Thursday, November 1, 2012
Misunderstood managerial imports
With increasing frequency, English football is compared to a soap opera. With an uncanny ability to draw attention to themselves, its stars have been involved in a series of ever more extreme plots, ones which stretch the boundaries of credibility but keep the audience riveted nonetheless. And yet, besides its more improbable developments, the national game has also borrowed another technique from long-running dramas by recycling an old story. The name and face are different but there is a distinct sense of déjà vu.
For Roberto Mancini now, read Rafa Benitez a few years ago. The Manchester City manager has much in common with the former Liverpool coach. These are men who attracted ardent support from their respective clubs' fans but whose achievements tended to be overlooked by a vocal band of sceptics.
Neutrals probably should afford both more credit but there is a school of thought that Liverpool prospered in spite of Benitez and that City now flourish regardless of Mancini. These are keen tacticians and inveterate tinkerers whose every move is scrutinised. The Spaniard's rotation policy became a lightning rod for criticism - he once went 99 games without naming an unchanged team - while the Italian's mid-match switches, particularly to a back three, have become controversial.
Yet City would not have claimed last season's title without Mancini's substitutions, just as Liverpool would not have been Champions League winners in 2005 but for Benitez's meddling. As Mancini may note, the Spaniard swapped to a back three in the final against AC Milan, with famously successful consequences. As both may lament, when Sir Alex Ferguson makes wholesale or unexpected changes, criticism is comparatively muted; when they do it, it is more of an issue.
Both ended a long wait for much-coveted trophies. Mancini made City English champions for the first time in 44 years while Benitez took Liverpool to the European crown for the first time in 21. Their methods, however, continued to confuse many. Both have adopted a zonal-marking system for defending set-pieces, with Benitez trying to provide statistical proof it was superior. The English, rooted in man-to-man marking, were not convinced and the issue has reared its head with every concession of a goal from a corner or free kick.
These are two managers the Brits have struggled to understand. They have been labelled defensive, yet more accurately, and despite Benitez's upbringing in Madrid, they have an Italian mentality. Tactical excellence mattered to both but they were pragmatists who embraced positivity, determining it the best way to prosper in the Premier League. Benitez's class of 2009 remain Liverpool's finest footballing side since Kenny Dalglish's lauded legends of 1988. Mancini's side scored 93 league goals last season, the most of any City team in the top flight since 1958. Both, clinically and brilliantly, dissected and destroyed Manchester United at Old Trafford, 4-1 and 6-1, results that cannot just be attributed to world-class players.
But both managers never became signed-up members of the old boys' network that rule the managerial ranks. Prompted by David Platt, Mancini makes more of an effort but these are outsiders in the coaching community. While Benitez can be amiable and Mancini is charming and funny in public, there can be a coldness with their charges. Unlike many a British motivator, who values team spirit above all else, man-management is not their priority. The feeling is that neither particularly cares if his players like him. Hence, perhaps, the hints of dissent from the City camp now and the Liverpool dressing room of days gone by.
But Benitez and Mancini's relationships with both powerbrokers and players can be fractious. These are political creatures, stubborn men with a desire for control, so transfers have been a particular flashpoint. Internal enemies have been made, men blamed for the failure to secure the two managers' preferred targets: chief executive Rick Parry at Anfield and former football administrator Brian Marwood at the Etihad Stadium.
Their dealings have long been debated, albeit for different reasons. Benitez's net spend was forever invoked by his devotees and both questioned and mocked by his doubters. Mancini, with a greater budget at his disposal, has been accused of buying success but many of his biggest signings have delivered, just as Benitez unearthed some bargains for Liverpool.
A fundamental difference between the two lies is in the context. Benitez managed during the regime of George Gillett and Tom Hicks and as Liverpool spiralled into crisis he lost a knack that had sustained him for the previous five seasons, of getting a result when he was under most pressure. It is a happy habit Mancini has, too, but his personal need for success may increase with the arrival of Txiki Begiristain as sporting director.
While both have won two major trophies for their English employers, the other dividing point is in their identities. Both lifted the FA Cup, but whereas Benitez claimed the Champions League, Mancini triumphed in the Premier League. In the process, each secured the piece of silverware the other desired most. Neither, however, has completely married English and European success in the same season.
It is a reason why their credentials are questioned. Perhaps they should not be: in one respect, these are our two most distinguished managerial imports. They are alone in arriving in the Premier League having won one of Europe's top three leagues at least twice. They have since been emulated by Mancini's replacement and Benitez's predecessor at Internazionale, Jose Mourinho. But whereas Mourinho's specialness, much as it grates many, is nevertheless acknowledged, there is no such consensus about Mancini and Benitez. They are eulogised by some and criticised by others.