By Tim Charlesworth
2016/17 is going to be a fascinating season in so many ways, so before we begin I thought I would have a look at some the things that it might tell us. Of course, my primary interest is in answering the question: will Arsenal win, but I think there might be some others worth looking at.
Money is flowing into the Premier League like never before. The shocking fact is that this coming season, all 20 of the Premiership clubs will be in the top 30 wealthiest clubs in the world. Newly promoted, managerless Hull, who finished 4th in the Championship, will earn a minimum of £100,000,000 in television rights and will almost certainly have a higher income next season than stellar names including: Inter Milan; Benfica; Porto; Napoli; Marseille; Lyons; Deportiva La Coruna, Villareal, Anderlecht and Ajax of Amsterdam. There are many claims in the ‘commentatorsphere’ that the English League is the best in the world. It is certainly the most marketable.
And many of the big clubs around Europe are worried about this. Over the last year, directors of clubs including Barcelona and Bayern Munich have publicly expressed their fears that they will not be able to keep pace financially with the English teams. However, it is conspicuous that the English teams are not dominating Europe in the way that their income levels suggest they should. Already, 15 of the top 30 income earners are English teams, yet in last season’s Champions League: Man City lost in the semi-finals; Arsenal and Chelsea lost in the last 16; and Manchester United failed to progress from the group stages. German teams, with considerably less income did just as well, and Spanish teams massively outperformed them.
The 2016 Champions League Final contained two Spanish teams for the second time in three years, and a Spanish team won for the third consecutive year. There were three Spanish teams in the semi-finals, and as if to ram home the superiority of La Liga, Sevilla beat Liverpool in the Europa Cup Final.
With Messi, Ronaldo, Bale et al still plying their trade in La Liga, it is not clear that the best players in the world are yet ‘following the money’ to the English Premier League. However, there can be no doubt that, in the coming season, the world’s top managers are here. Guardiola, Mourinho, Wenger and Klopp are arguably the highest rated managers in the game, and next season they will go head to head.
The betting market can be thought of as the numerical outcome of the thinking of the ‘football world’. The striking thing about the betting markets for the 2016/17 Premiership is that the favourites for the title are the two Manchester clubs.
This is unusual as they are the clubs that finished fourth and fifth last year. Usually, the defending Champions are the favourites at the start of the season as they clearly have the best form (despite the fact that the Champions have failed to defend their title for the last seven seasons).
There are two noticeable things about the Manchester clubs that might explain this favouritism. The first is that they have spent lots of money in the transfer market, and the second is their high profile new managers. Of course the correlation between transfer spending and the likelihood of success is a much debated point on this website, with little evidence that the relationship is strong.
The two Manchester clubs have undoubtedly strengthened their teams, but in both cases it looks like a case of incremental improvement from a low base. Pogba should be an upgrade on Schweinsteiger and the return of Shaw will help Man U. Man City have spent a lot of money on John Stones, but I would be willing to lay a large bet that Koscielny will be a more effective player than him next season. I am not bowled over by either of their line ups. It either of them do win the league, it will mean that their managers have done well to get the best from a weak squad.
So it seems that the primary explanation for the appearance of the Manchester clubs as the top of the list of favourites must be the arrival of the world’s two most celebrated managers, Guardiola and Mourinho. And this gives us an unusual opportunity to assess the ‘cult of the manager’. Managers are widely believed to have an enormous effect on the performance of the teams.
Of course, no manager will kick a single ball on the pitch this season, but the manager of the winning team will be widely feted, and many others will pay for lukewarm success, with their jobs. So let’s take a look at what these men actually do. They are widely perceived to fulfil four main functions:
- Oversee squad acquisitions
- Represent the club in public
- Oversee coaching and training
- Pick the team, decide on tactics and substitutions
Oversee squad acquisitions
This is a role that has changed a lot in recent times, and modern managers are often described as coaches to indicate that their role does not include this function. At the world’s two leading clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid, there is little pretence that the managers make buying decisions, but in England we maintain the fiction.
In fact, it would be ludicrous for English clubs to put transfer decisions solely into the hands of managers. Most players are signed on at least a four year contract, yet managers in England have a life expectancy of around twelve months. It is not reasonable to expect such managers to take an interest in the long-term financial interests of the club when making the major financial decisions involved in high cost transfers.
Of course Wenger has more authority than most in this respect due to his longeivity, and there is no doubt that Wenger still maintains a major role in the transfer process at Arsenal. But even Wenger seems less dominant that he once was. In the early days of his time at Arsenal, Wenger could pick up little known ‘gems’ like Vieira, Anelka and Henry. He had little competition as no-one else was really looking at these players.
But today, even Wenger’s personal knowledge and contacts struggle to compete with the armies of scouts and analysts employed by his rivals. There is a sense that the competition for emerging talent is much hotter than 10 years ago, and Arsene’s expertise alone, is no longer enough. Wenger himself has talked about the enormous growth in support staff teams in Premier League clubs since he has come to England, and some of those resources are undoubtedly dedicated to talent identification. Ivan Gazidis has been repeatedly heard talking admiringly of Leicester’s ability to analyse the performance of obscure players in unfashionable leagues in order to find the Mahrezs and Kantes of this world, and I strongly suspect that Arsenal are trying to do the same thing, not through Wenger’s intuition, but by the analysis of data.
