What is the secret of man management in football? | Soccer

MManagers conceptualize training sessions, devise complex tactical plans, manage multi-million pound budgets, answer challenging questions from the world’s press, shoulder the pressure of the club’s fanbase – and yet some of them find it difficult to deal with people. Why? Because relationships are complicated.

Players have distinct personalities shaped by their unique upbringing, and they have egos and entourage. The best managers find the right balance between being hard on the players and being sensitive to their needs. “Dealing with different personalities is the hardest thing about management,” says former Brighton manager Micky Adams, who led the club to successive promotions around the turn of the century.

“You have to find out what makes them tick. I see a lot of managers losing their jobs because they can’t build those personal relationships. You have to understand players’ feelings and weaknesses and show empathy, but also flatter them and place the highest demands on them.

“When I was playing it didn’t bother me if a manager jumped in my face and told me I sucked. My reaction would be, ‘I’m going to prove you wrong and show you I’m not.’ That’s out of the game now because the modern gamer needs you to validate how good they are all the time. Whatever era you’re talking about, one thing hasn’t changed – you need the support of the characters running the dressing room. Without them you are in trouble.”

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The characters are often the leaders and match winners. Managers use various techniques to mobilize their lieutenants. The arm around the shoulder was Harry Redknapp’s first choice. That makes sense to the layman. They energize the player with compliments and let him run free off the pitch as long as he delivers. Paolo Di Canio, Rafael van der Vaart and Paul Merson were all idiosyncratic playmakers who benefited from this method.

During the 2002–03 season, Merson told Redknapp he needed to check into Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance clinic because of his alcohol and gambling problems, but instead he flew to Barbados on holiday. Merson thought he got away with it until he ran into one of Redknapp’s best buddies. Instead of punishing his captain, the Portsmouth manager turned a blind eye. Merson scored 12 goals as the club won the league and were promoted to the Premier League. “I came back so tanned — it was January,” says Merson. “He just kept going. He never said a word about it and told me two years later.”

Paul Merson in action for Portsmouth in the 2002-03 promotion season.
Paul Merson in action for Portsmouth during the 2002–03 promotion season. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Jurgen Klopp has nurtured an almost religious devotion in his players by forging very personal relationships. By being tactile and showing a genuine interest in their lives, he has built a trust and connection that has helped the team overcome crushing defeats in major finals and win the Champions League and Premier League.

Gini Wijnaldum, one of their key players in those successes, has snubbed Tottenham in favor of Liverpool after speaking to Klopp. “I had great conversations with [Mauricio] Pochettino and Klopp,” he said in 2016. “But when we met Jurgen, we laughed and didn’t just talk about football. He was interested in my private life and that was good for me. He was not only interested in the footballer Wijnaldum, but in Wijnaldum as a person.

“When you’re not on the football field you have to communicate as a person and it’s good to know something about how each other is doing. It makes things easier. Every training session we run is designed to improve you as a player. It’s different than what I’ve experienced before and I’m really happy with it. The manager gives you confidence. He’s not a manager who yells at you or gets mad at you when you make a mistake. He only gets mad when you’re not doing the things you’re good at.”

Professor Sophia Jowett of Loughborough University has distilled this approach into a framework entitled 3+1Cs: Proximity, Commitment, Complementarity and Co-Orientation. Wijnaldum’s report outlines personal data sharing (closeness), challenging workouts (engagement), a similar outlook on life (complementarity and co-orientation), and strong lines of communication. After speaking to a number of mentors and mentees, she found that these four elements create a “positive, effective, and harmonious” relationship that can “provide a platform for vulnerabilities and needs to be expressed and goals to be achieved.” be able”.

And in theory, Klopp’s hugs do more than just smother their recipients. The “cuddle” or “love” hormone oxytocin is released by the brain when people hug or socialize. When Klopp wraps his arms around a player, he activates a feel-good hormone in the body.

This doesn’t work for everyone. If you look at Steven Gerrard’s accomplishments under Rafa Benítez – winning the FA Cup and Champions League and being voted Player and Writer’s Footballer of the Year – you’d think they were close. In truth, they were anything but. Gerrard says Benítez’s “chilliness” got the best of him because he was “hungry” to earn his praise.

