The cult of the manager: thoughts as the season begins.


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:

  1. Oversee squad acquisitions
  2. Represent the club in public
  3. Oversee coaching and training
  4. 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

If you enjoyed this article, Tim’s book ‘It’s happened again’ is now on sale on

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34 Replies to “The cult of the manager: thoughts as the season begins.”

  1. Remember AW ‘doesn’t do tactics’, but not according to Klopp.

    “I think everyone who saw the game saw the difference between this game and all the other Arsenal games,” Klopp told his prematch news conference.

    “But in the last few years Arsenal had a more direct style. They have only good football players but at the end they don’t use all of them in each build up or each offensive movement — it is a myth. It is definitely a plan and they want to win games.’

  2. Nice , Tim , well written and most interesting . As for me personally , I don’t really bother about the oppositions ‘ managers or players or the amount of money they may have .
    I only keep my focus on the Arsenal .And enjoy the show !

  3. Another very interesting read Tim.
    Yes, a manager can only do so much.
    Klopp is a very wise man in his synopsis of the way Wenger has Arsenal playing, he can and does vary it.
    Wenger has many strengths, but also is a man of virtues and principles, he is up against some, and one in particular that completely lack his higher qualities.
    Wenger is a man with some clear …and perhaps lofty philosophies…..if you chose to believe Usmanov and others, these can hold him back, especially against a man quite willing to throw his former teams medic under the bus that he usually parks so successfully. Wenger is up against several win at all costs managers, some will cheat, some have little rotational fouling schemes going to stop a team breaking, a scheme that the refs here not only allow, but seem to encourage…..Ranieri, Pochettino, Koeman, Jose for starters. Some will use their own and their clubs status to intimidate refs. Some will manipulate the media, will doctor pitches, will resort to any tactic they can get away with, which in this country with our media and referees, is rather a lot.
    Wenger will not be drawn into these tactics, indeed his team are regularly on the receiving end of them. If he succeeds in this bear pit, it will be down to his teams ability to play football. If he doesn’t, I hope he will not give up trying.
    I obviously hope he does succeed against these managers, but he is now up against a lot, don’t let anyone tell you that cheats never prosper, especially in the Premier league.

  4. Good point Polo. We mustn’t fall for the propaganda line that ‘Wenger doesn’t do tactics’. Arsene Wenger likes a style of play, but so does Mourinho. I know which one I prefer.

    It is amazing by any standards that Mourinho has got this top job after his abject failure ending in the sack just last season. It says a lot for his talents at self promotion. He has already started to infuriate his players. He must be relying on keeping a grip on the ones that remain and the ones he brings in.

    My first view of Pep Guardiola didn’t impress me. Against us at half time he brought his players out late and then walked across the pitch making remarks to them. It still didn’t work – we still won.

  5. Five out of the seven (71%) last titles were won by managers in their first or second years at their clubs: Chelsea, Man C and Leicester.

    Six out of seven (86%) were won by the three highest net spenders in PL history: Chelsea, Man C and Man U.

  6. Beware the manager who becomes too successful.
    Unless he is that rare creature who can keep himself at ground level, there is a danger that he becomes a control freak. He will manipulate match officials, dominate the opposition by fair means or foul and pontificate on any matter to press and TV alike. And rule the dressing room with a rod of iron.
    Ferguson at Old Trafford is the typical example, while the equally obnoxious Mourinho is his eventual natural successor.
    In the end, nemesis will reign and
    no amount of cheap loot will be able to buy back the reputation and integrity that has long been lost.
    Be warned…

  7. Robert,
    How does that ‘Manager Stat’ work over a proper historic period preferably 20 years?
    And what was the split for 1st year and 2nd year (seeing as so few managers manage a second year at the same club)?

    Equally, of the ‘highest net spenders’ again could you tell us a longer period (preferably 20 years) and how many of those wins were in the season immediately following them being the largest spenders?

  8. Arsenal has not won the league in 12 years. That’s OK for a pub club, but unacceptable for London’s biggest club. If Wenger does not win the league this year, it will be irresponsible even for an inept board and absentee owner to extend his contact. The honeymoon of mediocrity is over.

  9. Good stuff Tim, as usual. There are a few more areas Wenger excels in that other managers seem to neglect, for the most part:

    1)Ongoing psychological preparation and support for his players, particularly those injured and being out of form, or being harassed by the pseudo-supporter aaa mob.

    2)Youth player development in particular and turning sows ears into silk purses in general.

    3)Patient and reasoned man-management for introducing new players, returning senior players and upcoming youth players at a pace and rhythm that aids their integration into the first team and the EPL.

  10. There are tactics and there are, well tactics.
    Preparing for the weakness and strengths of the opposition is clear.

    But telling players to “injure” a threat is not acceptable, and we can be sure that this is why Arsenal has had so many injuries in the past. I have seen many deliberate attempts to stop a threat player on the Arsenal team and put him out for weeks.

    Luckily Arsenal now have a few “hard” players that lets the opposition know to stop that, else they will also lose someone. If we get thet Mustafi fello, well just take a look at him on utube, he’s a no quarter given type of player.

    AW now has many different type of players and it’s a great base for tactical(decisions of the 1st type), it’s up to him to use them, rotate and keep his players fit season long.

    Lets blow Pool away and start our season with a bang.

  11. This “Wenger doesn’t do tactics” does not originate in the media, but on other Arsenal blogs, and the completed statement is’: “or so he’d have you believe.”
    We all know he does and for the most part they are successful.

  12. “How does that ‘Manager Stat’ work over a proper historic period preferably 20 years?”

    Andy, a proper historic period, as defined by Tony, is two seasons max. Need I say more?

    “Equally, of the ‘highest net spenders’ again could you tell us a longer period (preferably 20 years)”

    The three highest net spenders since inception (24 seasons) are Man C, Chelsea and Man U. Between them they have won 19 titles (79%). Blackburn and Leicester won a title each. Arsenal won three. For all I know, Arsenal may have been one of the top spenders in the years leading up to their title wins.

    “and how many of those wins were in the season immediately following them being the largest spenders?”
    That’s a pointless exercise, not a ‘proper historic period’, and I suspect you know that.

  13. I can’t agree about Leon’s view on ‘Wenger doesn’t do tactics’. It is a mantra frequently trotted out by the media as if it were true. It is not qualified with ‘so he would have you believe’ in most cases.

  14. Arsene Wenger is clearly the best manager in the world. All other managers can spend money and “win” but they are spending the money their clubs didn’t earn. And the pl refs are clearly against the club that plays the football in the right way. There is a reason why we’re getting the most no of injuries every year. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s game. COYG

  15. @Pat
    August 13, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    There are many ‘negatives’ trotted out by one all about Arsenal and in particular Arsene. As to their source who cares.

    The important issue here is that they are thrown around as ‘truths’ without any factual support for the negative claims.

    It is all part of the life of an Arsenal supporter.

    What is so laughable is that people who have never managed a Sunday league team let alone a Premier League club pontificate about what Arsene should do and all the mistakes he has made.

    Classic today on BBC World Service.
    ‘Arsene has been a manager for 20 years.’ the context was his experience as a manager. Well yes come September it will be 20 years as a manager in England. that is how little the reporter knew about Arsene.

    Go back 30 years to 1986.

    Arsene is manager of Monaco and in his starting line up for the new season is Glen Hoddle. The most skillful English player of his generation.

    Despite all evidence to the contrary the belief ‘is Arsene doesn’t know what he is doing.’

  16. Leon

    Google somewhat randomizes search results. Result order depends at least in part on what part of the world you send the search from. It may also depend on browser.

    If you want to give a reference, learn how to include “anchors” in Untold comments. I will use square brackets in this example, but what you want to use are angle brackets.

    Here is a pretend link to [a href=””]Google[/a].

    yes, it is a little more typing. It won’t kill you.

    If you want to quote from other people’s writing, the least ambiguous is to use the blockquote construction.

    Some memorable thing.

    And the same memorable thing, except it is different.

  17. Interesting Gord that those constructs get let through and not the actual link. I guess it is the angled brackets that are the problem.

    [a href=””]Google[/a]

    But this fails


  18. It’s magic!

    How to go Arvind!

    Now if you can bless Arsenal, we are set for Liverpool!!!


