Managerial magic and its effects

October 6, 2008
By Phil Ball
(Archive)

How much difference does a manager make?

GettyImagesUnai Emery: Has transformed matters at Mestalla since his arrival in May.
Well - I guess it all depends on the manager. A dumb thing to say maybe, but football is a game inhabited by humans, not by abstractions. I've seen quite a few managers this week, having watched four junior games at close quarters here in Spain - two of them involving my own flesh and blood, and I've noticed a few things.

One of them is that when a game is being watched by a maximum of fifty people, it's impossible for the two managers, standing by their respective dug-outs, to both shout at the same volume. Since you can hear almost every word they are saying, one of them eventually gives in to the other and drops the vocal volume, replacing it with gestures or just a sullen silence, depending on the score at the time, of course.

This is not always the case in professional games, when the managers are standing in their allotted square metre, the crowd forming a noisy background behind their heads. You can rarely hear what they're talking about, which is just as well. One of the more vocal managers I heard this week - who was eventually sent off, was so full of sayings and metaphors that he enriched my Spanish considerably - the best one being "Me cago en mi vida!" (I shit on my life!) as the opposition forward broke free from the home defence and shaped to shoot (he scored).

Nevertheless, it struck me as a player and it strikes me now as an observer that the more a manager shouts and gesticulates the more he is indulging in damage limitation, like a teacher who has set up a group task for his pupils, only to find out as the lesson progresses that the groups didn't understand a word of what he was talking about, obliging him to then run around the room patching up the lack of a real game plan.

Is there a proportional relationship between the game's best managers and their lack of dug-out histrionics? Someone should conduct a study into that one, but of the present-day gurus, José Mourinho and Sir Alex tend to keep it fairly under wraps as the match progresses, as does the new kid on the Spanish block, Valencia's Unai Emery.

Well, he's not exactly a kid at 37, but his four years so far as a manager have been disproportionately positive, making him the current golden balls of Spanish football. In a week when world stocks have plummeted, Emery's local value soared even higher when Valencia's oft-troubled winger, Joaquín, came out publicly to try and explain why Valencia are now league leaders only a few months after looking like relegation fodder.

Joaquín, one of Europe's best traditional wingers on his day, was breast-fed by his mother up to the age of six, and confesses that it has left him needing to be loved. You can interpret that one as you wish - since the psychological damage inflicted by having to wander across to your mother at half-time when the rest of the team are reaching for their oranges must have been considerable - but Joaquín didn't feel very loved by Ronald Koeman, and even after the arrival of Emery in the summer he seemed to be on his way to Inter or Roma. Now he's happily gliding down the right wing again, with that curious tubby lightness of touch that he has, like Paul Gascoigne in his Mars Bar days.

Joaquín told the press last week that Valencia are top because "we've got a manager again', which answers the question posed in the first sentence of this article. "And this manager doesn't dedicate himself to the art of messing people around and inventing stuff" - this a shot across the bows of Koeman, presumably.

"It's different in the changing-room now. You breathe a different air. The team's almost the same, but this year we're just playing football again."

Is it all down to young Emery? Could be. When John Toshack was in his second spell as manager at Real Sociedad, Emery was playing in the reserve side as a left-sided midfielder. Toshack liked the look of him and asked the Sociedad B trainer if he thought Emery was ready to step up to the first team. "Dunno' replied the trainer (Salva Iriarte), "but he talks a good game. He'll probably make a better manager than a player', or words to that effect. Indeed, Emery only played five times for Sociedad, making a career of it as a journeyman midfielder in the Second Division of Spanish life, hanging up his boots at Lorca and becoming their player-manager at the ripe old age of thirty-two.

GettyImagesJoaquin: This much better since Emery arrived.

In 2006 he went down to Almería, won several press awards as manager of the year and brought them up to the top flight quite unexpectedly. He then steered them to an even more unexpected 8th position last season, during a campaign in which they only lost sight of the UEFA places in the last few weeks.

Emery's further promotion was inevitable, and the chaos at Valencia was crying out for a steady hand. Nevertheless, such a pit of vipers might easily have proved the wrong choice for such a quiet type, with his rather goofy expression and lack of public charisma. As Morgan Freeman remarks to another hard-bitten inmate in the "Shawshank Redemption' as they watch the new prisoners march in through the gates; "I'll give that one a week" - pointing at the gawky Tim Robbins. Robbins lasted much longer, of course, as well might Emery if things continue apace.

This weekend's 0-1 win at Valladolid, managed by José Luis Mendilibar - another of the up-and-coming triumvirate of Basque managers (the other is Almeria's Gonzalo Arconada) was good evidence of Valencia's revival.

Under the cosh for most of the match, they still nicked a win with a goal from the Portuguese midfielder Manuel Fernandes. Looking at the players who took part in the game, the names of Baraja, Angulo, Albelda, Vicente and Helguera seem significant. Helguera spent most of his life at Real Madrid and is no spring chicken, but at the height of the club's troubles last season it would almost have been laughable to believe that the club would be top in the coming October with those players still around.

Albelda we all know about, but Baraja and Angulo seem to have been around for ever, whilst Vicente seemed to have reached a point of no return with injuries. He's still not the player he was, but is a decent enough stop-gap for David Silva, whilst the young left-sided international recovers from a major operation. The old warhorse Carlos Marchena was injured for the game, but he's still very much alive, of course.

Emery has based his conservative revolution around three players, David Villa, the aforementioned David Silva, and the new revelation of the league, the left-sided Juanma Mata, whose surname means "He kills". He certainly does. With Asier Del Horno back, Mata, Vicente and Silva, the squad has a left flank to be envied by most.

Villa has stayed, and whilst Valencia are top of the league, it is less likely that he will go to England in the winter transfer window. If he does, start counting the noughts on the pay cheque. But he's a fantastic player, worthy of all the hype and more. Quite how Valencia managed to hang on to him this summer amongst all the chaos, the revolving doors and the pressure from Chelsea and Real Madrid - to name just two, is something of a mystery, but you never know - Emery's presence might have had something to do with it. Ask Villa and he might tell us, but nobody's complaining now that the club didn't cash in.

So Valencia sit atop the league, sharing the summit with Villarreal, another team with a manager, Manuel Pellegrini, who is from the school of the strong silent types. Anyone brave enough to dispense with the services of one of the world's top players (Riquelme) but still keep a modest outfit challenging for La Liga and marching onwards in the Champions League should be allowed at least some of the credit. Again, the players speak of him in reverential terms (apart from Riquelme), and appear to always know what is required of them.

Emery himself was modestly batting away comparisons of himself with Rafa Benitez this weekend, due to the fact that this is Valencia's best start since the 2003-2004 season when Liverpool's current boss was in charge - but Benitez still divides opinion, despite his track record. At the moment, Emery is on a blemish-free roll.

Another manager with cause to smile is Pep Guardiola, who has answered the critics in his unassuming sort of way. The idea that Barça were full of "tiki-taka" but no goals has been swept away by the events of the last fortnight, culminating in a 6-1 slaughter of poor Atlético Madrid, who were 3-0 down and punch-drunk after eight minutes. Agüero cut a forlorn figure, isolated up front by Atlético's lack of ambition, whilst Messi ran riot. Things can change again, of course - but to question Guardiola so prematurely - as many in the Spanish press were doing - was pretty daft.

GettyImagesAguero slopes off as Atletico are thrashed 6-1 at Barcelona.

Real Madrid were held at home 2-2 by a much-improved Espanyol too, which was another reason for Guardiola to smile. Sporting Gijón won too, to get their first points of the season in Mallorca (you read it here last week), but let's stick with the manager theme.

Many people accuse footballers of being a bit thick, but one thing in which they are experts is human nature. At times the suffocating obligation of being with the same group of people, week in week out, under the intense pressure that professional football engenders, makes footballers keenly aware of each others' strengths and weaknesses as human beings. The group thing usually holds together, but when it implodes it collapses in spectacular fashion - as witnessed by the events at Valencia last season.

When he arrived, Unai Emery's every word and gesture would have been subject to the miniscule and critical analysis that footballers are very well qualified to make. The fact that he has come out smelling of roses is evidence indeed that here is a major new name in Spanish football.