Marcelo Bielsa, Neil Warnock, and re-evaluating the way that we think about coaches

Marcelo Bielsa, Neil Warnock, and re-evaluating the way that we think about coaches

I have rarely enjoyed moments in modern football like I did Marcelo Bielsa’s press conference a few weeks ago. In the span of 70 minutes, Bielsa explained exactly how his teams prepared for the opponent. There were no clichéd phrases. No indefinable terminology (heart, passion, mentality) to hide behind – just the exhaustive data-driven analysis of each opposition, and an explanation of how it was then used to structure Leeds individual game plans.

This wasn’t a defence of spying – it was a rebuttal of the true reason that he was on trial: Marcelo Bielsa is an outsider in one of the world’s most insular leagues, and with no prior experience of English football and a mid-table side on arrival, he’s embarrassing the old boys’ club by putting the myth of the Championship to rest. 

Make no mistake, this was a watershed moment for the league. Every team in the Championship has backroom staff with access to the same information that Bielsa presented. But do you really believe that any other managers in the league personally know Tom Lawrence’s exact tendencies on the ball, and then use this knowledge to subtly change the shape of their team when Lawrence and Duane Holmes rotate wings? Not a chance. 

But why is that? Doesn’t every team deserve a manager that takes his job as seriously as Bielsa? I would think so. Supporters believe so. Even Bielsa himself agreed when he stated that, “We think that it’s professional behaviour” – and he’s completely right. It’s his simply his job to know to know everything related to his role as the manager of Leeds. This was the true heart of the “Spygate” issue.

Bielsa isn’t some sort of mythical Argentine tactical genius. He’s a man that respects his profession to the degree that he leaves no stone unturned in preparation, and in doing so, has found trouble in exposing those in the game that skate by simply on cliché, reputation and networking. And this isn’t to say that all, or even most, managers rely on the former crutches. But simply by raising the rhetoric of how English football is spoken about, Bielsa has done a massive service in revealing a real, much wider problem in the modern game: too many of those in charge believe that their positions are a right rather than a privilege, and have been enabled in doing so for far too long. 

Take Neil Warnock’s recent comments on Brexit as an example. When asked about the transfer window, Warnock instead brought up Brexit, stating: “I can’t wait to get out if I’m honest. I think we’ll be far better off out of the thing. In every aspect. To hell with the world.” 

Even the most ardent of the “keep politics out of football” morons should have a hard time with Warnock here. Cardiff City is a club owned by a Malaysian businessman and run by a Cypriot banker. Out of Warnock’s starting line-up, approximately half aren’t British and will be directly affected by Brexit. These comments should be seen as an embarrassment to the British game.

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Yet here we are a few weeks later laughing at Warnock like it’s all a big joke, and not seriously troubling that a man entrusted to be the face of a global sports club doesn’t possess the self-awareness, reading comprehension skills, or even humility to realise the basic details of his role in relation to the wider world. Is it really too much to ask that those in million-pound positions of power take their jobs seriously?

It shouldn’t be. Yet the difference in response to Bielsa and Warnock’s comments was staggering. The Cardiff manager largely got a free pass, while Bielsa was crucified by certain sections of the game. This isn’t amusing – it’s a massive warning sign that football is going about the process of evaluating coaches in the entirely wrong manner in the first place. 

Think about this idea for a second. What are the most important skills that a successful manager needs? Obviously a vast knowledge of football would be a prerequisite. Other than that, emotional intelligence and humility run close behind. A background in economics, languages, sociology, and many other non-exclusively football related disciplines would also all be helpful in increasingly globalised leagues.

Yet, too frequently, the game dismisses these extremely valid traits and qualifications as frivolous in a coach, instead promoting retired players to eschew critical thinking and simply put the same systems, thoughts and ideas in place that allowed for them to thrive in the first place.

And I don’t mean for this piece to come off as targeting ex-athletes like Warnock for being a bad manager or person. He has done a fantastic job at many of his clubs. It’s more that, unfortunately. The bar is often set so low in football that general awareness and on-field success aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. For a sport with so much money on the line, that’s a troubling thought. 

It brings me to my next point. Could the level of managers across the world significantly rise by appointing those with diverse work experience outside of football?

In many leagues, it’s a question that’s already starting to answer itself. Countries like Italy and Germany have systems in place that allow for top managerial talents like Thomas Tuchel, Julian Nagelsmith, Domenico Tedesco and Maurizio Sarri to rise by merit, not through the strength of their own playing careers. Even England is starting to see young, innovative coaches break through like Lincoln City’s Cowley brothers and former banker and current Grimsby manager Michael Jolly.

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While an open league system is obviously conducive to these sorts of success stories, these managers are also a testament to the idea that you don’t have to be an elite player to be an elite teacher of the game. No matter what pundits, coaches or some idiot on Twitter tries to tell you, this is one of the greatest myths that modern football promotes for the sole reason of protecting its network. 

Think about the floodgates that would open if the best coaches were allowed to rise to the top. Without hyperbole, it would truly transform the game. There are so many great ideas held by women, black, and first and second-generation candidates that will never see the light of professional football due to the systematic flaws, biases, and structure of the modern game that held them back as players in the first place.  

If anything, these sorts of managers are almost more important to the continual development of football because they were forced to see things differently than others who continually advanced through the sport as athletes. And it’s no surprise that coaches with backgrounds in fields other than football have been some of the most innovative managers of recent times.

While a lot of this has to do with their experience outside of the game, and the much-needed sense of humility that working as a PE teacher, waiter, merchant or banker brings, all of these managers were dropped at some point from the system as players, giving them the clarity to exploit its many flaws without bias. After all, how can teams seriously expect to produce anything unique or original when they only hire coaches that fit the mould in the first place? 

Although this idea would almost certainly change the sport for the better, in reality, an influx of bright, well-rounded and emotionally intelligent football men and women is still a long way off. The game remains such an insulated, protected community that Sunderland’s moronic scouts will keep on evaluating players for wearing gloves, Big Sam will continue to be paid for spewing baseless bullshit about how modern players are mentally weak, Bruce Arena will probably get another MLS job, and the Warnocks of the world will continue to rally against their own self-interest as coaches. 

So for now, all we can do is hope that one day, humility, intelligence, hard work and transparency might even be the norm for managers across all countries and leagues. Until then, congratulations to Marcelo Bielsa for having the self-awareness to momentarily change the discussion from meaningless backgrounds, platitudes and the folklore that dominates football, to the real ways that coaches study, teach and win the game. 

In a game and wider world full of leaders incapable of having this sort of open dialogue, no matter what happens to Bielsa and his Yorkshire club this season, his willingness to challenge the mould of what it means to be a modern manager will almost certainly push football into the future. That, at least, should be seen as a victory in its own right.  

By Ryan Huettel @ryanhuettel2

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