5 Reasons Why ‘Holistic’ Managers are the new Star Signings

manuel pellegrini

It’s no longer enough to be a great trainer, tactician or transfer dealer. Clubs are seeking more from their managers than ever and the modern game demands polymaths who can do it all. Greg Johnson looks at how managers have risen to the top of the wish list…

Football’s answer to the “artisan” bread loaf has arrived: the “holistic approach” football manager. Once regarded as mere assistants and chaperones to the playing staff, to be undermined and ignored as required, the football manager has risen to become the game’s most iconic figure.

When speaking of Real Madrid’s early successes, their managers are treated almost as an irrelevance, and it took pioneers such as Herbert Chapman and Helenio Herrera to upgrade the status of the profession, leading to managers becoming protagonists in their own right on the sidelines. It would be unthinkable for a team to win major honours today without their coach being recognised as the key driving force, yet while the likes of George Best and Matt Busby enjoy a sort of parity in the annals of the football canon, the balance has recently shifted towards the boss.

In an age where tactical theories are spoken of as game-changers, and the individual is subjugated into the collective, the architects behind these systems have become the stars. The growing distance between fans and players has also helped to shift their focus towards the dugout in search for a more stable, appropriate figurehead for their cause.

Number 9’s and play-makers may have reinvented themselves back into fashion of late but they are no longer the transfer window’s headline act. Not unlike the British stand-up comedians of the 1990s, who sold out Wembley Arena and elevated their medium to a level of respectability within the chattering classes, they are the new rock stars. And how far they’ve come: once responsible for carrying the bags of players such as Matthews, Puskas and Di Stefano, they are now purchased for transfer fees (Chelsea bought Andre Villas-Boas from Porto for £13.3M) and hailed as Galacticos.

This summer has already seen an unprecedented number of changes at the top of a whole range of clubs, with new managerial appointments not only preceding talk of major player moves but in many cases precipitating and eclipsing them. Pep Guardiola’s move to Bayern Munich has been a saga played out over multiple summers, resembling the sort of battle that you’d expect to be waged over signing the world’s best player. The appointment is even more extraordinary considering his predecessor, Jupp Heynckes, was in effect forced into retirement to secure the ex-Barcelona manager – the outgoing German signing off with a historic treble.

Over on the other side of Germany, Jurgen Klopp has become in many ways more sought after than his currently in-demand striker Robert Lewandowski. Why purchase players from a club at great cost when you can cut out the middle man and bring their mastermind in-house to benefit from his talent spotting and development methods in the long-term?

In England, three of the top four have switched command of their squads in search of abstract legacies and long-term success. It was Manchester City who announced they would be seeking to hire someone with a “holistic approach” to succeed Roberto Mancini’s functional, yet prosaic, reign.

To be a “holistic” manager isn’t necessarily to be all powerful. Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment at Eastlands is as much about finding a collaborator to mesh in with the other parts of Sheikh Mansour’s growing football kingdom as it as about securing the ideal team overseer. Manchester City have no need for a Ferguson: their activities building infrastructure and establishing franchise feeder clubs comes from the very top.

The only survivor of the turnover at the summit of the Premier League is Arsene Wenger, now perhaps the most autocratic club manager in the world following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. While he helped to design Arsenal’s Emirates stadium himself, Wenger also takes an extremely hands-off approach to tactics to point that his players often organise themselves along vague frameworks. A lack of control over every facet of a football club, or a contrast in approach at different levels, doesn’t mean that a manager isn’t required to be involved in the complex over-laps of a club’s hierarchy. A holistic approach isn’t always a dictatorial one.

Further down the table, over the past two summers, the majority of teams hovering between fifth place and the bottom half have also taken to trading in their previous managers for youthful, bright ideas. With a huge increase in the TV income of the Premier League filling the coffers of English clubs, owners are seeking assurances of sensible planning and a prescient mind before they hand over control of the cheque book. After all, such a windfall is only going to make competition at all levels of the top-flight more fierce, and so needs to be spent effectively for the cost of failure has risen too.

The hard targets placed in-front of managers are greater than ever, and often vastly long-term in scope, yet patience is rarely forthcoming. Victories of the present and recent past are no longer enough to satisfy the wants of the chairman and fans, who now demand that the future is conquered; today!

Ironically, the cycle of firing and hiring blue sky thinkers, resetting and restarting their already expensive projects with each appointment, often ends up costing owners far more. Technocrats and visionaries often require their own budgets and statement signings.

As with the hunger for haughty foodstuffs sold as free from everything except adjectives, and the phenomenon of any foreign films automatically being declared art-house, a heady taste for pretension has crept into this quest for the perfect, long-term manager. Having watched on and digested the heights of Barcelona and Dortmund’s homegrown excellence, fans want their teams to develop their own in-house brands of free-range, organic football, and the identity of the man in charge is all important.

There is a sense that this desire for idealists is also born of snobbery. The big money transfer swoop binges of Chelsea, Manchester City, Moncao, PSG and their ilk are regarded as a vulgar habit of new money by the established elite and clubs still clinging to their fading estates with the football aristocracy. Perhaps the oligarchs and oil barons are insecure about how their sporting ventures are perceived by the stuffy status quo?

Managers must present themselves as auteur, blockbuster directors, in complete control of not only tactics but the very fundamentals of the game itself. Their methods shouldn’t be reliant on sheer spending power, but tactical nuance, engaging soundbites and an inspirational modus oprandi able to seduce fans and neutrals alike. In the footsteps of such cult directors as Orson Welles or Christopher Nolan, they must appear to astride their medium with an omnipotent mystique; pragmatists offering B-movie presentation need not apply.

Below are five qualities that every “holistic” manager must have, and every recruiting chairman is searching for:

1. Vision

A “holistic” manager is nothing without a vision. For the leader of an institution as complex and interconnected as a football club, a clear concept and sense of direction is vital.

