To follow the heart or to trust in the brain? To appoint an ex-legend on the basis of moderate success at Derby County or a Bavarian boffin with pedigree and trophies and a slightly weird obsession with the art of football management?
At Chelsea, where the latter has replaced the former to, so far, considerably more success, they may now feel a little silly for having had so much faith in what they wanted to happen. So the man with over 400 matches managed including a successful spell with Borussia Dortmund and taking Paris Saint-Germain to their first ever Champions league final has outperformed the man whose post-playing career included 57 Championship matches with a win rate of 42.1% and an unsuccessful stint on a panel show? Ah, the benefits of hindsight.
Frank Lampard is certified English football royalty and once celebrated a play-off semi-final win at Derby by racking up a £2800 bar bill. Thomas Tuchel is a borderline teetotaller with a business degree who looks like he’d celebrate a semi-final win by cracking open a brand new book of extremely challenging Sudokus (or, worse still, actually preparing for the final).
Sadly, sometimes the heart isn’t the best judge. But with Chelsea having swapped out their pipe dream for points on the board, where does that leave the many other clubs still clinging on to home-grown managers?
Over the last few years several high profile clubs have looked to ex-players as managerial candidates. Whilst this is not a new phenomena in football, the status of these clubs felt significant – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Juventus etc. – all hoping to germinate a beautiful Pep rather than a sorry Alan Shearer. Indeed, even Barcelona themselves attempted to re-stage the Pep phenomenon with the attempted appointment of Xavi Hernández in January 2020. It became, you could say, a bit of a fad.
Unfortunately, whilst it has many successes on the continent, including recent examples like Zinedine Zidane’s hat-trick of Champions League victories for Real Madrid or Simone Inzaghi’s impressive stint at Lazio, the fates of players returning to manage their old clubs in Britain have tended to be underwhelming.
Accusations of blind idealism often hang over clubs entrusting their faith in former players. It’s an ideal founded on a kind of exceptionalism. That your club is unique, more valuable than the sum of its parts – its stadium and players and revenue streams and quarterly reports – that it possesses at its core a spirit that only those in the inner circle can understand. Outside hires, even those better qualified, are exactly that; outsiders. They don’t grasp the values of the club.
Of course, a certain practicality exists to this formula behind its starry eyes. Ex-player managers buy greater patience on the stands and tighter lips in the punditry booth. The British media provided a kind of insulation to Frank Lampard as he nosedived down the table. Thomas Tuchel no doubt won’t be cocooned in benefit-of-the-doubt-bubble-wrap if Chelsea’s form dips on his watch. If he falls, he falls hard.
It’s also somewhat tempting to ascribe Lampard’s failure to an innate discord between the value system in operation at Chelsea Football Club and the value system required to make a home-grown manager successful in general; namely patience and the ability to put faith in a project, rather than a quick fix.
A slack noose resting around the manager’s neck at all times is part of what defines Abramovich’s Chelsea. Elsewhere, in more romantic climes, the hire-and-fire build-and-burn tendencies of football are discussed as a modern sickness. Any club sticking by a failing manager, allowing him time to breath and grow, is seen as a little bastion of hope amidst a vast Kingdom of sludge and sin. At Chelsea, however, sacking a manager for being anything less than perfect is their idea of a romantic ideal. The demand for immediate success is seen as a fair price for vast financial backing, the bullet in the brain is an indicator of high standards – almost a badge of honour.
Perhaps the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal, where Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer and Mikel Arteta remain in jobs, have a slightly higher proclivity for story-telling, narrative building – appealing to the myth that all historically ‘great’ clubs do – that their superiority is somehow woven into the fabric of time and long-since established values. That they are, as Barcelona frame it, Més que un Club (More than a club) because of it.
Arteta’s Arsenal side went on a horrific run of almost two months winless in the first half of this season, slumping to 15th and looking like they would only go lower. Likely few eyelids would have batted had the board decided to pull the trigger. Alas, they did not, and (very) gradual signs of improvement can now be observed.
Manchester United have already weathered many storms under Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer. In fact, his tenure often feels like an endless oscillation between the fringes of greatness and the fringes of disaster, continually bouncing back from the brink. The 2-0 loss against Burnley in January 2020, during which the fans walked out en masse, or the 3-2 loss away in Leipzig earlier this season, knocking United out of the Champions League group stage, were both results which felt like the manager’s final curtain. But both times, he survived.
Solskjaer’s death-cheating abilities might say something about his resilience as a coach, but they say something maybe more profound about the patience United’s board have shown him. It’s fairly safe to say that in the more ruthless world of Chelsea, both he and Arteta would not have survived.
Now that they’ve done it, bringing in someone successful and suddenly seeing success might feel like the obvious thing to have done all along for Chelsea. Of their three previous Premier League winning managers, two (José Mourinho and Carlo Ancellotti) arrived from jobs where they had picked up Champions League medals and the other (Antonio Conte) had won the league title in all of his three seasons at Juventus. It’s hardly seems like a grand revelation that good CV’s would translate into good results.
So should this staring-you-in-the-face-all-along revelation mean the death knell for Solskjaer and Arteta too? Is this a Chelsea thing or a common sense thing? It’s hard to say. No doubt both United and Arsenal will continue to show faith in their respective ‘projects’, but should the success of Tuchel continue, a shadow will be cast. These clubs have to be asking themselves, albeit with a heavy heart, whether failure to swap their own beloved heroes for a technocratic dullard from the University of Gegenpressing means falling behind?
Ultimately, as any scientist would tell you, the brain controls the heart. That is, there’s little romance in losing every week. Or; even a bland outsider like Thomas Tuchel, with his technical, stats-based approach and strange idiosyncrasies (like substituting substitutes for failure to carry out uber-specific instructions) will get the blood pumping if you keep picking up wins and knock Atletico Madrid out of the Champions League. We all love the idea of a homegrown manager, but we probably prefer winning.