Football is full of stars. Almost everybody in the world has heard of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Lionel Messi. But these are just players in a team, one man in 11, a piece of the puzzle. Is it managers then, who are the real heroes?
“The history of the world is but the biography of Great men.” With these words Thomas Carlyle gave birth to the Great Man Theory. History is full of these ‘Great’ men, from Muhammad to Marx, and their impact- Carlyle argued- has shaped history as we know it.
This theory had its disciples, including such influential philosophers as Hegel and Nietzsche, and dominated much historical debate in the 19th Century. The theory has since been discredited and amended somewhat, but even now it has its supporters.
For example, philosopher Sidney Hook propagated the idea until his death in 1989, a full 149 years later, and a full 129 years after Herbert Spencer released his seminal counter argument. Spencer argued that history was much more complex than Carlyle’s argument allowed for, and that notable historical figures were both a product of, a part of, and influenced by the social conditions from which they came.
As his finest soundbite reads: “before he [a Great Man] can remake his society, his society must make him.” This seems a much more balanced and considerate view, and is the view that is most widely subscribed to today.
There is, however, one discipline that still worships Great men. Football.
The Great Man phenomenon in football is almost exclusively reserved for managers, rather than players, as the manager is the figurehead of the team. As the theory goes, if you have a Great manager, you have a great team. Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, Alex Ferguson, Ottmar Hitzfeld et al.
The most obvious present day example is Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho. His list of achievements is highly impressive, and he has brought success and titles to every club he has managed. Mourinho has won domestic titles in Portugal, England, Italy, and Spain with four different clubs: the only four clubs he has managed. Between 2003-2012 Mourinho did not go a single calendar year without winning at least one club trophy.
He has also won more than 20 different manager of the year awards in recognition for his personal achievements. Football’s Great Man indeed.
Mourinho’s story is more than just his titles, however. His appointment under Bobby Robson as translator for Sporting CP, FC Porto, and Barcelona were complemented by a spell as assistant manager under Louis van Gaal at the Catalan club.
This puts him directly in the eye of the storm which has shaped elite level football, and which started when Barcelona president Josep Nunez built the now infamous La Masia dormitories at the club youth academy. Dutch legend Johan Cruyff furthered this investment in development and focused on tactical preparation of players during his tenure as manager of the club.
Mourinho’s story is the story of Cruyff, of van Gaal, of Robson, of Luis Aragones (who won the World Cup and the Euro Finals with Spain), and of his own great rival: Pep Guardiola.
The La Masia academy produced (and continues to produce) a crop of homegrown talent who would go on to dominate the modern game for years to come and yielded such players as Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi, and Pep Guardiola himself.
Guardiola is revered by many as the greatest living manager, and his trophy collection would help strengthen that assertion. It is widely believed that his Barcelona team 2006-2012 are the greatest team of all time, managing to win three league titles, five domestic cups, and two UEFA Champions League cups in five years.
What many people fail to realise, however, is that Pep Guardiola and his Barcelona team were the culmination of over 40 years of work and preparation undertaken by many of football’s Great men, not to mention countless ‘lesser’ men.
Mourinho and Guardiola may stand tall, but they stand on the shoulders of giants.
Even the idiosyncratic reliance on psychology which has come to characterise Mourinho is reflective of a wider trend in elite level sports, and is symptomatic of the sports science education he received in Portugal and his coach training in London.
Guardiola’s renowned ruthless high pressure defense- and the ‘tiki-taka’ possession based attack- was being instilled by Cruyff as early as 1988. The foundations were actually laid by Englishman Vic Buckingham at Ajax in 1959, and his assistant Rinus Michels- the man credited with the invention of Dutch ‘Total Football’.
There is no room in this story, however, for Alex Ferguson. Widely credited as the greatest ever Premier League manager- and indeed one the best in world history- Ferguson finds himself set apart from the La Masia story, having only ever played and managed in the UK.
