Where do you draw the line between progression and success?

Where do you draw the line between progression and success?

After Luis Enrique announced his seemingly inevitable resignation as Barcelona coach, he made a poignant statement: “The reason clearly had to do with the way of life I need to have in this profession, constantly having to find solutions, constantly trying to improve my team,” he said. “I need to rest.”

The Spaniard has been worn down, fatigued, almost broken by the incessant demand for success at the Catalan club. An insatiable appetite for trophies has been created at a club that, before relatively recently, were by no means a constant fixture at the top of the European game.

Barcelona are not alone in this complacent assumption that they will be, without fail, challenging for every trophy, every season. They are, in a way, symbolic and indicative of the current culture of modern football that has left coaches with much to consider when deciding how they approach their constantly scrutinised jobs.

Enrique’s words were interesting for a number of reasons. They pointed out not only the clear lack of time for a coach at the top level, but also the unenviable pressure that seems to be only increasing as the game becomes more and more commercialised. Gabriele Marcotti revealed in a recent article for ESPN just how little of a full season is actively spent on the training pitch, using Bayern Munich’s Carlo Ancelotti as the example.

Marcotti calculated that the Italian coach will this campaign have a rough estimate of seven-and-a-half hours per month with a full squad to do a full training session. This is a result of many factors, varying from international breaks, injuries and fixture congestion, and is proving to be an undeniable, seemingly unavoidable issue for coaches. Add to this the sheer perpetual expectation on coaches in the top leagues of Europe, and it has become something of a recipe for disaster.

Coaches are now increasingly, and understandably, focused on simply succeeding at all costs, placing wild pragmatism ahead of progression. It has become an accepted part of a manager’s repertoire that they will adjust, simply do what is necessary to bring the team they are currently coaching the success that is so craved. But herein lies the problem; success in football is fleeting, forgotten in an instant.

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Take the well-documented dismissal of Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri. It was a perfect example of how football is a game of constant change, one now without sentiment, and one which could begin to appear arbitrary. As Marcelo Bielsa once said: “Success is only one exception that occurs from time to time.”

Everything in football points towards the reality that winning trophies is not the only thing of importance. But still, there is a blinkered view amongst the majority that it is all that matters. Much of this is created by sections of the media, and by the ever-growing financial demands of the game, creating an illusion of a lack of time, an absence of breathing space for a coach to work with any freedom. Results are king, method is obsolete. This is unlikely to change.

The media – particularly the tabloids – will continuously look to create a feeling of pressure on managers, while the game is inevitably only going to become more economically driven in the years to come. All of this is a hindrance for those coaches that see the bigger picture – the progression of football on a tactical level, both through influence and philosophy.

Football did not magically appear in its current state. The first ever game of football would appear almost unrecognisable to most of us – an unorganised, incoherent mess. It has, of course, drastically changed, but only through the innovators and pioneers, and those willing to take a risk. Without that thoughtful approach, it would not be what it is today, but that doesn’t mean that progression can just stop.

Herbert Chapman in the 1920s, for example, was the first example of what would now be considered a modern manager in England, and without his impact in the formative years of football, it may be that many of the things taken for granted today would not be present.

It’s unarguably more difficult to be the instigator of such change with the game no longer in such a linear stage, but there are those that still place great importance in the aim of doing so. One of those is Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola.

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This is a man obsessed with constantly perfecting his own idyllic philosophy, to the point where the ideology can often be prioritised over results. He would not be naive enough to entirely abandon an element of pragmatism within his playing model, but Guardiola is the coach that perhaps most ardently advocates the essential need to influence the next generation of coaches, and inspire others.

He was a student of Johan Cruyff, who in turn learnt from Rinus Michels and so on. Guardiola, while at Bayern, expressed a desire to oversee the learning process of players with coaching potential; the likes of Xabi Alonso, Manuel Neuer and Javi Martínez.

For progression to come in football, it requires risk, selflessness and a studious, dedicated mind. “There are a lot of coaches around today who play a very reactive game,” Guardiola said in Marti Perarnau’s book The Evolution. “I mean them no disrespect but we’re different. We’re carrying on the work of Cruyff, of Juanma Lillo, of the Brazil of the 1970s, of Menotti and Cappa, Ajax, the Magyars. We’re their natural heirs and of course we’ll lose sometimes. But the sun will still rise the next day and we’ll go on dreaming our dreams, doing our thing. In football, nobody wins all the time.”

Guardiola points to the ‘reactive’ game so prevalent in football today, although it is something that is often highly praised. Coaches that ‘find a way of winning’ are often hailed for their pragmatic, realistic, perhaps unpretentious approach, and as a result see no need to view their roles as anything other than the man who works out how to win. A coach like a Guardiola, or a Biesla, meanwhile, might appear dogmatic to the typical football fan, stuck in their idealistic methods, unwilling to change when it seems that something is evidently not working.

