Are ex-players as managers the winning formula?

By Abhiram Girgaonkar

Across European football, there seems to be a trend of clubs appointing club legends as their managers. As a franchise manager, you are often exposed to criticism, but when you are bound with the club and its fan base, it can either make it easier or worsen your relationship with the club. How does a player’s legendary status affect his tenure at the club as its manager?

Firstly, in an ideal situation, the manager would clearly understand the club’s functions and what it expects of him. Therefore he can take lesser time to settle into his new role. We saw this in the first few weeks of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time at United. The Norwegian had entered a drab dressing room that needed upheaval both in morale and in form. The dressing room had fallen apart due to Mourinho, Solskjaer’s predecessor. He wasted no time setting things right on the pitch, going on a winning run that saw United revive the poor individual seasons of marquee players Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford. 

Secondly, the manager gets a long rope to hang on to if he is on the verge of getting the sack. This is an ongoing situation at United. Solskjaer seems out of his depth, and Mourinho was sacked for far less. United are a capsizing ship without any escape plan. Their escape plan would have been to sack Solskjaer and appoint a world-class manager in his place. The entire footballing world knows that the only reason he is still in his job is due to his legacy at United. This borrowed time that seems to be handed out at will does more good than harm in this case. Of course, Solskjaer doesn’t fire himself, nor does he employ himself. This is all down to the Glazers and the Board. Mikel Arteta at Arsenal was staring down the barrel as well; however, it looks as though he seems to have steadied the ship a little after a couple of disastrous seasons. 

So why do clubs stay stubborn and keep inexperienced club legends as managers? The simple answer to this question might be emotion. Emotion sometimes overrides judgments, and some might say it hurts them more when one of their favourites fails at his job. Real Madrid acted in the exact opposite, bordering on harsh treatment. Zidane left the post twice because of rumours which swirled around after every lousy performance. This speaks a lot for a manager who had won them (Real) a UCL three-peat and a couple of league titles. Real hold no sentiment over treatment of players, but Zidane’s situation left everyone dumbfounded. On the other side of the Madrid divide, Diego Simeone seems to have created a separate legacy as Atletico’s greatest manager ever. At Barcelona, Xavi appears to have landed his dream job only due to sentiment and his barely concealed infatuation for playing the Cruijff way. The only way to judge a manager is to separate the emotion attached to him, which United are failing to do. 

The trend across the English clubs in the 19-20 season was to appoint inexperienced managers. Before he was appointed as the Chelsea boss, Frank Lampard had a stint at Derby, who had failed to gain promotion. Lampard was backed in the summer of 2020, signing seven players but couldn’t get them to perform. Chelsea have a sacking culture and wasted no time showing Lampard the door and welcoming Thomas Tuchel as their new manager. Tuchel then went on to win the UCL with pretty much the same group of players. Chelsea’s pragmatic approach seems to have finally borne fruit. Mikel Arteta had only assisted Pep Guardiola at City when he was back at the Emirates. An FA cup trophy masked the problems within the squad, finishing 8th twice in the league in two seasons. Europa League performances weren’t any better as Arsenal crashed out in the quarterfinals and semifinals in 19-20 and 20-21, respectively.  Solskjaer had won a couple of league titles in his native Norway before entering Old Trafford. Any United fan would concur when I say that Solskjaer’s cv did not match that of a United manager. However, credit has to be given where it’s due. Solskjaer has done a fine job of directing United through choppy waters and has assembled a world-class at United which is ready to take the next step.  

It’s safe to say that appointing a club legend as the manager is seldom the winning formula. It has yet to work in England, and I doubt it will. Sentiment and inexperience cloud the proper judgment of the manager, which is detrimental to the progress of the club. Player-managers should steer away from coaching their former clubs, though one could see why they would want to in the first place. Clubs should look to appoint managers who can guide them to footballing riches, and ex-players do not seem to know those directions. 

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