Celebrity coaches -- who needs them?

By Paul Gardner

I am still finding it difficult to come to terms with the extraordinary way in which coaches have come to dominate our game. Have hijacked it, in fact.

Going back many eons, to my dim and distant high school days, of course we boys all had our favorite teams, and of course we all knew a lot about them -- their history, their stadiums, their achievements. And of course, and particularly, we knew all about their current players.

But we were highly unlikely to know the names of the coaches. I cannot recall any discussions or frantic arguments over coaches and coaching. Admittedly, this was England. Coaching was regarded as something you needed if you didn’t have good players. It was something the inferior foreigners relied upon. In that Neanderthal era, tactics was not even a dirty word, it was simply something that didn’t enter the soccer equation.

So we got along just fine without all the coaching and tactical talk and theories and bullshit that prevail today. I think the real essentials of the sport -- the drama, the excitement, the skills, the thrills, the disappointments and so on -- were all there. 

In particular, the goals were there -- we had plenty of those, between three and four per game. The current English Premier League, in its 24 seasons of existence, has averaged 2.6 goals per game, never getting higher than 2.8.

I’m not about to claim that the game was better in the old days. Today’s game is certainly faster and more sophisticated. Faster because the players are better trained and fitter, more sophisticated because of the rise of coaching.

The problem I still have with that last factor is that the increasing importance of coaches has been accompanied by two trends that I see as entirely negative.

Firstly: parallel with the rise of coaches has come the decline of goalscoring. Cause and effect? I believe so. Not that coaches set out to banish goals, but they know that defensive play is easier to control than attacking play, so defensive tactics are widely employed.

Secondly: the growing importance of coaches has come, inevitably, at the expense of the players’ importance. Coaching was originally understood as something that was done during practice sessions, as preparation for games. Nowadays, you could be excused for thinking that all the coaching is done during the game, that the players weren’t listening during the practice sessions. Watching exasperated coaches yelling and gesticulating on the sidelines has become a standard feature of modern games.

Something I, for one, could do without. We can thank FIFA for this. Up until 1993, the FIFA rules of the game included a strict ban on coaching from “the boundary lines.” But the 1993 rules reversed that, telling us that “the coach may convey tactical instructions to players during the match.”

Thus was the way opened up for the appearance of the celebrity coach, the sideline madman who seems to be trying to control every moment of the game.

FIFA allowed this development, television turned it into a comedy routine, and the nonsense continues. I was referring just now to the EPL -- and this is a good league to study for appreciating (hardly the right word, certainly not for me) the now overweening presence of the coach.

Back in those high school days we had tasty games to watch out for. ManCity vs. ManU was one of them. As it still, very much, is. We knew it as Manchester City vs. Manchester United. A week or two back, the most recent version was played. Its name, apparently, has changed. This time around it was frequently referred to as Guardiola vs. Mourinho.

Such is the stature of those two guys, the world’s most well-known celebrity coaches, that their names can be used instead of their club names in the confidence that everyone will understand the connection.

No doubt that’s true. I can’t say I like it, but does it really matter? I’d say no, it doesn’t -- after all it’s only yet another example of dopey marketing minds at work.

In practice, it should be a good development. The world’s two top coaches must surely give us a classic game, no?

This time they didn’t even come close. In fact, it soon became obvious they weren’t even trying. What they gave us -- these two wonder-coaches, in charge of teams loaded with brilliant players -- was a crock of you-know-what -- a vapid 0-0 tie. A thoroughly lousy game -- simulacrum soccer at its plodding, pitiful, pedestrian worst.

The reasons were clear enough. Neither coach wanted to lose the game, and along with it the chance to play in Europe next year. Fair enough. But how utterly sad and, really, repellant that the way to success in that aim is to reduce the world’s greatest sport to a relentless bore.

The game looked all the worse because a few days earlier we had watched the Spanish clasico in which Real Madrid and Barcelona -- also playing a key game -- had given us a wonderful display of attacking soccer and a superb game to remember.