  19. Zzzz……I’m snoring because you’re boring…..we all know Wenger is shite so go back to LeGrovel and slither in the mud with them!

  20. @zzz: You say:

    Arsenal has not won the league in 12 years. That’s OK for a pub club, but unacceptable for London’s biggest club. If Wenger does not win the league this year, it will be irresponsible even for an inept board and absentee owner to extend his contact. The honeymoon of mediocrity is over.

    here are my questions:
    a) Why is it unacceptable for Arsenal to not win for 12 years?
    b) Why would it be irresponsible for the board and owner to extend his contract?
    c) Why are the board and owner inept?
    d) What is a honeymoon of mediocrity?

    Once you answer some/all of those I can try agreeing/disagreeing with you.

  21. Its official Gord, HTML and hence something else is getting let through.

    @Tony/whoever is handling the site’s backend: You should look at how you’re doing this. IMHO it is not the right way.

  22. Mediocrity. A strange term for Champions League play every year, two FA cups, and a runners up finish last season. If that’s mediocre, every team in the Premier League except for the winner is mediocre. This is a misuse of terms, if nothing else.

  23. Hahahahahahahaha..

    Why is it that super cups in Europe is considered a trophy and the same in England which is called the community shield not. Oops….now it is a trophy too.

    That makes peoples argument of us being mediocre fall flat on its face….

  24. Rarely have I come across such a plethora of pessimism and managerial criticism about Arsenal Football Club, as I have this pre-season.
    Without knowing anything about the would-be transfer dealings going on by those concerned at Arsenal HQ, doom and gloom is already spreading. There are calls for Arsene Wenger to go and 4th place is predicted as our best finish next season.
    All this BEFORE our first home game kicks off!
    The fickle supporters of our great Club are in full cry.
    Seventeen days remain in the current transfer period and there can be little doubt that Wenger’s staff will be giving 100% of effort in order to strengthen the squad.
    The money is there and so is the will.
    What remains is the need for all to calmly support the Club and those who work for it. 😉

  25. @nicky, even if AW signed Ronaldo, Messi, Suarez, and Neymar tomorrow, a section of the Arsenal fanbase will still not be happy, their hatred for AW is so entrenched that nothing will satisfy ‘them’ unless he left the club, remember some wished death on AW. It’s sad.

  26. Tim

    Interesting article, however predicting events is purely guess work, even if you use historical facts to back up your opinion/prediction. The result yesterday, Hull 2-1 Leicester demonstrates even with both Club’s position and their successes, it would have taken a very brave man to have predicted that result. But you’re correct that it takes many variables to determine an outcome. As Tony and colleagues have stated, there is no simple solution to complexed situations.

    Anyway a few observations regarding Leicester’s success, (1) Dressing room harmony and Team Spirit, (2) Very few injuries to key players, (3) other Teams not believing that Leicester were serious Title contenders.

    Hi Josif
    If you’re reading i’d like to read you comment re; Danny Rose’s dive yesterday against Everton, possible 9.5 rating Silver medal (Olympics)

  27. @BenneE,
    Re Leicester City’s success last season, I think you may have omitted “Remarkably generous decisions by referees”. 😉

  28. nicky

    Yes that’s another variable, but how about our players and the Manager having to work in a hostile atmosphere with the Media constantly adding fuel to the fire. Should those 2 variables disappear, I think the Team would play with a lot more confidence instead of “FEAR”

  29. Corruption News

    In Google News (set to show newest events first), I seen an article out of South Africa. This article says that it has seen BBC coverage about the flow of money involving South Africa (World Cup) and Jack Warner (CONCACAF and other). I have not seen anything in the news lately, showing the BBC presenting anything about this.

    But it lays out a lot of specifics. And there is something on the order of $10 million AWOL. Apparently, a credit card payment of $87k is one of the items.

    It seems to say two things (to me):
    _1. Jack Warner is going to detail other people involved (and not yet charged).
    _2. Jack Warner still claims he is innocent.

    I have no idea how someone can be involved to the degree that an $87k credit card payment is made from other people’s money, or that a loan was made by him to yet another party for $400k or so, and still think they are innocent. It baffles my mind.

    Maybe this is the septic bladder school of larceny?

    It would be interesting to track down what this BBC source is. Here is the source I seen:

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