Distance from the origins of tiki-taka does not necessarily separate him as the solitary Great Man of modern football though. Ferguson himself had a reasonably successful career as a player, and as well as an obvious interest in the tactical side of the game, he was interesting in coaching and management from an early age.
This led to Ferguson voraciously studying the habits and techniques of other supposed Great men from many different disciplines, and aping their most attractive characteristics. Interestingly, Ferguson’s time studying leadership and coaching did not convince him in the importance of leader as a figurehead, but rather the conductor of a great orchestra.
As the Scot said in an interview towards the end of his career about his first experience with classical music, “I had never been to a classical concert in my life. But I am watching this and thinking about the co-ordination and the teamwork – one starts and one stops, just fantastic. So I spoke to my players about the orchestra – how they are a perfect team.”
This idea of a “perfect team” stretched beyond the playing squad and into the coaching staff. Ferguson’s Manchester United were coached by some of the most highly regarded coaches in the modern era. Brian Kidd, now assistant at the resurgent Manchester City; Carlos Queiroz, former manager of Real Madrid and Portugal; and former Fulham manager Rene Meulensteen all had spells as Ferguson’s assistant manager.
As well as his assistant, Ferguson was nigh obsessive about all of his backroom staff, making sure that his coaches, physios, and scouting network were performing as well as he expected his players to perform. It is this attention to detail which apparently saved his job in the early part of his career in Manchester, and which built the foundations for him to become the most decorated English manager in Premier League history.
Ferguson’s real cutting edge, however, came in the transfer market. He did not underestimate the value of individual players and although he relied on excellent coaching and strong leadership to get the best out of his players, he recognised that key players often make the difference between winners and runners-up.
The most obvious examples are his 1992 assertion that the club’s failure to sign Mick Harford cost United the league title; and his contrasting signing of Robin van Persie in 2012. When asked about Harford, he would only say “we should have signed him.” In contrast, when Ferguson’s United team won the Premier League title in 2013 after signing van Persie; manager of second placed Manchester City stated that the Dutch striker was “the difference between” the two sides.
Ferguson’s list of players bought includes all time greats Eric Cantona, Jaap Stam, Gerard Pique, Cristiano Ronaldo, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane, Nemanja Vidic, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez to name a few.
Ferguson’s success comes not from being a Great Man, but from surrounding himself with other Great men. His tenure as Manchester United manager resulted in an unprecedented 13 league titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 10 Community Shields, 2 UEFA Champions League cups, and several other minor titles.
Football is full of Great men in the wings. Brendan Rodgers has brought Champions League football back to Liverpool after an absence of seven years, and was signed after his impressive Swansea team gained promotion to the Premier League for the first time in their history. His story, however, includes his time as head youth coach for Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. His Swansea team were built on the back of work from previous manager and tactical scholar Roberto Martinez.
Marcelo Bielsa of Marseille- already a cult legend in Chile- and Diego Simeone of Atletico Madrid are both amassing fanfare based on the hyper physical fitness and intense tactical discipline their teams display.
Ajax manager and former Ajax and Barcelona player under Louis van Gaal (and others) Frank de Boer is continuing the work of Buckingham, Michels, Cruyff, Guardiola and others whilst making a name for himself in Dutch football. In April 2014 de Boer won a record fourth consecutive league title last season, and has been linked with jobs all over the world from clubs, many of whom think that the right manager can be the difference between first and last place.
As a pupil of the Buckingham school however, and a graduate of the Ajax Youth Academy that inspired Barcelona’s La Masia model, de Boer would be the first to discard Carlyle’s Great Man theory, and remind potential suitors of the importance of Spencer’s ‘society’.
My name is Cal Hudson, from a beautiful village near Manchester that nobody has ever heard of. I love reading, writing gives me headaches, and I’m scared of woodlice. I feel the same about football (soccer) as I do the Queen. They are unnecessary institutions with no place in the modern world, but I can’t help but love them. Although, I think FIFA is more feudal than the royals.
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