So all managers probably play some part in signing new players, but some more than others. Wenger is, of course, an outlier in this respect, but even he seems to be playing less of a role in signings than he once did.
Represent the club in public
Managers are the ones who face the press and answer questions. This is an important role in a business with intensive media interest, but does it really have much effect on the performance of the team on the pitch? There is a kind of implicit contract in football that the manager takes the credit for success and the blame for failure. This is a bit odd when you think about it, as they never score a single goal. However, it is a way of taking a lot of pressure away from very young players who are not really equipped to handle it. The manager will deal with the press and divert the scrutiny from the vulnerable young men. When we see Mourinho’s antics with the press, it is well worth remembering that he is deliberately distracting attention from his players.
This “contract” breaks down if the players don’t like the manager, or don’t trust him to represent their best interests when dealing with the outside world. If this trust breaks down with a large number of players, the manager is said to have ‘lost the dressing room’ (as happened with Chelsea and Mourinho last season). You might reflect on the remarkable fact that in nearly 20 years, this has never happened to Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.
Oversee coaching and training
It never ceases to amaze me how managers seem to be able to ‘carry’ their style of play from one club to another. I am always impressed with the speed with which they seem to be able to stamp their mark on a new set of players. Based on this observation, expect Man U to play a defensive-minded, highly positionally disciplined style, and Man City to play total football with a high press. (Expect England to play like a bunch of thugs).
This is an area where the manager undoubtedly reigns supreme in almost all clubs, and is a key determinant of success on the field. Managers often have coaching teams to whom they delegate, but they retain an overall control. When a manager leaves a club, he often takes his coaching staff with him and rehires them at his next club. Arsene Wenger brought Boro Primorac with him when he arrived at the Emirates, and he is still there.
Pick the team, decide on tactics and substitutions
This is an area in which Mourinho is reputed to excel. Certainly Wenger’s team selections and substitutions are predictable and seem to lack imagination. Does Wenger lack the panache of Mourinho, or is he simply repeating proven and tested patterns? My feeling is that Mourinho’s tactical skills are more than a mirage, and that he can really make a difference in this respect. However, games decided by managerial tactical switches remain rare. I think Mourinho will make a difference, but it certainly won’t be decisive.
So overall, I feel that the cult of the manager exaggerates their influence. As far as next season is concerned, I would also raise serious question marks about both Mourinho and Guardiola:
- Man United have declined to hire Mourinho in the past because his teams play dour football not in keeping with Man U traditions. Mourinho is slightly sullied goods after a very poor season at Chelsea last year that has damaged his aura. He inherits a poor team with new players to bed in. If he doesn’t make a good start, how long will the Man U public tolerate his brand of football? Pogba is a good player, but if he starts to look like a waste of money, could it all go wrong?
- Guardiola has had two managerial jobs. The first was at Barcelona where he had to manage a team full of the best players in the world, including Xavi and Lionel Messi. Now to be fair, he did a good job of it, but hardly had the cards stacked against him. His second job was to take over the reigns at Bundesliga and European Champions, Bayern Munich, not exactly a poisoned chalice either. He has absolutely no experience of rebuilding a failing and ageing team like Manchester City. I adore the ‘’tiki-taka style of possession and pressing based total football” that his teams play. However, there is a serious question mark over whether this can work in England. The ‘rainy January night in Stoke’ test awaits (although disappointingly their actual away fixture against Stoke, will take place in the midst of a balmy English summer on August 20th 2016).
Overall, I am sceptical about the cult of the manger and unconvinced that Mourinho and Guardiola will do as well as they are expected to. Most modern managers are short-term appointments, and the only area in which they still dominate is training, tactics and match preparation. These are important factors, but by no means are they the primary determinant of a clubs medium-term success. The ‘accountability’ of the football manager is a necessary deception as it seals the contract between players and managers, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that its real.
If you share my suspicious about the cult of the manager, consider putting your money on two teams that did well last season and have improving players: Arsenal and Tottenham. Presuming that backing Spurs is a bit too much to ask of readers of this website, that only leavers the world’s finest team. However it pans out, have a happy 2016/17.
- Premier League 2 – Arsenal v Reading – The Match Report
- Arsenal v Liverpool Sunday 14 August – The Match Officials. Prepare for bias.
- The predictions for this coming season: and rather cheery ones they are too.
Untold Arsenal has published five books on Arsenal – all are available as paperback and three are now available on Kindle. The books are
- The Arsenal Yankee by Danny Karbassiyoon with a foreword by Arsene Wenger.
- Arsenal: the long sleep 1953 – 1970; a view from the terrace. By John Sowman with an introduction by Bob Wilson.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football. By Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews.
- Making the Arsenal: a novel by Tony Attwood.
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal by Mark Andrews.
You can find details of all five on our new Arsenal Books page