It can be argued that both coaches -- Zinedine Zidane for Real and Barca’s Luis Enrique -- were foolish, and that Zidane paid the penalty by losing the game, 3-2, to a stoppage time goal to Lionel Messi. The logic of that argument is that caution and negativity are always the sensible options.

In which case, the sport would be a hell of a lot better off without the celebrity coaches. Maybe we’d miss the sideline antics, but no one is going to lament the passing of games that are stinkers -- terrible games not because that’s the way things turned out, but because the coaches have emasculated their own players and ordered them to perform negatively.

Are Guardiola and Mourinho -- whose teams have not exactly set the EPL afire this season -- justifying their huge salaries by setting before us a game that could have been the work of an average fourth-division coach?

Yet ... and I have made this point before -- the ultimate responsibility for this disgrace, for this slur on the good name of the sport, lies with the sport’s controlling bodies, particularly with IFAB and FIFA. They know what is going on, they also know what coaches know -- that the sport’s stats clearly support the belief that defensive play is the way to keep their jobs -- yet they do absolutely nothing to alter the structure of the sport, to reverse the defensive trend, and replace it with an attacking outlook in which scoring goals becomes the most important part of the sport.

Is that possible? Why not? Soccer’s rules are whatever we decide we want them to be. They can be changed, should be changed, if the sport is losing its way.

That is an argument for another day. But anyone who thinks that nothing can -- or needs to be -- changed is going to have to tell me why it makes sense for two of the world’s best coaches, plus some two dozen of the world’s best players, to combine to lay on 90 minutes of high-priced boredom.

16 comments about "Celebrity coaches -- who needs them? ".
  1. R2 Dad, May 19, 2017 at 12:35 a.m.

    Good points, all. I would note that United lost 1-2 back in September at home, so losing the second match away would add insult to injury (to JM's ego). Playing away usually encourages the visiting team to play a more conservative match, so a draw was always preferred to a loss. Also, United claimed a raft of injuries which lead to a depleted side so counter-punching made "more sense" to JM. For City, PG has run out of excuses but since it's his first season he gets a hall pass as long as he secures CL play (which seems a certainty at this point).

  2. John Soares, May 19, 2017 at 11:12 a.m.

    Keep the coach in his seat!

  3. :: SilverRey ::, May 19, 2017 at 1:09 p.m.

    I think you're letting Mourinho color your view of the 'celeb coach' with all of his gravity. And yes, he coaches a boring game. There are plenty of coaches who play attacking soccer - I suggest watching them instead.
    If you're complaining about a 0-0 draw, well good luck with that. Evenly matched teams - no matter what level - will cancel each other out.
    Btw, they have changed the offside rule multiple times over the last two decades to give the offense more of an advantage, so it's not like FIFA is advocating defensive soccer - I'm not sure why it's their fault. Are you campaigning for the goals to be bigger?
    Lastly, don't believe the hype. If you are looking for entertaining soccer EPL isn't necessarily the place to go.

  4. Scott Johnson, May 19, 2017 at 2:22 p.m.

    Professional soccer managers, in some ways, remind me of NCAA men's basketball coaches. In one big way this is true--it seems that the important job of the top-rank soccer coach is not tactics or game management, but scouting and recruiting. (And in pros, the herding of cats). That said, this is also a bit like the cult of personality surrounding directors in other fields outside sport--business executives (how often do failing companies pay top-dollar for outside CEOs said to have "visionary" talent, who then fails to fix the problems that doomed the company in the first place), symphony orchestras (which, with the notable exception of St. Martin-in-the-fields, are ALL about celebrity conductors; the ensemble musicians being considered entirely interchangeable), etc. It might simply be yet another form of self-dealing, at worst.

  5. R2 Dad, May 19, 2017 at 2:46 p.m.

    How about shrinking the technical area to 1 meter? Then all the coach can do is pop up from his seat in the dugout like a whack-a-mole, rant, then return. No pacing, no excessive remonstrating--just enough space to talk to players but that's it.

  6. Gus Keri, May 19, 2017 at 3:35 p.m.

    The same FIFA rules that you are complaining about brought us the Real Madrid vs. Barcelona game that you praised so highly. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.

