club. The innate “Manchester unity” is not enough. Messiahs are doing great, but in modern football the processes are much more important.