League of Legends

by | Jan 31, 2021

The Thomas Tuchel era at Stamford Bridge, then, starts with an exercise in steadying the ship. Two games in, Tuchel has taken four points from two matches. Even allowing for the fact that these were two home matches against teams in the bottom half of the division, it still says something for our expectations of managers that there will have been a fair few Chelsea supporters who grimaced their way through last week’s goalless draw with Wolves.

This afternoon against Burnley, though, it took them forty minutes to get going, but there was substantially better football played once they’d taken the lead, as though the players needed that goal to jump start their creative motors. Tuchel had mis-read the room following last week’s home debut against Wolves. His decision not to pick Mason Mount for that match made many uneasy, whilst some of his post-match comments didn’t help, either. But Mount returned this afternoon, and whilst he didn’t score, he did sparkle. The team’s second half performance showed up the stultifying first half performance for what it was.

Much has been made of this managerial appointment, and not just because, by most people’s definition, Chelsea are a ‘big’ club. Tuchel arrived at Stamford Bridge as the replacement for a club legend, who found out to his cost that the owner of the club held no more sentiment for him than for the previous eleven previous managers who’d come before him over the previous sixteen years. The very fact that Frank Lampard was replaced by Thomas Tuchel feels in itself like a volte face, something akin to a change in philosophy.

Lampard was (and to many, of course, still is) a “Club Legend”, and “Legends” have been very much in the news over the last couple of months. There was an idea, once upon a time, that appointing a “Club Legend” as the manager was something approaching to nod towards populism, on the part of chairmen. Throw the fans the red meat of a manager who tickles their nostalgia synapses, and they’ll overlook the fact that the reason the clubs is falling to pieces is you. The less cynical, but otherwise similar, view is that it’s a more a matter of popularity. It’s not so much that football club chairmen are evil, this argument goes, more that they’re needy.

But big football clubs these days have little time for sentiment and often don’t seem to be terribly interested in winning popularity contests, either. So, how come Mikael Arteta has ended up managing Arsenal, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has ended up managing Manchester United, and Frank Lampard, until last week, was managing Chelsea? The answer is at least partly that each of them have their own journey. Arteta was not short of offers at the end of his career, but he ended up at Manchester City with Pep Guardiola, learning from one of modern football’s most successful and inventive coaches. He lacked in actual managerial experience, but the logic behind appointing Arteta, who played more than 100 games for Arsenal and who’d clearly impressed others as well, should be obvious.

Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s route was very different to that which Arteta took. He had a year as the Manchester United reserve team manager, before taking on the managerial position at the Norwegian club Molde. He won the Tippeligaen (league championship) there two years in a row, in 2011 and 2012, but his third season ended sixth place in the table, qualifying for the following year’s Europa League by winning the Norwegian Cup.

So far, so good, but from here things began to fall apart a little. The urge to want to return to the Premier League in England is understandable for a player who’d played the majority of his career playing in it, but Cardiff City in 2013/14 were not the club for that. With the supporters and owners at loggerheads, Solskjaer couldn’t keep Cardiff in the Premier League, and he was sacked in September with the team’s form continuing to atrophy in the Championship. Molde offered him a return, but his second spell at the club was not as successful as his first. His first two seasons ended in two fifth placed finishes, though they did finish as runners-up in 2018. And that’s when Manchester United came a-calling.

The Club Legend is an elite tier of legendariness, though, which Arteta poked through by being a good enough choice, regardless. Wayne Rooney sits in the strata below that, though, in the Legends pecking order. Although he played almost 400 games for Manchester United over thirteen years, Rooney, as a Liverpudlian plying his trade in Manchester, had extra hurdles to overcome in order to get the devotion of United supporters. Perhaps he was just a little too closely also associated with both Everton and Manchester United.

However, his name was still good enough to get him a coaching gig at Derby County, followed by the manager’s job. Certainly big wages help – it has recently been reported that Derby are paying him £90,000 a week – but that’s not what we’re really talking about, here. Rooney might not have been able to walk into a coaching job at a club with immediate Champions League-related ambitions, but he did get himself a coaching job at Derby County, a big and well-established Championship club with not unreasonable ambitions to return to the Premier League, and then the manager’s job.

Few of the great managers of the past were truly great players. Herbert Chapman, Alex Ferguson, Bill Shankly nor Jock Stein weren’t great players, but all four left unmistakeable marks on their clubs that continue to exist to this day. But perhaps this is a reflection of the perpetually changing nature of the football manager. The first football managers were effectively administrators, often with the directors of the club picking teams and a coach who did all the coaching. These three positions came to merge together over the years, with the administrative work being passed over to other departments, as clubs grew as businesses.

What we have in 2021 is a series of different ideas of what a manager might be, and what a club can stretch to is often determined by economics. Vision, for example, comes at a price both in terms of wages and the cost of implementing it. But at the top end of the Premier League, whatever it is that a manager’s job has become has increasingly become something that a relative rookie, so long as they are a “Legend”, can do. After all, consider the owners – the Glazer Family, Stan Kroenke, and Roman Abramovich. These are people who usually make sentimental decisions. And these are now businesses with turnovers of billions of pounds, and much of that turnover still depends on the team winning on the pitch.

It’s tempting to think that managers don’t matter any more, a theory that certainly seems to be borne out by the haste with which clubs dispose of them. Professional clubs now have armies of coaches, physiotherapists, and other backroom staff, whose job it is to fine tune that team. The manager remains the person to pick the team, but this is a very different matter to the past, involving reams of data and preparation. So that leaves the manager as front man and, should things go against them, the fall guy. It’s possible to argue that a manager dabbles in the coaching and the motivational talk, but that where they really come into their own is in the post-match interviews and press conferences. Those are now almost as closely scrutinised as matches themselves, these days.  The front man earns a reasonable proportion of his money during those, because they can dominate the headlines, the following morning.

The manager is, of course, the most expendable person in football, and even the Club Legend isn’t immune to this. Frank Lampard followed the path that seems to have been expected of him. An internship at Derby County, followed by the big chair at Stamford Bridge. Set against the background of the transfer embargoes in place against Chelsea last season, he performed reasonably well in getting them to fourth place in the Premier League – with attendant Champions League qualification – and to the FA Cup Final. This season their recent form had been bad, with two wins from his last eight matches in charge, but they’d started reasonably brightly in the league, won their Champions League group without losing a match, and are still in the FA Cup.

So Lampard may be forgiven for wondering whether he’s been a little harshly treated. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, meanwhile, has finally got a tune out of a Manchester United team that has been dysfunctional for most of the last decade, while Mikael Arteta has recently turned a corner with Arsenal, after a run that was threatening to push them closker to a relegation fight than they’ve been since the mid-1970s. Either of the latter two could have been fired themselves over the last twelve months, but it was Lampard who ending up being pushed first. Perhaps the rest of us, though, should give consideration to the possibility that the manager is nowhere near as important as most of us believe them to be.