  7. Fire Paul Gardner Now, May 19, 2017 at 4:15 p.m.

    Pep, Jose - who needs them right? What have those guys ever won?

  8. Ben Myers, May 19, 2017 at 5:38 p.m.

    Guardiola and Mourinho are over-rated as coaches. Give Guardiola a squad like he had at Bayern or Barca and he is lauded as a coach for his galacticos who win the matches. Give him ManCity and his coaching looks pedestrian, like his team badly in need of rebuilding. Mourinho's ManU played more draws than any other EPL team and had far and away the worst goal scoring in the top 7 EPL teams. Mourinho's brand of negative coaching ran Chelsea into the ground and Conte picked them up, adding one under-rated marquee player, n'Golo Kante. Conte went to a much more dynamic and attacking back three, recognizing that he had the right mix of players to pull it off. Of the EPL coaches, I like Conte, Pochettino and Klopp. They all show a positive attitude toward their players, even if Conte raves on and on during Chelsea matches. And their teams play positive soccer. Klopp gets a lot of credit for getting the most out of a less sparkling team.

  9. Scot Sutherland, May 19, 2017 at 5:53 p.m.

    What is the purpose of a soccer game? To entertain or win? If both do not occur, which is more important? I don't pretend to have a definitive answer, but I know who gets the rewards...the winner. So until entertainment becomes more important than winning there will be boring games. A good game for me is a competitive game, a game in which either team can be the winner. I don't like gross mismatches on a weekly basis like this year's Chelsea and Sunderland. The two clubs don't belong in the same league because Sunderland cannot field enough quality to compete. I would be fine with eliminating all coaching from the sideline as long as there would be a enforceable consequence such as red carding the captain. But I also like to see a coach make a quality tactical decision during the game that changes the fortunes of the team, even without a substitution.

  10. Nick Daverese, May 19, 2017 at 7:27 p.m.

    The thing I liked in years past was when teams played man defense. Man defense is man close to the ball and a zone further away from the ball. Teams had to practice a lot on individual defending and team defending. It was like have a lot of ball winners like the defensive mid now. Also you got a lot of intercepted passes so that lends to trying to counter before the opponent could get into their defensive shape. I liked to play that way won a lot by playing that way.

  11. Nick Daverese, May 19, 2017 at 7:35 p.m.

    I also predict 10 years from now we won't have many players who are great in the air. We are not that good in the air now. But with this no heading rule for kids as they say forget about it.

  12. R2 Dad replied, May 22, 2017 at 2:46 p.m.

    Nick, you might be right but for the wrong reasons. Preventing kids under 12 from heading the ball won't make future players poor in the air. These recent league rules about reducing head injuries are a good idea. Very little player development is thwarted as a result. What WILL make a difference is the relatively less play time kids get outside of soccer practice, compared to kids 15 years ago (before smart phones). Fewer hours of play, kids playing fewer sports, leads to poorer hand-eye coordination and that IS important for field players. The quantity of headed balls means nothing--the LEAST skilled players head the ball more instead of chesting the ball down or trapping. Quality/technique of headed balls and the position on the field where heading is employed do matter, but delaying that until 12 or 13 will not make or break a top talent. But it will help the vast majority of youth players at those ages who might otherwise pick up a head injury.

  13. Gonzalo Munevar, May 20, 2017 at 12:13 a.m.

    Paul is exactly right. Again.

  14. MA Soccer, May 20, 2017 at 6:07 a.m.

    oh, the good ol days.

  15. Rich Blast, May 21, 2017 at 1:42 p.m.

    Media helps this along. In basketball you here Lebron versus Curry, last I checked there were five guys on the court. In soccer, I have heard many times thing like Messi versus Ronaldo , We are not playing 1 v 1. Taking it to coach A versus coach B is even worse!

  16. Jose Moreno, August 1, 2017 at 1:47 a.m.

    Paul, I enjoy soccer because of the talent and concentration of dedicated soccer players perform on the field, not because of any set plays by someone outside the playing fields is controlling their performance, I believe coaching should be selecting the team players and training before the game and substituting during the game with few recomendations

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications