[Written during a lip-smackingly good match between the Czech Republic and Holland at Euro2004]
I didn’t go to NotCon and so missed Tom Dolan’s talk on management. As a manager too, I’m somewhat interested in different perspectives on modern management but often find much of interest in a world a million miles away: football.
Witness the recent furore over what some papers have ridiculously described as a "players’ revolt" in response to Sven Goran Eriksson’s decision to consult his midfield players on whether to play in ‘the diamond’ or ‘flat-4’ formation. This indicates the ‘old world’ struggling with a new culture – in this case, old football struggling with a modern management technique.
"It is Eriksson’s readiness, and even eagerness, to canvass player opinion that is his main distinguishing feature as a manager. It is also one of the great causes of dispute over his merits. To his critics it is an indication of weakness, of a person who evades his responsibilities by scattering them throughout the group. He certainly does not seek to bend men to his will like the dressing-room tyrants of yesteryear. Admirers warm to the consensual trait that they take as a mark of adult policies … "When you aren’t sure as a manager," he said, "you bring in the players, you listen, you explain and you put all your cards on the table. If you think you know everything about football just because you are a manager, then you are making a big mistake. At the end it is the players who have to go out and do it. They will always do a very good job for you if they are convinced it is the right way to do it … I made the decision on Wednesday night after meeting the players. I wanted the meeting, not the players. They did not say they didn’t want to play the diamond, absolutely not. The first time I did this kind of thing with them, three years ago, they were very suprised and thinking ‘What’s going on?’ They didn’t want to give their opinion. Now they do it. If you get footballers doing that you have come a long way to become stronger. And sometimes I can say ‘No.’" [Football.guardian]
What Eriksson’s saying here seems eminently sensible to me. I’m lucky enough to have an extraordinarily good team, but the key point here is surely: "At the end it is the players who have to go out and do it. They will always do a very good job for you if they are convinced it is the right way to do it." Whether this is emblematic of ‘the modern style’ or not, it seems so obviously the right approach that I’m still amazed at some of the reaction in the UK press (OK, it’s The Sun, but the responses across the media have been similar) – I’ve also encountered old-style sentiments from other managers on the BBC’s Leadership programme at Ashridge Business School.
I actually own a book called Leadership the Sven-Goran Eriksson Way: How to Turn Your Team into Winners. Yes I really do. It’s a really rubbish title for what’s actually quite an interesting book about Swedish management styles, across Ikea and Ericsson as well as Sven. However, as the authors argue, "while politics is sullied by cynicism, the sporting world, for all its faults and narrow confines, is perhaps the truest arena for the practice of modern leadership". Quite possibly. It certainly highlights the shifts in management style in big broad brushstrokes.
A year ago I noted how the always excellent Richard Williams had written about the different breeds of football manager around in the Premiership: crudely, Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson representing the old guard; Aresenal’s Aresene Wenger, Eriksson, and Liverpool’s Gerard Houllier representing the new. Well, Houllier has since left ‘my team’, Liverpool, having dragged the club into the 21st century but apparently unable to inspire the players to go with him.
However, Rafael Benitez, who has been appointed Liverpool manager directly after him, would seem to be the archetypal modern manager – a jet engine versus propellers in Williams’ words. In fact, to my delight, he seems to be quite the most modern manager in the Premiership.
"He is a studious person and a very scientific coach. He uses computer technology to monitor his players’ diets and physical development, and is keen to discover how he can apply computers to his football." [LFChistory.net]
The following comment in this first official interview is the most revealing:
"Not a lot is known about you off the pitch, what are your interests away from football?"
"I like to play chess and cards, although it is often quite difficult to find the time. I also like computers and take an interest in new technology."
Hooray! We have the first geek manager in football! Even in an arena as illogical and playful as football, my faith in modernity, science, and rationality remains unshaken. As does – er, irrationally – my hope, springing eternal for the new season.
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