MIKE HOPPER

EXPERT ANALYSIS

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FOOTBALL

CONTENTIOUS ISSUES

WHAT MAKES A FOOTY MANAGER?
Mike Hopper

Any of you who have been fortunate enough to get one of the best seats in the house at a game will know what a wonderful vantage point you can have. The panorama allows for watching every element of play on and off the ball -far better than even the multi-cameras of Sky can bring you. It's simply an unparalleled viewpoint.

So why do managers, for the most part, insist on sitting in the dug out even if most of these are somewhat more comfy and palatial than those of yesteryear? A good question.

If you've ever been to a big stadium and stood at pitch level you'll see straight away how far away the opposite touchline seems to be. For good measure many have huge crowns on them and in some cases this along with a sloping terrain means you cannot see the feet of those engaged on the far side. It certainly makes you far more appreciative of the huge task linesman have in assessing offsides. And, for sure, it cannot offer a better viewpoint regarding opposition team play and strategies, let alone a proper feel for relative distance, than you would get from an elevated seat in the stand.

When we study the mannerisms of the different managers it's clear that some of them are so full of nervous energy and adrenalin that basically they are doing everything bar kicking the ball from the defined coaching zone. It's a necessity for them to be close to the action. Martin O'Neill, Andre Villa-Boas and Neil Warnock get so agitated that, were it not for the fourth official, you sense they'd be striding half way across the pitch given the chance. In their cases, along with others of their like, whistling and shouting to their players is probably a means of getting rid of all the pent up energies as much as anything. Because I doubt very little of what they are shouting reaches or registers with their players out in the middle; perhaps just occasionally when the instruction is a very simplistic one like 'boot it!'

Then there are the other managers who spend most of their time in a quiet sedentary position. It took a bit of careful reflection to realise that these days Ferguson only rarely comes to the touchline; likewise Redknapp and Hodgson. Is it an age thing? Well, I don't see younger managers like Lambert or Rodgers getting into a paddy very much, so perhaps not.

Most other managers are something of a mixture. Some like Steve Kean, Alex McLeish, Roberto Martinez and our own Kenny, spend the whole game leaning somewhere, but for the most part remaining relatively inanimate even if the cameras regularly catch the kinds of facial expressions which tell a tale of their own. And of course KK does turn into an animated monkey when the ball hits the opponent's net!

But not a single Premiership manager, to my knowledge, spends any time away from the pitchside. Sam Allardyce of course, armed with ear piece and mic, has always opted for a first half in an elevated position, passing down tactical instructions for one of his coaches to implement at pitch level. However, from days past, there are numerous photos of Bob Paisley in the Directors Box too -and he didn't have the benefits of walkey-talkey or mobile phone.

Some managers would appear to suffer from erratic behaviour syndrome, so quickly can their moods change during the course of a match. Arsene Wenger seems to be pensive and analytical to a fault as he watches the game until, all of a sudden, he's up and at the fourth official like a man possessed giving him a complete ear bashing over a decision which basically, the poor guy has had no involvement in at all. Mancini and Moyes are hardly shrinking violets in this respect too and then there is Ferguson, who can spend 89 minutes on his backside before tearing into whichever official happens to be nearest to him when something happens he doesn't like (and usually when his team is not winning!).

All of which begs the original question. And the only conclusion I can reach, albeit from afar, is that managers comprising every differing array of personality, feel the need to be near to the action. They somehow regard close proximity as a fundamental necessity when it comes to controlling what takes place on the pitch. Which realistically can hardly be the case. Rafa Benitez was, by common consent, a hugely tactical type of manager and he'd rarely seem able to remain too long on his seat before coming to the technical area and start gesturing and remonstrating with gusto. Proof of players taking minimal notice came when he was falsely accused of being disrespectful to Allardyce. He was signalling how Xabi Alonso had done precisely the opposite of what he should have done and actually created a goal as a result.

Many players in their autobiographies reckon that once they get on the pitch, it is all in their own hands. They spend hours planning in advance on the training ground but then, by necessity, are left to get on with it once it's the real thing. So that a team which is blessed with one, even a couple more, tactically astute players who can suss things out quickly, is in a very advantageous position. Jamie Carragher is one such player and it's been clear to me how, when he's been playing, Liverpool would take the first few minutes or so of a game to work out the style and pattern of the opposition, after which the players, not the manager, would adjust accordingly led by Carra. This is what separates the very best teams from the mediocre and also-rans. And very often, during those early skirmishes, the manager's involvement is minimal.