This is true for clubs of all levels. At Wigan, Roberto Martinez outlined the way his team would play regardless of external influences, while Paul Lambert decided – or was perhaps dictated to due to circumstance – to focus on Aston Villa’s long-term progress immediately, rather than compromising due to set-backs.

A vision for how a team should play, how a squad should be built, how a player should develop, all feeding into a cohesive embodiment of a specific style of football, is something shared by all managers of course. The difference is the articulation and self-conscious approach that those currently in-vogue take to realising and discussing their vision, from Mourinho and Heynckes to Klopp and even David Moyes. The latter’s ability to see the bigger picture is perhaps the major question hanging over the Scot’s head as he steps up to replace Sir Alex Ferguson.

2. Empiricism

Stats, theories, tactical analysis; the oft-mocked triumvirate cited as corrupting how football is discussed with academic psycho-babble. However, while these emerging areas of focus may be an anathema for some, it is doubtful the most notable recent managerial appointments would dismiss them so utterly. Andre Villas-Boas’ in-depth scouting notes and the 190 page dossier submitted by Brendan Rodgers for the Liverpool job come in at the more bookish end of the spectrum, while Manchester City’s investment in analytics suggests that Manuel Pellegrini appreciates the value of information and study. An astute tactician, he has already made decisive moves to correct two of the key flaws that have held City back over the past few seasons.

Though intellectualising football is frowned upon in many quarters, a number of managers have taken an almost scholastic approach to self-development. Jurgen Klopp cites Arrigo Sacchi as his reference point, while the recent tactical trends to blow through Manchester United, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have all been influenced by the ideas of Marcelo Bielsa.


3. Sustainability

The academies of Barcelona, Bayern and Dortmund are one form of sustainability; years of silverware, investing in facilities while staying solvent and competitive, and delivering a vision under difficult situations without endangering the future of a club, are also forms of sustainability.

With FFP looming, and the so-called cartel “super clubs” closing the opportunities for smaller clubs to compete, sustainability is vital in order for any short-term progress to lead to meaningful future improvements. Maligned for his lack of silverware, Arsene Wenger’s strategy of retaining Champions League qualification while building a new stadium and developing Arsenal’s commercial interests, may yet pay off in the long-term.

4. Diplomacy

Motivating a squad of professional footballers is one thing. Organising and delegating to a sprawling staff of coaches, sports scientists, analysts, scouts, medics and in some cases marketeers and public relations advisers is a daunting, heavily politicised task, complicated further by the often confusing and unclear hierarchies at the very top of a club. The world of football directors, CEOs and technical executives is a minefield that even the most savvy managers often fall foul of.

Indeed, Mourinho’s reigns at Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid have all been pockmarked by board room battles, but while he struggled to enjoy an easy life in the upper echelons of the power structures, he forged strong working relationships within the infrastructure of each club. By contrast, Ferguson became a close associate of the controversial Glazer regime, publicly supporting their ownership while being forced to deliver trophies amid rising debt.

5. Identity

Understanding the history and heritage of a club is vital for managers to sell their reforms to fans, especially if radical action is required to see them through. As Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers’ whole persona is based around mimicking Bill Shankly to the point of parody, promising beleaguered fans a sort of moral high-ground of possession football while he works on the business of winning silverware. The echoes of “pass and move” have become a propaganda tool in the meantime.

Similarly, a clear set of values is key, which also ties into the need for a coherent vision stated above. These can be personally held values of the coach or a code of conduct laid down by the traditions of that institution. Pep Guardiola and Frank de Boer, at Barcelona and Ajax respectively, both looked into their club’s illustrious histories for a foundation to build their modern empires upon. In contrast, Ferguson’s arrival at Old Trafford from Aberdeen is almost legendary in how he set about destroying the back room culture in order to build it back up.


In conclusion: a brave new world?

Though their ideals on styles of play, player types and traits may differ, the most elite, modern managers must be ever-present polymaths, able to act as corporate directors, first team trainers, talent spotters, tactical geniuses and inspirational leaders.

Just as many players are becoming more universal to meet the fluidity and tactical demands of the modern game, the most sought after managers are becoming generalists with it all to do. Less-involved coaches will never be obsolete of course – the game will always need firefighters, theorists and specialists – but for teams focused on finding someone to shape their long-term legacy, an all-encompassing, “holistic” manager is a must.

But is this ideal of the visionary control freak a archetype based on denial? It’s curious to ponder what would have become of Jose Mourinho, perhaps the game’s most high profile, authoritarian superstar manager, had his Porto side failed to overcome Manchester United in the Last 16 of the 2004 Champions League. As with all things in football, luck plays its part, and as clubs attempt to tighten their grip on the variables in pursuit of history and glory, it may be that chance finds more ways to leak through their fingers.

Everything is cyclical, from formations to player physique. Harry Redknapp and Tony Pulis may struggle with the Dragon’s Den style business presentation expected of modern managers, but their time will come again some day, or perhaps somewhere. For now, less comprehensive coaches always have international management.

The “holistic” manager may already be reaching his peak. There’s a new model to admire in Huw Jenkins and the Swansea City’s partly fan owned board in how they manage and run the club above and beyond the manager. Like long-term military planners – concocting defensive strategies and stances that stretch far beyond the remit of presidential terms – Jenkins and his fellow owners in some ways manage their managers. The club’s style of football has been installed, in-part, by the board who have signed and released head coaches like caretakers of their far-sighted project. With Michael Laudrup in high-demand following last season’s unexpected Capital One Cup win it will be interesting to see if their approach to empire building can take the club onto further triumphs when the day comes that the Dane moves on.

@gregianjohnson; @The_False_Nine

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