Commentary

Neville's arrival at Inter Miami -- is this cronyism?

So Phil Neville  will be Inter Miami’s new coach. Is this, as the Miami bosses would have us believe, the beginning of an exciting new era in soccer (well, American soccer, or maybe just MLS soccer, come to that)?

Neville’s appointment quickly came under suspicion -- because Neville is a longtime buddy of franchise owner David Beckham. Let’s be clear about that: there is nothing wrong with helping your friends. It’s a worthy attitude. Why then would both Beckham and Jorge Mas (the managing owner of the club) want to so quickly and heatedly deny it?

Beckham trashes the suggestion: “It’s nothing to do with him being my friend. We are running a serious soccer club here ... we hire people that we feel are best suited for the job." Jorge Mas is aggressively indignant: “I’ll say it in more direct terms than David: Phil Neville was not handed the Inter Miami job. He earned the job.”

That all sounds just great, but it is in fact unconvincing right from the start. It is nonsense for Beckham to say that the appointment has “nothing to do” with his friendship with Neville. Of course it does. But, so what?

The friendship is not the problem. There is absolutely nothing wrong with hiring a longtime friend or associate, someone whose opinions and working-habits one knows, someone who is reliable, etc. Beckham is getting himself in a stew for the wrong reasons.

Hiring friends is fine -- provided they have the talent and the experience needed for the job. The questions and the suspicions about Neville revolve around that second point. Is Neville qualified for this job? If he is not, then what is at work is not friendship but cronyism. A very different mindset.

Mas says bluntly that Neville was not handed the job, he “earned it.” He explains: “There was a very thorough interview process. We conducted multiple interviews for the job with a myriad of candidates.” Which doesn’t tell me anything -- no names, vague numbers (multiple, myriad). Mas is giving us sales talk which, as always, can be (should be) ignored. Anyway, I cannot find anything in Mas’s background (Cuban-American, MA in Business Administration) that suggests he knows enough about soccer to be making judgements about coaching abilities.

Beckham knows soccer as well as anyone, but listening to him boost Neville’s talents doesn’t get us much further. The vagueness continues. Neville, says Beckham, will make decisions that “are best for the team,” as a leader “he’s the right man for the job.”

So far, neither Mas nor Beckham has come even close to mentioning anything that relates specifically to the sport of soccer. For instance: what style of soccer does Neville favor? Closely related to that -- and, to my mind, of vital importance in this particular job -- what does Neville know about Latin American soccer? Answers to just those two questions would start a genuinely meaningful look at Neville’s coaching qualifications.


Inter Miami managing owner Jorge Mas, sporting director Chris Henderson, Coach Phil Neville and owner, president of soccer operations David Beckham (L-to R).

Despite the reluctance of Beckham and Mas to discuss such important specifics, we can still take a look at Neville’s coaching record and whatever comments he himself may have made.

Before getting into that, I need to underline what I consider an important part of the Neville story. The fact that he is English, and that all his 19-year playing career was spent with English clubs. I regard that as significant because, of all the various national soccer cultures, the English version has proved to be the most insular, the most hostile to accepting outside (i.e. foreign) influences. With the result that English soccer has failed to keep up with the changing game. English coaches are not in demand worldwide for that straightforward reason: they are likely to bring with them an inevitably narrow approach to the game.

I’ll have more to say about that shortly. First, let me add a couple of comments about Neville’s “English approach” to the sport -- comments that expose a worrying penchant for physical play.

In 2013 Neville told Daily Mail readers how, 10 years earlier, he had watched the young Cristiano Ronaldo, newly arrived at Man United, mercilessly and deliberately kicked during practice by experienced players like Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, and Paul Scholes: “every time he got the ball they kicked him and they kicked him, -- not just once, they kicked him every day, every week, all season.” A process of “toughening up” that Neville evidently found useful -- after all, he points out, Ronaldo is now “the best player in the world.” In 2015, during a TV stint, Neville spotted Arsenal’s Tomáš Rosický playing a pass while looking in another direction. Neville protested -- if an opponent did that to him during training, he said, he would deliberately injure that player. He later admitted that the comment was unacceptable.

Coming right up to date, here’s a revealing quote from Phil Neville at his Inter Miami debut press conference, when he referred to “my short coaching career.” One suspects a momentary lapsus linguae -- we’re not used to that sort of unvarnished truth.

And truth it is. Neville’s coaching career is both short and uneventful. Starting in 2012, Neville had an assistant coach role with the England under-21 team. The following year he was interviewed for the vacant Everton job, but did not get it. He then became an assistant coach to Manchester United’s first team.

In 2015 he moved to Spain, as an assistant coach at Valencia. As he does not speak Spanish and had no experience whatever of Spanish soccer, the move smacked of colossal hubris. But maybe not, for he was a friend of Valencia’s owner. Neville left Spain in March 2016. As far as I can find, no glowing testimonials to his coaching ability followed any of these short-lived jobs.

Phil resurfaced in January 2018 as coach of England’s women’s team. Early results were promising, but by 2020 things were not going well for Neville. After a run of seven defeats in 11 games Neville admitted he was personally responsible for England's "unacceptable" form. He stepped down from the job on January 18, 2021. His Inter Miami appointment was announced the same day.

Frankly, I cannot see anything in that “short coaching career” that supports Jorge Mas’ claim that Neville has “earned” the Miami job. With that very ordinary record (note, Neville has never been in charge of a senior men’s team), I cannot imagine that Phil Neville was in great demand as a coach in England.

But I can now understand why both Beckham and Mas were so eager to attack any suggestions that Neville owed his appointment to his friendship with Beckham. Neville’s appointment does begin to look like cronyism.

We’re looking at a short and mediocre coaching record, plus the lack of any experience with Latino soccer or its players, plus the drawback of being an English coach. That last point can be demonstrated in a curiously persuasive way. In the current English Premier League, 8 of its 20 teams have an English coach. Of those teams, Aston Villa is in 9th position. The other seven teams occupy 7 of the last 8 positions in the league.

Beckham must know that the record of English coaches in MLS (there have been 13 of them) is not exactly stellar. And Neville himself seems to think his job is to prove that “foreign” (he means English) coaches can succeed in the USA. Could he really have proffered that reason to the Inter Miami selection committee?

What weighs heavily on my mind here, is that we seem to be going through a re-run of the melancholy events that so relentlessly sabotaged Atlanta’s sparkling success.

In December 2018, Atlanta announced a new coach. Like Neville, a big-name guy, but this one had some successful top-class coaching experience. Then came all the usual artificialities that nowadays accompany such announcements. The feverish praise from the owners and the suitably sycophantic comments from the coach. Everything was perfect it seemed, a match made in heaven, soccer heaven that is ... and so Atlanta sank very quickly from the most-exciting club MLS had ever seen down to just another MLS team. Good, yes, but exceptional? Forget it.

We had been assured by the Atlanta bosses that Frank de Boer was just the man for the job -- when it was painfully obvious that his qualifications were highly suspect. I mean -- immediately before his appointment de Boer had flopped spectacularly in Italy (Lasting only 85 days at Inter) and then at Crystal Palace in England (just 70 days). Add to that his glaring lack of experience with Latino players (who were, after all, the main reason for Atlanta’s brilliance) and you’re left wondering if the Atlanta people had any idea what they were doing. And why was anyone listening to them?

There are signs that this same sort of suicidal self-deception is at work in Miami. A new coach, Phil Neville, has been appointed. The perfect guy, of course. But questions have been raised about his qualifications for the job. Those qualifications are flimsy to put it charitably, suggesting that cronyism -- he is a longtime buddy of franchise owner David Beckham -- handed the job to Neville.

I am far from happy to have arrived at such a conclusion.

15 comments about "Neville's arrival at Inter Miami -- is this cronyism?".
  1. Bob Ashpole, February 3, 2021 at 3:24 a.m.

    I am not comfortable with judging a new coach's ability to perform before they have coached their first match. For whatever reason he was hired. Let's accept that. I look forward to your comments about Neville after the season has started.

  2. Paul Cox, February 3, 2021 at 10:04 a.m.

    The great thing about soccer overall is that sooner or later, the truth will win out. Chris Henderson might do a terrific job putting a superb collection of talent together (and heaven knows, his years of experience doing exactly that in Seattle makes it likely he will) but Neville will need to be able to do something with them, or it'll be obvious in the results.

  3. John Soares, February 3, 2021 at 11:56 a.m.

    There have been many "hires" of individuals that had a personal relationship with the owner or boss.
    Ultimately it's the results that matter.... and then it won't matter:)

  4. Steve Bacen, Jr., February 3, 2021 at 12:53 p.m.

    Give Neville a chance.  We almost made it last year in Lauderdale and have potential this year.  It's not like they are going to hire Rongren or Hudson to bring back the hey-days.  Where are our Muellers and Cabilluses and Best,
    (sorry) Marsch, Beckenbaur, Caugnalia, or our Strickers, Cosmos, or Rowdies teams? We need the new start n SoFla to compete.  Give him a chance,

  5. frank schoon, February 3, 2021 at 2:02 p.m.

    I don't know what the big deal here is? Has anyone ever taken advantage of what a friend can do for you, it happens all of the time. I have no idea what PG is crying about.? Maybe he doesn't like Neville, who knows, who cares.... Give him a chance to perform ,for it is all about results. 
    Face it ,he's had an impressive backround as player, he's coached some...give him a chance. My personal opinion is that I don't like English coaches for our soccer. Sorry, but English coaches ,except for Ferguson's success, have done nothing for the game. Even Ferguson has done nothing for the game, except did a great job with ManUtd, but took a few years...He got out just in time ,I think.

    PG's statement that Beckham's knows soccer as well as anyone,I take issue with...He was never known as a brain or a tactical field genius, he just had a wonderful skill in the passing ball; other than that ,he couldn't take on a lamppost one on one and that is why you never saw him taking on any player, 1v1. I find it a shame that considering we have 21million registered players we can't even produce someone who has half the ability of Beckham's passing.

    PG's rant about Ronaldo's treatment by tough players is the English way of toughening him up. The English in soccer, like to roll the sleeves up, take their dentures out, rub the Bengay on and go out there and fight. The English were the last country to institute substitution rule. Before if you had a broken leg, too bad, play...'stiff upper lip, as they say. This is why I like the scene in the movie Zulu, where in the end the Sargent took roll call after the battle ,like nothing ever happened.
    As far as know, Christian Renaldo had nothing but good things to say during the period he was in England....he passed the test and was successful and it build him as a formidable player.
                                            
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  6. frank schoon, February 3, 2021 at 2:14 p.m.

    Van Basten when he was 18 at Ajax, he was continually confronted by older Ajax players and by Johan Cruyff, that he often would leave practice crying as he went home. Everything he did was wrong ,commented upon, and i'm sure he was, putting it mildly, 'bumped' a few times more than you can count. Of course Cruyff as coach, he was very critical. A pass is not just a pass when playing for Ajax. Because Ajax players grow up with 4-3-3, all of their technical and tactical aspects have to tie in to this system. Cruyff  wanted passes given that are in front of receiver as he goes downfield never to the feet, in a matter that he doesn't have stop ,adjust his pace to the ball. Try that sometime, from the middle lane pass to an outside halfback ,back or wing, and how of the pass goes out of bounce. A pass has to go to the correct foot in relation to the opponent; the pass is given in relation so that the 3rd player  has continuity of play. The pass has to be received in a manner, that the player is most efficient in the follow movement. 

    Johnny Bosman, once scored a goal and Cruyff had a 15 minute discussion why he should have used the outside of the foot instead of the instep in this particular situation.  They were taught by Cruyff how to play 2v1 starting from midfield,which was difficult to do for the rule was that the last pass given to the open shooter must be that he is positioned directly facing the goal outside of the penalty area. In other words the last pass has to be so that the goalie can't play the angle, the shooter has to be standing in the center lane of the goal. Try that exercise and you'll find how difficult it is.

    Or for example, if you're  leftfooted and on the leftwing going downfield, and a long pass it made to you, then you don't trap or receive the ball with your leftfoot but outside of the right foot while moving. In this manner it is most efficient for you don't have to turn, causing you to take 3more steps if you want to beat the rightback on his outside. Or from midfield, you make a pass to the attacker up front  situated between the right back and the right center back, outside of the penalty box. And that is done by passing the ball low ,knee height or lower with outside of foot ,giving it enough clockwise spin, so as it hits the ground it will spin going around the right back right side while the attacker runs past the right back meeting the ball. This pass has the effect of forcing the back to either watch the ball or the attacker but he can't do both. That is how you wed technique with tactics

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  7. R2 Dad replied, February 5, 2021 at 1:32 p.m.

    "A pass is not just a pass when playing for Ajax. "


    This is why I enjoy reading your posts, Frank. Unfortunately your perspective is completely lost on all but a few amateur level coaches. By the time a player gets exposed to this way of thinking, it's too late in their development. The Dutch/Ajax way isn't the only way to think about playing the game, but for youths in an Hispanic environment I think it's the best of both worlds.

  8. frank schoon replied, February 5, 2021 at 1:59 p.m.

    R2, check out Bryan Reynolds....

  9. frank schoon, February 3, 2021 at 2:58 p.m.

    Players today aren't that technically proefficient, as the older generations. The demand of Ajax when Cruyff coached were so much more tougher than today for today's coaches were never that good ,technically speaking, in interpreting the technique in relation to the tactics employed. They neither have the eye to see it nor able to demonstrate it. This is why I have always preferred youth coaches who are very good technicians of the game for they are able to see more than a defender type who are more into organization, not individuality.

    Cruyff demands are tough. In one game, he took a player, Johnny van Schip, who was playing pretty good , out. Van Schip asked Cruyff why he was taken out". Cruyff stated 'didn't you see what was going wrong out there?". Schip ,replied, I knew, something was wrong, but I couldn't figure it out what it exactly was". Cruyff ,replied, now you know why!" He keeps you on your toes. 

    As a youth at Ajax at 18, everyone could tell Van Basten would become a star and that is why he received the abuse, for as Cruyff says, 'the highest trees receive the most wind". Van Basten couldn't understand, although playing for the first team he was sometimes send back from time to time to the second team or the 'B' team. It was in a way to toughen him up, they were looking for him since he was the best player ,top dog, to be the leader and show leadership qualities and to understand and be mindful playing with players of lesser abilities. In other words ,he had to learn to play with players who are not as good as he is, with lesser abilities thus forcing him to prepare for the eventuality of lesser passes or plays...Both Ronaldo and Van Basten became world stars....

    BTW, another game Ajax would practice for hours in the penalty area is 3v2. The rule is the only person allowed to shoot is the one who is open. That becomes a thinking chess match, just like the 2v1 where the last pass made is to the open player positioned directly in the centerlane outside of the penalty area.

  10. Vince Leone, February 3, 2021 at 3 p.m.

    I've got agree with Paul on this one. The failed transition from Tata Martino to de Boer at Atlanta is exhibit #1 for his arguement. Oscar Pareja's results at Orlando are exhibit #2. The bottom line is that it's obvious that the best overall pipeline for talent into the MLS is Latin America, and that has clearly improved the style of play. Based on his history, it's hard see how Neville is the best choice in either regard.

  11. Ric Fonseca, February 3, 2021 at 3:53 p.m.

    Ay-ay-ay!!! Dios mio, don Pablito el Jardinero!  Maybe the team's bosses ought to reach out for the former (/) Club America Coach, dubbed "El Piojo" (translation: The Louse) as he seems to "know" Latino players and then don Pablito el Jardinero will learn to reeeelax!??  I do have a question vis-a-vis Chris Henderson's position, he was an OK player at UCLA when Coach Sigi was there, but as an MLS player, oh well, why doesn't Pablito el Jardinero call him out?  

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, February 3, 2021 at 7:56 p.m.

    A couple of parting shots. 

    30 years ago there were distinct styles of play tied to culture. Today the best clubs have blended the styles. Personally IMO the best blend is the "Latin" short passing game applied to a sopisticated tactical framework like the Dutch Style Principles. The tactical principles add more pupose and discipline to the Latin possession approach. Combining the best of both cultures. And this was done 30 years ago. The labels don't matter. What matters is combining a technical possession style with chess like team tactics.

    MLS has always had a Latin America connection. DC United's early success was due to the magic triangle of Latin American players. Other clubs too had their Latin American stars. This is not some new development.

    The "English Premier League is not "English". English players and coaches are in the minority especially when compared to the demographics of the other top European leagues.

    No one can play in the Southwest without encountering an Hispanic influence. You might not consider them Hispanic players, but with it comes to soccer culture, both Dempsey and Donovan played in unaffiliated Hispanic Leagues. This was before USSF current policy prohibiting play in Hispanic Leagues and forbidding women and girls from playing in men's leagues. Self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot.

  13. R2 Dad replied, February 5, 2021 at 1:36 p.m.

    Ric I would love to see Herrera on the touchline in MLS. Gets the best from his players, is an entertaining nuisance and makes great TV watching. Would need a Piojo-cam just to watch him prowl the technical area.

  14. R2 Dad replied, February 5, 2021 at 1:37 p.m.

    Well-observed, Bob.

  15. R2 Dad, February 5, 2021 at 1:52 p.m.

    I understand the stereotypical English game grates on the nerves of PG for it's lack of creativity and unecessary reliance on physicality. But UEFA and the EPL have moved on since the 90's, as Bob attests. This is obvious by studying foul calls inside the 18, and the carding for professional fouls in open play. Yes, Neville is old-school, but from the class of '92 so his knuckles don't drag too often.
    Neville needs the opportunity to fail here, as I suspect DB would like nothing more than additional English coaches in the EPL. He's not Dyche or Big Sam; the English women's team didn't rely on overly physical play in the last couple of years. 
    Big picture I think Neville will struggle getting the best out of Hispanic players, but could also work on speaking Spanish in an Hispanic-flavored town. He might want to return to Spain in (the) future to coach and a Spanish/English location would help him get there.
    Miami is the burial ground for sports franchises, so history is working against Golden Balls. I wish him luck. Good thing he has deep pockets.

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