Why A Soccer Manager Has The Toughest Job in the World of Sports
On April 22 2012, Josep “Pep” Guardiola announced to the world that he would be stepping down as manager of FC Barcelona. That declaration was made by a forty-one year old man who had guided his club to thirteen titles in four years (two of those titles were UEFA Champions League trophies).
Guardiola wasn’t leaving Barcelona for another club. He was taking a sabbatical. By his own admission, he was burnt out. He was quoted as saying, “It’s been football, football, football but in life there are other things.” He went on to say, “Talking to you (the media) and the players for four years is very demanding.”
Weeks of cup ties and Champions League matches bring to light some of the challenges faced by European football managers. Their job is the toughest, most demanding job in the world of professional sports. Not only is the manager responsible for squad rotations prior to mid-week matches, he is accountable for every day to day decision at the club and his every move is dissected by the media and supporters. In the larger European markets (such as Spain, Italy, and England), expectations from the owner and supporters are propelled by the various media outlets and cast a searing light on the manager.
Sports fans will contend that this pressure is something all professional coaches/managers deal with. Why is the strain greater for football managers than it is for a coach/manager of a NFL, NBA, MLB or any other professional team?
Let’s take a look at the day to day responsibilities of a football manager at a typical European club. For the following example, I’ve used the example of a Premier League club.
The First Team
First off, the manager has to deal with the selection and training of his first team. Most first teams consist of 25 players. On match day, the manager can only select 11 starters and 7 substitutes. This leaves seven players who don’t make the cut. Players’ disappointment in not being named to the match day squad is significant. That’s why relationship building and man management are something the boss needs to be well versed in.
Team selection can be straight forward if your club is playing once every six or seven days. But in the case of the mid-week cup tie (Carling Cup, FA Cup, Champions League, Europa League, UEFA Super Cup), this adds a level of importance to team selection. He also has to deal with international players coming and going from their respective national teams. Although the boss is managing professionals, these athletes are still human. Their bodies break down and need time to recover from match days and travel.
The average footballer runs between seven and ten miles every match (eleven to sixteen kilometers). Not to mention weight training and the additional running/cardiovascular work they do during training. These players’ bodies are taking a beating. So when you have a week when clubs are playing three matches in seven to eight days, there needs to be a rotation of the match day squad.
Aside from team selection, team game tactics and opponent scouting has to be addressed. How should we attack this team? Where can we take advantage of them? What are their set pieces? If they are awarded a penalty, who takes it and where are his shot tendencies? These are just some of the questions that have to be addressed by the manager.
Of course there are coaches responsible for particular areas. But the manager has the final say. He is the one who will have to stand up and explain those decisions.
Reserve Team (U-21)/Youth Academy
Again, clubs have managers in charge of the various reserve teams and academy players. But the personnel in charge of those teams answer to the first team manager. Their training and tactics follow the model set out by the first team manager.
Reserve and Youth Academy team rosters are made up of approximately 25 players each. So a first team manager is really responsible for up to 75 players between all three teams.
The focus of these teams (Reserve and Academy) is to provide players continued training, experience and, in some cases, rehabilitation. The first team manager, coaches, and scouts are responsible for fielding these rosters. The recruitment of these players involves days and weeks of scouting and analysis. Most youth academy players are from nearby (in this case, Great Britain) but others are brought in from abroad. The time logged on flights, hotels, phone conversations, statistical analysis, and actual on-site scouting is enormous.
Most first team managers receive daily updates on these activities while also “getting out on the road” when time allows. There are endless youth tournaments around the world and millions of players (of all age levels) who are fighting to win a spot in a club’s academy. So for every player who is actually brought into a club, there are another 400-500 players who lost out on a spot. It’s safe to say that a manager of Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger’s tenure has scouted over fifty thousand players during the course of their careers.
Reserve and Academy team selection is also a product governed by the first team coach. If a player is exceeding expectations, he is going to rise up in the system. As stated earlier, if the first team is playing three matches over a short span of time, the manager is going to want to bring in some fresh legs so he doesn’t wear out his main squad. This is why you see clubs using cup tournaments as “auditions” for unused, reserve, and academy players. During a recent press conference, Crystal Palace’s Ian Holloway discussed his time on the road evaluating the reserve and academy players.
The expectation are off the charts when it comes to teams such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern München and other major European clubs. There are decades of success at these clubs and a manager has to measure up to those markers. The owner and supporters will not sit around and watch the club’s history be ruined by a single regime.
Even at smaller clubs, the owner and supporters will hold a manager responsible for any mishap regarding the well-being of their team. Case in point being the recent dismissal of Paolo Di Canio. Over the summer, Sunderland backed the manager when it came to the hiring and firing of players. Fourteen new players were brought in and ten were shown the door. Although the club was not expected to compete in the top half of the league, the expectation was that they would not be involved in the relegation battle (as they were last season).
But after accumulating only a single point in the league table after five matches, Di Canio was fired. The point total was one issue. His relationship with the players, and more so, his relationship with the supporters had reached a point of no return. Especially after post match coverage showed him in conversation with traveling supporters after a game at West Bromwich. One supporter was seen mouthing the words, “You’ll be sacked in the morning.” The supporter turned out to be wrong. Di Canio was sacked that night.
Then there’s Real Madrid. The Spanish giant has won nine European Cup/UEFA Champions League trophies. Although they have won La Liga 32 times over the course of their history, the expectation at the club is to win the Champions League. Anything less isn’t good enough.
The last time Real Madrid were crowned champions of Europe was 2002. Since then the club has hired 12 new managers. Manuel Pellegrini won 75% of his matches, and finished runner-up to Barcelona in La Liga with 96 points over an 11 month span, but was fired because he failed to win a single trophy. He was replaced by Jose Mourinho. During Mourinho’s time, the club broke a number of records including: 100 points in La Liga during a single season, 121 goals scored, a goal difference of +89, 16 away wins, and 32 overall wins. But Mourinho ended up leaving by “mutual consent” because he could only muster three trophies over a three year span… none of them were the Champions League. His time at Madrid was considered a failure.
The actual time a manager spends face to face with the media is small compared to his other obligations. But his time with the media carries a huge significance. Spanish, Italian, and English media are super critical and relentless in their pursuit of a story.
Like it or not, public opinion is shaped by these media outlets. If the manager has a poor relationship with the press, or his team is perceived to be playing poorly, or his players are having their dirty laundry aired out in public, the media can tear apart a club. The supporters can get riled up, players become disgruntled, and the owner begins to see problems with the club’s management. That could lead to firings or player transfers. So a manager needs to have a policy regarding the club’s relationship with the media.
In the case of former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, no media were allowed on the training ground. There was also a social media policy with the United players. A player such as Joey Barton would not last a day in Manchester. Ferguson was also well known for barring certain media from his weekly press conferences. And Ferguson was always illusive when it came to his pre-/post-match comments. He rarely used the media to divulge information to the public or as a sounding board against his players. He had an ideal of how he wanted his club perceived. He left little room for tabloid seekers and rabble rousers.
Of course United still had its share of unsavory headlines over the years. But fans never saw Wayne Rooney grasping Sir Alex’s neck on the training ground (yes, that’s a reference to the Mario Balotelli-Roberto Mancini training ground scuffle). Supporters also never heard a post-match interview from the manager that disparaged his players. Most recently Di Canio and Mancini have been guilty of this.
The media is an important tool for the manager to manipulate. It can shape the view of the club’s brand to a large audience. It can also drive a manager bonkers. Case in point, Jose Mourinho’s pre-match press conference before their Champions League match with Steaua Bucharest. Mourinho has been growing tired of constant questioning about his team selection. He finally blew up and walked out of the press conference.
Pressure from the media can break even the most decorated of managers.
The Global Market
The vast television audience and potential for financial gains (and losses) in the sports market adds the final pressure point for football managers. It could be argued that the other major sports share similar issues regarding team selection, man management, minor or lower league decisions, and media relations. But football managers are dealing with all of these issues while being “the global face” of a club.
There is no argument. Football (soccer) is watched by more people across the world than any other professional sport. The amount of money in advertising, sponsorships, marketing, and television packages worldwide is in the multi-billions. Add to that the merchandise, match day tickets and concessions. If a club is successful, it will gain a staggering amount of money each year.
Premier League television rights were recently sold to BSkyB and BT for £3bn ($4.82bn) over three years. Clubs such as Stoke, Norwich, and Swansea City netted over £45m ($72.3m) under the previous television contracts. Under the new contract, clubs in this category stand to make an increase of an additional £14m ($22.5m). The pressure for a Premier League manager to avoid relegation is enormous. Although the television contracts provide parachute payments for relegated clubs, the amounts are considerably less than if a club remained in the top flight.
Lower league clubs in England exhaust themselves in the pursuit of Premier League promotion. That’s why there are so many tears from supporters when a club finally achieves this goal. And even more when they are relegated. Relegation can be a death sentence for clubs and its manager. Although recent history has shown that clubs can right the ship, there are examples of other clubs demise littered throughout English football (Leeds United, Portsmouth, and Wolverhampton being recent clubs that come to mind).
La Liga’s television contract leaves a lot to be desired for their competing clubs. But the league does boast one of the most watched events in the world of sports, El Clasico. The matches between Real Madrid and Barcelona (at least twice a year) generate global television audiences of over 400 million viewers. So two regular season matches between Spanish clubs have more than DOUBLE the worldwide viewership of the Super Bowl.
The pressure to establish and maintain a winning football tradition is monumental. It is mind boggling to think that Sir Alex Ferguson could maintain his sanity and health while remaining manager of a club the size of Manchester United over the ever-changing course of 27 years. Although he is now regarded as the “Godfather” of football managers, his early time at United was not successful. Would he survive those early failures if he were the current manager of Chelsea or Real Madrid? Two clubs who have been pushing managers in and out of a revolving door for the past ten years or so.
Whether it’s by their own decision or the club’s, football managers are leaving and arriving at new clubs more than ever before. They need to have answers to every question raised at every level of the club, while being able to handle expectations, as well as a global pool of media and supporters. There is so much riding on their shoulders. Soccer managers literally have their fingers in more pies than any other professional sport.