Jurgen Klopp hugs Georginio Wijnaldum.
Jurgen Klopp hugs Georginio Wijnaldum. Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty

“I can pick up the phone and talk to all my former Liverpool managers except Rafa,” Gerrard wrote in his autobiography. “It’s a shame because we shared the biggest night of our career – the Champions League win in Istanbul in 2005 – but there is no connection between us. From a human point of view I prefer a personable manager like Gérard Houllier or Brendan Rodgers, but football-wise I don’t mind working with a colder man. An unemotional and distant relationship with the likes of Rafa Benítez and Fabio Capello can sometimes bring more success.”

Jon Stead witnessed a similar approach from Mark Hughes when they worked together at Blackburn in the 2004/05 season. Stead got off to a flying start at Ewood Park, scoring six goals in 13 games under Graeme Souness. When Souness was replaced by Hughes, Stead suffered. “Mark Hughes wasn’t an evil character, but I couldn’t read him,” Stead recalls.

“I need a manager who is open and honest. If I don’t know what they’re thinking or I don’t get direct answers, it plays in my head and causes me problems.” Hughes had observed Alex Ferguson’s mind games in the dressing room firsthand, but when he tried, he got a reaction from Stead to provoke, it didn’t work. The forward has netted just two goals in 36 appearances under the Welshman.

Ferguson has had far more success rocking the cages of his most talented and resilient players. He would berate certain players in the dressing room to annoy the rest of the team. “I’ve always had a great relationship with the coach, but in most games there were times at halftime when the coach and I would get on each other,” says Wayne Rooney. “He knew by doing this to me he was getting a message to the other players. He did it with Giggsy too. Always after the game the manager comes to the bus and slaps me on the back of the head. It was his way of saying, ‘This is over.’”

Wayne Rooney and Alex Ferguson share a joke in 2005.
Wayne Rooney and Alex Ferguson share a joke in 2005. Photo: Christophe Ena/AP

Ex-Brighton boss Adams used a similar technique to motivate centre-back Danny Cullip during their time together. “I used to turn to the team with my back to Danny and talk about defenders,” Adams recalls. “I would say, ‘Listen guys, we need to score four goals here to win this game because you can’t count on those defenders.’ I insulted him without confronting him, but he digested that before I hit him and it really turned him on.”

Ignoring key members of the squad is one of many tactics used by José Mourinho. John Terry received mixed messages from the manager. Mourinho showered his captain with praise and made him feel like he was ’10 feet tall’ but when Terry was injured the manager tuned him out and provoked Terry to work harder so he could get back on the pitch quicker.

“If you knocked and missed practice one day, he would come in and not speak to you. He would walk right past you on the treatment table,” Terry said. “You’re sitting there, captain of the football club, looking for a high-five with the gaffer – and you can’t get it, he’s tuning you out. He says to the physio while you’re there, ‘How long?’ And the physio will say, ‘A few days.’ And he would just go. He provoked me and pushed my buttons.”

Although the approaches of Benítez, Ferguson and Mourinho all differ, they all have the same purpose, says sports psychologist Dan Abrahams. “They create an environment with high challenges and high expectations,” explains Abrahams, who works with Premier League players and the English rugby union team.

“High challenge by its very nature can create a culture of confrontation and that’s certainly the case when you look at parts of Mourinho’s career. You say to the squad: “Here is the game plan and my philosophy. Either you do it or you don’t. If not, you’re out.’ For today’s players, that’s a risky approach – they may tire of it after two or three years. It’s very difficult to be both a great challenge and a great support. The sweet spot is between the two. Having worked with Eddie Jones and England Rugby, I know he had to soften his approach to help him understand each person’s individual needs.”

The talent in a squad plays a significant role in a manager’s success, but crucially, his ability to earn a player’s commitment unleashes the team’s potential. There is no blueprint for the perfect binding. Every player-coach relationship needs a tailored plan, and even then, outside influences can sabotage the configuration.

To ensure lasting success, managers must be flexible and adapt to changing attitudes in society, but this does not necessarily guarantee long-term relationships. Given what’s at stake – three points, vast sums of money and personal reputation – clashes are inevitable. It won’t just be high fives and trophy presentations. The intensity of these bonds can lead to burnout. In that sense, they’re more like marriages than friendships: you might not always like each other, but there needs to be an understanding and a commitment to a cause that goes beyond a self-serving agenda.

However, as Adams explains, the best players are willing to make that marriage if you bring them success. “Don’t think everyone likes the manager, because that’s not how it works,” he says. “The players have to believe in you and that what you do will bring results. Somewhere down the line I must have gotten it right because I had four promotions. Well, did you like me? I’m not sure if they did. But I guarantee they respected me.”

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