“It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low”.
– Bill Nicholson.
A re attacking dominance and pretty play the essential ingredients for success in football and does pragmatism lead to boring ‘Stoke City style’ football? (sorry, Stoke fans.)
On the purist side of the fence, we have Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, who prioritise full-frontal football and aggressive attacking play. Pundits and fans claim both men set up their teams to play ‘the right way’ and both are credited with distinct philosophies.
Others point to pragmatic managers such as Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez, claiming that their win-at-all-cost attitude to football corrupts the unwritten rule of footballing purity- the commitment to play attractive football.
Undoubtedly excess pragmatism can cause stagnation when managers refuse to bring in technical players or fail to give attacking license to more skilful players. Tony Pulis has been accused of this excess caution, although many fail to recognise the limited tools at his disposal.
As well as this, the emergence of billionaire owners has led to fans demanding instant success. This discourages managers from developing long-term and sustainable strategies for success. Would Manchester United have dominated the Premier League if they’d sacked Sir Alex Ferguson in the early years of his trophy-less reign? Without the loyalty of his owners or his own refusal to change his philosophy, the recent history of the Premier League may have been drastically different – perhaps Liverpool would have that coveted and elusive title.
When viewed in this light – unwavering loyalty to ideology – Klopp and Guardiola’s approaches are admirable. Yet whilst a philosophy for success is essential, the best managers aren’t afraid to absorb new ideas to unlock their vision. It is also clear that there is no footballing bible for success and different opponents present different challenges. Even successful managers such as Arsene Wenger have failed to see this. Is it sensible to play the open and expansive football you cherish dearly at Turf Moor, home to a stoic and organised Burnley, Arsene? A rigid adherence to aesthetic purity in and of itself is no marker of success.
“A RIGID ADHERENCE TO AESTHETIC PURITY IN AND OF ITSELF IS NO MARKER OF SUCCESS”
Despite his huge contribution to the game, Wenger feels his vision is perfect and unalterable, leading to stubbornness and rigidity. This stops Arsenal improving, as Wenger has failed to sign enough aggressive and disciplined players with the necessary leadership qualities. Wenger’s overconfidence could be justified when Arsenal was regularly winning trophies, but currently, Arsenal is struggling to supplant Manchester City and Chelsea. Instead of believing that they have an all-encompassing blueprint for success, managers should recognise that clubs need to undergo genesis and change if they are to stay competitive. There is a danger that Klopp could fall into this trap, judging by some of his tetchy press conferences. No manager should become too resistant to criticism or regard their approach as inviolable. Wenger is a traditional example of such refusal to adapt, but there are plethora of case where tactical versatility is warranted yet ignored.
There has also been a recent trend of branding styles of football, most notably packaging Guardiola’s possession-based football as ‘Tika tika.’ This leads to such styles becoming mere trends within the footballing world. You can only play a given style of football if you have suitable players and attempting to play a certain way because it is the current fashionable fad will only lead to regression. One of the most important facets of management is understand the players at your disposal; to forget this is criminal.
It is clear that the qualities and insights of visionary managers such as Guardiola and Klopp shouldn’t be overlooked – indeed they should be praised -, but like the lionisation of some politicians, we should be wary of the cult of the football manager, or the notion that a manager has a universally applicable and objective style of management. Commitment to principles should be mixed with a pragmatic awareness that the real skill of management is ensuring sustained success, and this requires facing up to new challenges and staying one step ahead of the game.