A good example of this is with Guardiola’s backing of Claudio Bravo at Manchester City this season, and the criticism he received for persevering with a goalkeeper considered better with his feet than with his hands. But he won’t change his principles, regardless of the views of others. This is a coach that views pragmatism as a choice, not a requirement.

Possibly the most important question, then, is what is most important: success at all costs or progression and innovation? What is perhaps rarely noticed is the adverse effect success can have on a coach, and indeed a team. Ranieri at Leicester proved that even the most astonishing victory can quickly become sour, tarnished and end in tears.

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It appears that Ranieri and his players were distracted, made complacent by the noisy, inescapable hysteria of success, and made ignorant to the silent, camouflaged concept of progression. It’s no real surprise that Ranieri decided to make almost no changes to side that so spectacularly won the Premier League, but football is a game in a constant state of flux. Unfortunately, while success is a visible, reachable target, progression can be compared to evolution; drawn out, often not noticeable as it occurs, but essential nonetheless.

One of the most historic instances of influence came in the 1974 World Cup and the Netherlands team led by Michels. Although they lost in the final to an excellent West Germany side, the Oranje would prove an inspiration throughout world football with their Total Football approach to the tournament. It’s certainly not unfair to say that that team, encapsulated by the outstanding Cruyff, are more widely revered and recognised than the team that beat them to win the game’s most coveted trophy.

Michels side, in his own words, “hunted” the ball, playing an attacking, pressing game and introducing a new brand of stylish, aesthetic positional play replicated by many in various forms in the years to come.

There are coaches in the modern game that strive to play expansive, ambitious football; Guardiola, Eddie Howe at Bournemouth, Quique Setién at Las Palmas to name a few, but these are the minority. Many coaches conform to the mantra that the sole purpose of football is to win, and while there is undeniably an element of truth in that, there simply has to be more to the game than just victory.

There have been numerous examples in the past where a coach’s previous success is simply forgotten after a period of decline – Enrique and Ranieri recently – which only serves to point out how futile and contradictory the almost unhealthy obsession with success is in today’s game.

David Mitchell summed up, in typically cynical fashion, exactly why the game has to be looked at with far less tunnel vision, and far more contemplation, in a Mitchell and Webb sketch. “Every football team will be playing football several times and in various combinations,” he said, mocking a Sky Sports presenter. “You can catch all of that football here, where we’ll be showing all the football, all the time. Catch all of the constantly happening football here. It’s all here, and it’s all football, always. Watch it all, all here, all the time, forever – it will never stop. The football is officially going on forever.”

Read  |  ‘That was Cruyff’: how a legend changed the game

Mitchell is clearly not a football fan, but that doesn’t mean to say that his point is not a good one. The game has a relentless tendency to continue moving forward, with no time for reflection, no time for consideration, and most importantly, no time for experimentation, implementation. Today’s climate, with an abundance of gratuitously money-driven agents, TV deals and social media hype, and indeed the aforementioned lack of time on the training pitch, mean that it is supremely difficult for coaches to concentrate on anything other than winning the next game. But ideas can still be put forward and new methods can be taught.

If indeed football is “officially going on forever”, it’s crucial that those willing to advocate change are prevalent figures in the game, and not shunned to the side by those motivated only by the financial benefits of avoiding relegation in the Premier League, for example.

“A man who has new ideas is a madman until his ideas succeed,” says Bielsa. The Argentine coach is an encouraging example of a man that puts his philosophy and ideology ahead of the mad rush for immediate success. To dismiss him as a hipster coach is to take a blinkered view of his work. Bielsa has not been the most successful of coaches, his career is not laden with trophies, but he is not revered simply for his idiosyncratic and unorthodox methods. He is an innovator, a student, a teacher, and a philosopher of football. Most importantly, he has inspired countless others, and continues to search for improvement, new ideas and development.

Bielsa, Guardiola, Michels, Cruyff; these will all be names remembered in years to come for their impact on the game, perhaps more so than some that have accumulated more silverware. The reason for this is that, as David Mitchell so mockingly points out, football will never stop – or will at least go on for very long time to come.

Trophy winners are remembered in many cases, of course, but it is the coaches that bring progression that, in a hundred years’ time, will likely be not just remembered, but respected, documented and even immortalised. As difficult as it is, managers must consider their legacy, and the game’s development, while attempting to avoid the unforgiving grasp of modern football’s irrepressible need for short term success.

As American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin once said: “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”

By Callum Rice-Coates  @callumrc96

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