The manager has risen from club secretary to official face of the club since the creation of football teams worldwide. He has moved from the man that kept the record books to man that is larger than the football team he manages. Commentators and pundits refer to Ferguson’s United or Wenger’s beautiful, passing football.
He even has books written about him. The Manager by Barney Ronay, an excellent book that discusses the rise of the manager into the modern game, unearths some of the origins of the manager’s image and attempts to discuss what kind of person the manager really is. While the book wasn’t ever intended to be an academic study of the merits of various tactical thoughts of managers, it does address some of the often listed character traits of successful managers. When all these traits are put together, to many the manager appears to be a father figure, a scary headmaster, a politician you’d like to have a beer with, or some combination.
Yet despite all this popularity, he is little more than decider of players and positions during an actual football match. His only other real role having to do with a game of football is what he says, or does not say, to the players. While this may seem to be just about everything that there is to do, this is really not much in relation to even one, single football match. Even the purchasing of players has been taken from his list of job responsibilities at some clubs. After talking to the media, amping up / scaring the team, and picking the players and formation (something that many of us feel we could do a better job of), it’s up to the players to get the job done. He is then left to either become the scapegoat for club and player ineptitude or savior for lifting his players (all the while not doing much different in either scenario).
The idea of the manager being wholly responsible or all to blame for results is to make a system with many variables look like it all comes down to the whims of one man. This is ridiculous. To some, suggesting that this is absurd may not come as very controversial at all. I suggest listening to fellow fans and media but understanding that this article may not provide much reflection for you. To others, this begs to ask the question of who is responsible if not the manager. While I refuse to fall into the same trap of blaming one party for an entire club’s woes, I would suggest the players as a possible start.
The point is that the owners (a common euphemism for cash), back-room staff, the manager, a dash of luck, and mostly players play a part in a team’s performance. In addition, former owners and managers often continue to play a role. When a team fails to obtain the results they are perceivably entitled to, the fans and media seem to have a checklist of blame that progress from the manager’s tactics, the manager’s transfer policy, the manager’s man-management, and usually ending in the owner’s lack of investment. Players rarely, if ever, come into play (pun intended) unless it is to discuss the manager’s man-management.
All managers have come under close scrutiny at some point in their career but one of the most extreme examples from a fan-base and the media recently is the demonization of Roy Hodgson at Liverpool.
One reason fans have cried for his removal is, what I believe to be, the myth of his lack of tactical knowledge. Hodgson is, if anything, a man deeply involved in tactics to the point of players at Fulham labeling their endless repetition of team shape at training as tiresome. This is all, however, beside the point for me. 4-4-2, zonal marking, 4-3-2-1, team pressing, or the deep, lying midfielder have nothing to do with what is wrong with Liverpool right now. Jonothan Willson, Michael Cox of Zonal Marking, and like-minded individuals may cringe at the idea of tactics taking a backseat but a quality player will be a quality player in any position without needing to be told what square to position himself in. Tactics come into play and they can definitely give that extra push that is sometimes required. In the Hodgson’s Liverpool example, however, I believe bad purchases have been made in the past and the world-class players are often failing to rise above. Swapping one man’s 4-4-2 for another man’s 4-3-3 won’t change Liverpool’s chance of winning games. Further, tactics often don’t improve a player or team but aim to exploit weaknesses in the opposition.
This leaves us with the question of his ability to both manage players and, to a lesser extent, the media. This is where I will somewhat concede to the critics. While at Fulham, he seemingly could say no wrong. He was polite, soft-spoken Hodgson. This is quite different to his time at Liverpool where he has experienced quite a few moments of idiocy when opening his mouth. One quote that sticks out as especially odd to me was during a discussion about Fernando Torres and an alleged move to Manchester United. Hodgson didn’t exactly express the sentiments most supporters would have wished for considering this is the club’s long-time rival.
“I am not naive to believe there won’t be any danger and we will never lose a player like Torres, I understand these things can happen. I don’t believe we will lose him, we will do our best to ensure he stays…”
Having said all that, I still believe this has little to do with a match of football. His man-management / media relations may be lacking and Torres may look at a quote like that and wonder what his manager was thinking but I would still expect a world-class striker to make his supporters proud as soon as the interview is over and the match begins. To say Hodgson’s man-management is wholly responsible is to say that a kind word or two and the proverbial “arm around the shoulder” of professionals is all that stands between Liverpool and former winning ways. Again, this probably has something to do with the trouble at the club but not the sole reason.
Being as unbiased as possible as a twenty year supporter of Liverpool and, while critical of at times, a supporter of Hodgson, I fail to believe that one man can be responsible for the play I’ve seen this season. Any manager on the bench cannot change the fact that the players are making silly mistakes and are not fighting for the shirt and crest they wear. This coupled with a bench that hardly strikes fear into the opposition has seen the club at a historic low. This season I have seen some good football. I have also seen our most often excellent goalkeeper booting the ball right into a striker’s feet, defenders falling over themselves trying to intercept a simple through ball, midfield players spending an entire match passing backwards in fear of mistakes, and strikers not willing to put the work in to hold the ball up. As absurd as it sounds, I’m sure he’s addressing these basics with the players during training but at some point responsibility must at least partially shift. Having said that, when results do turn I will also be the first to point out that Hodgson isn’t the only reason.
The point is that I don’t believe another manager would do much better without improvement in the squad and players stepping up. Removing Hodgson is an especially bad decision considering the need to pay off Hodgson’s contract and find a manager willing to work at a club that will give him little say in who the club purchases.
In the very first chapter of Barney Ronay’s book, The Manager, he discusses one thought on why the manager’s position was even dreamed up in the first place during the late 1800s and early 1900s when, again, he was little more than club secretary.
“The crowd called for blood, and they got it: secretarial blood. Mute, office-bound – but also dressed in the directorial waistcoat and watch-chain – the sacrificial lamb was already on premises. The secretary was about to get his big break. It seemed unlikely to be a very happy experience.
Here we come to a central dramatic irony in the manager’s story. The fact is, his first real high-profile public act was to be sacked. Getting the boot was where it all started. The manager was born to be sacked, and sacked with some sense of cathartic public ceremony.”
This is how it has always worked. It is much easier to take all that dispersed anger out on the one man from whom we have come to expect too much. The owners need not address all these messy issues mixed up with a team’s performance. They can just fire, hire, and repeat.
Buy The Manager: The Absurd Ascent of the Most Important Man in Football by Barney Ronay
Note: This article was written prior to Liverpool’s latest poor result against Blackburn. In the few hours since the end of that match, even more speculation about Hodgson’s job have surfaced and it is very likely he could be leaving the club soon. Though I planned on publishing this later in the week, I have pushed it up because I believe this game was the perfect example of how the club uses the manager as a sacrifice to their fans despite it being clear that fault was literally at the feet of the men that, save Steven Gerrard, seemingly couldn’t be bothered to fight for us, the supporters, on the pitch today.