Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The myth of the great football manager

Some recent events in European football (soccer) reveal the exagerations that surround the evaluation of the contemporary manager. It has been very surprising to read progressive sports journalists applaud the substitution of Louis Van Gaal by José Mourinho at Manchester United. The Dutch manager had been there the last two seasons and had signed a contract for three years. His deputy was Ryan Giggs, who was learning the job alongside a more experienced boss. Van Gaal failed to qualify the team for the Champions League in the second season (not the first) but won the FA CUP in this second year. It is true that the attacking performance of the team was poor, but he promoted some talented very young players (as he had done for Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich). He has behaved as an honest professional and was building a team for the future in the best interest of his club. He will be replaced by a divisive character, who will make headlines every week but will be completely self-centered and promote values that are at odds with respect in sports. He will take advantage of the promotion of young players by Van Gaal, such as Rashford, Lingard, Fosu-Mensah or Martial, players that Mourinho would never have dared promoting himself. But the narrative that Van Gaal is an unfriendly guy with obvious public relations problems is just too appealing to be dismissed by popular journalists, never mind their opinions about other aspects of society. The fact is that no manager is always successful. We will see after 25 years managing teams whether the likes of Guardiola and Mourinho have a record like the one of Van Gaal, which is also not perfect, but is decent enough. Meanwhile, we saw in the Champions League final how a very celebrated manager, AT. Madrid's Diego Simeone, made obvious mistakes that a manager that had done his homework would have avoided. If you win the toss of the coin in a penalty shoot-out, you should choose to kick first, because teams kicking first win 60% of the time (perhaps because of a psychological advantage, according to research by economists Apesteguia and Palacios-Huerta). Simeone's players made the same mistake as Pier Luigi Buffon in 2008 when in the quarter final of the Europcup he chose that Italy shot second after winning the toss of the coin (Spain won the shoot-out, and the rest is history). Atlético's goalkeeper seemed unprepared for the shoot-out, not even moving in several of the kicks (as opposed to the Dutch reserve goal-keeper in the quarter final of the last World Cup under Van Gaal as manager). Not having preprared well the shoot-out it was surprising that Simeone did not give orders to take advantage of physical superiority in the extra time, with a too cautious behaviour for which R. Madrid should be very grateful.

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