By Paul Gardner
It has been a sweet and sour week. Sweet because the UEFA Champions League and the Europa League have produced some remarkable games and some outstanding individual player performances. Sour because the coaches have been so much the focus of attention.
Modern coaches -- I call them koaches -- have a glaring problem. A behavioral problem. Gone are the days when the coach sat quietly, unobtrusively, on the bench, a barely noticeable figure. The new image of the koach is quite different -- and we can thank television for this. It is TV that has dragged the koach away from the bench, where he surely belongs, and given us the studio and interview pundit, which, we now know, is merely the first step toward becoming a celebrity koach.
A laughable arrangement that is based on two colossal errors. First, the studio error: The idea that koaches, as pundits, are articulate and full of soccer savvy and wisdom -- that they always have interestingthings to say. When, generally speaking, they have little to offer but platitudes.
The second error is the bench error: Where close and constant attention from TV cameras is breeding a generation of koaches who know that hyper-activity -- whether it’s wild arm-waving, frantic shouting, or pacing and racing about or, more likely, the whole gamut -- is good for their TV chances.
But where the first error is undeniable, it is more than likely that the second error is seen by both TV and the koaches as a desirable development.
So we have the emetic adolescent behavior of Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp set before us. That is the climax -- or the nadir, if you prefer to see it that way -- of the bench scenario. It comes on top of countless bench shots from the TV cameras showing koaches looking furious or desperate or pensive or merely blank-faced.
Very occasionally a koach may smile a genuine smile. But that is rare. Hilarity on the bench is tolerated only when a goal is scored, or a victory assured -- and then we get those embarrassing scenes of middle-aged men jumping up and down and flinging their arms around each other.
Should you be looking for dignity, the so-called tactical area is not the place to be. Far from dignity, this new koaching license to behave badly can spill over into outright ugliness. Earlier this year, in England, we saw the Newcastle coach Alan Pardew head-butt an opposing player, and just last week we were treated to the delights of a sideline scuffle during which Chelsea’s assistant coach Rui Faria appeared to be hell-bent on assaulting the referee.
Now, wouldn’t you know it, one of the guys on the sideline trying to restrain Faria -- trying to restore some dignity, in other words -- was Jose Mourinho. Who is probably the worst example of the modern, ill-behaved, platitudinous, abrasive, koach that I can think of.
Mourinho has been heard from quite a lot lately, defending his team’s tactics. Another koach, Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers (who lost to Chelsea) poured withering scorn on Chelsea’s negative approach, saying that such an approach hardly warranted the term “tactics.” All of which sounded pretty close to the truth to me.
But no. We were later informed by Mourinho that Rodgers (“I consider him my friend” said Mourinho) had telephoned him and congratulated him on “a great victory” and everything was OK because Rodgers “now understood.”
A small incident that emphasizes why paying much attention to what koaches say is rarely worth the bother.
Mourinho has also told us that those who criticize Chelsea’s negative approach simply haven’t a clue, that they are merely “philosophers.” Mourinho then watched his Chelsea team soundly beaten, at home, by Atletico Madrid.
The tactics? Not much was said about them. But one of his players, Eden Hazard, had something to say, alleging that Chelsea was “not made to play football.” So back comes Mourinho to tell us that it was Hazard’s mistake that gave Atletico its first goal and that Hazard “is not the kind of player to sacrifice himself for the team” -- this despite the fact that Mourinho has tried “to improve him all season.”
The fact that Hazard has, arguably, been Chelsea’s best player this season, that he has been voted the Young Player of the Year in the EPL, all of that means nothing when he can be tarred as the culprit for a loss that surely owed much more to Mourinho’s faulty tactics than to Hazard’s alleged error.
But Mourinho is good as a celebrity koach, always seeking headlines, always ready to make wild allegations, however unjustified. It was Mourinho’s untrue accusations that led to Swedish referee Anders Frisk retiring from the game in 2005 after his family had received threatening phone calls. No apology was ever offered by Mourinho.
More recently, his statement, back in February, that the Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger is “a specialist in failure” was typically vindictive and provocative.
Inevitably, Wenger had to reply, so we got one of those boring exchanges of recriminations that disfigure the current coaching scene. More recently, Wenger has felt obliged to defend histeam, and apparently they too are not to be criticized, because they have consistency. They haven’t won anything since 2005 ... well, yes, that’s consistency.
In Germany, after Bayern Munich was wiped out by Real Madrid, we had another angle on the modern koach, the one who says it was all his fault. Does Pep Guardiola really mean that, or is he preparing to depart from Bayern?
These guys - from the publicity-hound Mourinho to the sideline activist Guardiola to the relatively sedate Wenger -- can we trust anything they say? Indeed, do they ever say anything that’s worth listening to?
It would be nice to hear them talking about their players. But that’s something of a no-no in today’s game, when we are supposed to bow down before the “team comes first” approach. Under that heading, star individuals -- like Hazard, shall we say? -- are automatically suspect. And where would as dreary and as mechanical a view of the game come from, other than from the koaches? What better way of putting those overpaid stars -- certainly earning a great deal more than the coaches -- in their place?
Which brings us back to the TV studios, where so much of this modern celebrity-koach culture began. They have the players much more under control. There, they deal with virtual players, just shirts with numbers on, that appear on giant soccer-field screens. Boy, this is the way to play a game, how easy it is for the experts to move these shirts around, put them here, put them there, wherever you want, without a word of complaint.
Whether or not that approach -- the chess approach, the ability to totally control the movements of robotic units -- is what the modern koaches have in mind, it is certainly where their overweening egos are taking us.
I mean, a talented player like Hazard having the gall to imagine that he can play soccer without being told how to by Mourinho? I am reminded of another modern soccer koach, also noted for his arrogant comments -- the Dutchman Louis van Gaal. During his time coaching Barcelona, van Gaal had a running argument with the Brazilian Rivaldo. Rivaldo, a prodigious goalscorer, wanted to play centrally. Van Gaal insisted he should play on the left. Never mind that, in 1999, Rivaldo had been voted FIFA World Player of the Year, Coach van Gaal knew best. He even told the world that Rivaldo owed all his fame to the time he’d spent under van Gaal’s guidance.
His addiction to charts and diagrams and arrows and crosses prompted a Barcelona journalist to write that van Gaal “... seems at times to forget that he is working with human beings, not machines.”
And now it seems that van Gaal may be headed to Manchester United. Whatever that may do for the caliber of EPL play, it will certainly raise the amount of sophomoric invective. Assuming, that is, that Mourinho hangs on to his job at Chelsea.