Would it be better from the stands? Well, perhaps, but still there is the practical aspect of getting a message of significance to the players. A manager's chance for input comes about when there's a significant break in play and he's able to get an extended word with a key player; the other is the half-time talk and finally through a tactical substitution. However, most do not like to use up one of the three permitted too early and leave themselves short if an injury occurs.

Comparing and contrasting styles leaves armchair critics like myself wondering whether one type of manager is more effective than another. And the answer to that is not an answer in that so much depends on the personalities of the players at his disposal. There is also the question of the end of one coach's shelf life and the need for a completely new approach which creates refreshing change to a possibly stale environment. In terms of latter-day Liverpool, the contrast between three managers in Benitez, Hodgson could not be more marked. Rafa's tactical acumen is probably as great as anyone in the world of football and as long as it was paying dividends results-wise, it would be accepted pretty much without question. Much of the decline in his final season was not his fault but either way disillusionment swiftly and almost inevitably followed within the playing ranks when results declined.

Poor Roy was ultimately proven out of his depth. Strange really, because a guy with his experience really ought to have recognised that a complete rigidity of style was not going to sit well with players who liked to express themselves. Even Rafa, for all his tactical discipline allowed for flair players like Alonso, Gerrard, Benayoun -even Kewell- to have a natural place. The word was that the players really liked Hodgson as a person and were desperate to perform for him. I was told that the senior ones had a long conflab about changing from the man's preferred 4-4-2 and occasionally that showed and the performance duly improved. But, for whatever reason, the manager seemed obsessed with his long term goal of a robotic way of playing. Most of us probably watch events at West Brom with a fascination to see how his identical approach suits the more moderate levels of skill he has there at his disposal.

And so to Kenny, who arrived on the scene with one massive potential doubt in the minds of critics -that he would be out of touch after so long out of the game. Two things put those minds at ease. Firstly he acquired a top-notch coach in Steve Clarke. And secondly, but foremost, his man-management skills are simply second to none. For all that there is clear, in-depth tactical work taking place at Melwood, for the most part players are given licence and indeed encouraged to express themselves. For a manager to say that spurs on each individual to play to his own strengths so that if at any time any one falls short, it has to be their own fault and not the manager's. A great approach methinks, and one which brings me right round to my earlier considerations as to how much influence any manager can truly have out on the pitch.

Football moves in cycles and in the last decade the way to win the Premiership has been by playing attacking football. Okay, one could argue quite what constitutes 'attacking football' but the essence of a title win lies in defeating the lesser teams week in week out. Theoretically, if you take out the other five clubs from the top six and pencil in a win home and away from the 14 remaining, that would yield a massive 84 points, which in itself would be enough to win the title outright in some seasons.

The reason I mention this is to put into perspective Liverpool's woeful string of results against so-called lesser lights so far. And yet, somewhat ironically, Kenny's Reds have been playing some of the best open and unrestricted attacking football for some time; just the sort of style which champions must aspire to.

I've said for many years that Ferguson is by no means a particular astute tactician in the strict sense of the word. This is shown when his teams are chasing the game late on; the basic tactic is to pile men forward, one and all. But where the difference lies with, say Liverpool, is in the ultimate skill levels and most especially in that final ball played in whether aerial or on the deck, long ball or short and with the capacity to finish effectively when the one golden chance arrives. It's like a self belief, nay more than that, a conviction and contrasts sharply with Liverpool at present as they snatch despairingly and misfire or miscue. The Wigan keeper may have seemed a world beater last Wednesday but five times on Boxing Day Manchester destroyed any illusion of infallibility.

So what does any manager do when faced with Kenny's dilemma? As with the proverbial penalty shoot-outs, do you rehearse incessantly or face the reality of a tension on the night which in no way reflects the laid back nature of the training ground? Practise all you like but a 94th minute one-on-one is the ultimate squeaky bum moment.

And bringing the whole picture back to earlier, the best managers are not from a particular category of approach and style. The really top ones are those who instil confidence in their players and one way and another bring out a desire and will to win borne out of the sheer enjoyment of playing the game.

For myself, I believe in Kenny Dalglish (and Steve Clarke). Furthermore I trust in the style of football he wants and gets his team to play and I remain convinced that suddenly, it will all come right and we'll wonder what all the fuss was about.

Keep the faith.

 
     

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