This weekend, Carlo Ancelotti compared his role at Chelsea to that of Ferguson at Man Utd, claiming his role was technical only: he is not the ‘manager’. This has helped kick-start the debate we love so much: should all power be placed in the hands of the manager, or can a more ‘continental’ approach do the job?
In England, the idea of a ‘head coach’ (rather than a manager) system tends to be viewed in the same terms as ditching sterling for the Euro, drinking tea without milk or wearing a hat indoors: unpalatable. Fans, the media and indeed managers in the game tend to cling onto the idea of the traditional English football manager – someone who has ultimate control at the club, from training sessions and nutrition regimes through to player wages and transfers.
Talk on Chelsea chat forums in response to Ancelotti’s comments bears this out: never is anger directed at Abramovich (the man solely responsible for Chelsea moving into the upper echelons of world football) as much as when it is perceived that he has ‘interfered’.
The continuing success of Alex Ferguson, of course, helps to perpetuate the idea that his is the ideal model for achieving success in football. Ferguson, we’re told, has his fingers in all the pies at Man Utd, and has succeeded for twenty years. Surely this is the only recipe for success? Some pundits would have us believe it.
This model has of course worked at other clubs, and certainly still practiced (most commonly at smaller teams). It has worked in other sports too: Clive Woodward, for example, was massively hands-on during his time with the England rugby team, micro-managing every conceivable aspect of squad life.
In contrast, the model of management seen typically as continental European, where the manager’s role is more akin to being a head coach and other figures have a greater influence on club finance and transfer policy, is viewed with deep suspicion and distrust on this side of the channel. As foreign influences on the Premier League – predominantly in the form of owners from overseas – have grown over the last decade, the ‘Director of Football’ has become the focal point for the almost xenophobic assumption that draining of power away from the manager is always a destructive thing.
Looking at this rationally however, the old-school British idea of the god-like football manager is surely well past its sell by date. This is an idea that dates back way past the establishment of the Premier League, when football was an altogether different business. Before the explosion of football in the 80s and 90s, squads were half the size and players were paid £200 a month. It certainly wasn’t an ‘international’ game in the same way, and wasn’t nearly so commercialised.
Against that backdrop, it was far more plausible – and sensible – that one manager co-ordinated everything at a club. The best managers were tacticians and motivators, but were also organisers, pulling together plans for everything from formations to away fixture travel arrangements.
Now, Premier League football teams are commercially geared, multi-national organisations with multi-million pound turnovers. They have squads at every age group and draw on the talents of hundreds of employees. The stakes, too, are much higher: arguably lack of success on the pitch has never come at such a high price in the history of the game.
With all that in mind, having one all-knowing manager co-ordinate all aspects of a club’s activity isn’t really credible or sustainable. The so-called continental model of having a Director of Football figure acting as a make-weight between the ‘manager’ and a club’s hierarchy – a figure who can blend technical with business understanding – isn’t such a ludicrous proposition. Naturally it’s horses for courses but, for some clubs, a system that balances power slightly upwards and away from the manager is perfect, as demonstrated by some of Europe’s most successful clubs for decades.
The key thing here, of course, is the balance. Even under such a system, the manager should be the most important person at the football club, given the freedom to develop and execute a vision for the team. A big part of that should be the hierarchy empowering him to deliver on that vision, providing a kind of ‘sense check’ from both a sporting and business perspective and constructing the parameters within which he should work.
And this is where it’s going wrong at Chelsea: that balance hasn’t been correctly struck. That Ancelotti can’t select his right-hand man or, as we are led to believe, isn’t consulted on who that person should be, is just one piece of evidence that suggests the freedom to build on his vision is constricting.
So the system isn’t necessarily a bad one – it can work and we shouldn’t attack it purely out of some old-fashioned notion of how things should be or, worse, how things were done. Chelsea’s problem seems to be that there are too many competing, self-interested visions for the club at its upper reaches that muddy the water. The balance needs to be redressed, and Ancelotti has a job on his hands.