As the Premier League gets underway, everyone is interested in the views of the various managers, and their expressions of optimism before the results slap them with the heavy hand of reality.
In the same way that I look for signs of doom in the eyes of the cabin staff when I join the scrum boarding a Ryanair flight (I’m a nervous flyer) – I like to do the same with football managers as I listen to them being interviewed. It’s a fun game anyone can play. Start with two fundamental questions – do I find what you say believable? And, if you were my boss and talking to me, would I want to follow you?
I know that managers are all extensively media-trained – no doubt by the same people who help politicians to avoid committing themselves to anything they may be held to account for in future, but it is still possible to infer the ‘philosophy’ that underpins their actions, particularly when they are under pressure. Given the saturation of media coverage, there is plenty of material to work with.
I have tried to listen to the things they talk about most often, and to identify those that make a superior performance on the pitch more predictable – the correlation between the rhetoric and the actual results of the team. I have included Roy Hodgson. My definition of superior performance is a bit subjective – is the team doing better than the expectations of most reasonable people? By this measure, Wolves were successful last season, and Manchester United were not. At least this definition aims off a little for the vastly richer financial resources of some clubs, although arguably the expectations of Pep Guardiola at City are greater than they are for Chris Wilder at Sheffield United.
Listening to the content and context of numerous interviews, here’s my top five of the things that seem to be most important:
- Does the manager talk from a future perspective rather than emphasising the past?
- To what extent does he convey a ‘vision’ of how he expects the team to play?
- When the team win, to what extent does he use the word ‘we’ rather than ‘I’?
- When the team lose, how much does he own the result rather than externalise any problems, blaming circumstances (or individual players) apparently outside his control?
- Does he use authentic language to express himself, and show personal resilience – does he sound like this is what he really believes or is he on management speak autopilot?
Of course, there will be more to it than this, but given that what we say is a reasonable indicator of what we think, these five enquiries can show some quite stark differences. The managers who lean towards expressing themselves using the former rather than the latter have more success.
Let’s make it personal. Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp would score 5 out of 5. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would score maybe 2 – he talks like a mascot for the glory days of United rather than a leader for a different future (he also took our AWB from us and cannot be forgiven).
I also predict (and am looking forward to) Steve Bruce being an abject failure at Newcastle United. He is definitely an ‘I’ type of manager – a legend in his own mind despite his modest accomplishments as a top-flight manager. He talks about the club as an expression of his personal ambition – not about the difference he intends to make.
Brendan Rodgers has similar traits – I expect Leicester City to go backwards under his leadership. Mauricio Pochettino would score 4 – he seems to have a simmering resentment that Spurs have inherent disadvantages in resources versus other top clubs, and occasionally this gets the better of him. When it does, he projects anxiety, and so do his players. By the way, Jose Mourinho would be bit of an outlier were he still employed – language more befitting an insecure medieval monarch than a football manager, so I won’t score him.
Let’s now turn to our own club. Firstly, with some of our recent managers. Alan Pardew would have scored 0 out of 5. He even took to the Trumpian habit of referring to himself in the third person ‘this is not how Alan Pardew teams play’.
Despite his rather unfashionable reputation, Neil Warnock would score well. His style of football lacked finesse, but he knew what he wanted – ‘to make Selhurst Park an ugly and uncomfortable place for other teams’ – and conveyed this view of the future all the time and got others to buy into it. Given the troubles at the club at the time he was manager, I think he deserves to be regarded as successful. We survived at least.
Sam Allardyce would score badly though – another mercenary passing through with a mindset of avoiding losing rather than any discernible commitment to the success to the future and the people around him.
What about Roy? I don’t think it is clear cut. Whilst he is verbose when being interviewed, he is also very guarded. His language is riven with caveats and sub-clauses, and you have to pick your way through it without clear signposts. He does not talk like a man with a plan, more like someone who will make the best of what is in front of him – a chief mechanic not an architect. He will make the car run better but he won’t be spending much time thinking about how to make an electric model.
He is committed though – lot’s of ‘we’ talk, with a strong undertone of perseverance and hard-work. Interestingly, he does use a lot of ‘externalising’ language ‘we have got a small squad with a lot of injuries’ for example, but he gets away with it because it aligns with his apparently modest vision for the future of the club. He most wants another season in the Premier League without
too much pain. He does not talk about ‘the project’ (let’s be thankful for that) or a five year plan.
To what extent is he able to deliver predictable superior performances from his players, and create a club that is really going places? I am really not sure he is the right person for that. He will improvise his way through another season and see success as anything between 16th and 12th.
The way that he talks about Christian Benteke is the clearest expression of his management mentality – more travelling in hope rather than following a compass. I expect we will pass Steve Bruce and Brendan Rodgers as they wait for assistance on the hard shoulder, overtake a few, and hopefully won’t break down with our chief mechanic at the wheel.
Buckle up for the ride.