That first day, for an incoming manager at a new club, must be overwhelming. There is an entire squad of players to meet, to get to know, to win over. There is a staff, nervous of your intentions and fearful of what the future may hold, to convince and, hopefully, to command.
There are training schedules to draw up and tactics to implement and a great pile of footage to watch, to try and work out where it went wrong — because it has, more often than not, gone wrong, and that is why you have a job — and how it might be put right. There are political currents to detect, alliances to forge, enmities to soothe. And there is no time, because there is a game looming on the horizon, a first impression to make.
And yet, before all of that, there is one thing that seems to consume all new managers, young and old, fresh and wizened, hopeful and worldly-wise, one question that must be addressed before anything else can happen, one decision that will set the tone for your reign: Where do you stand, exactly, vis-à-vis ketchup?
Managers seem to spend more time than might be expected establishing their precise policy on condiments. Within a few days of arriving at Aston Villa, Steven Gerrard had banned them. So, too, had Antonio Conte, when he joined Tottenham.
Of course, as much as anything else, this is a power play. It is a way of establishing dominance over every aspect of the players’ lives, casting yourself as an authority figure, making plain that fitness is your absolute priority. (Most managers, when they take a new job, are struck by how terribly out-of-shape the squad of lean, musclebound elite athletes suddenly at their disposal seems to be.)
There is an alternative route, though: The absence of condiments can be diagnosed as a problem just as much as their presence. In cases where a manager is replacing an anti-ketchup extremist, some will consider reinstating them as an olive branch — well, a tapenade — to the squad, a way of signaling that the brutal, flavorless days of the previous regime are over, and that a more collaborative, trusting approach is at hand.
The significance of all of this is, of course, overplayed. Journalists focus on minor details like whether a manager has banned ketchup because — to offer the kindest interpretation — it serves as an illustrative, immediately comprehensible shorthand for what sort of coach they intend to be, in a way that detailing exactly what sort of running drills they are doing does not.
The news media’s apparently insatiable obsession with condiments does, though, hint at a greater truth, one that generally goes unspoken, one that flirts with breaking the fourth wall: that managers, as a rule, do not matter as much as we think they do. For the most part, they are tinkering around the edges, their decisions and their choices and their approaches largely irrelevant to how their tenures will play out, their power limited not to their own destiny but to what players can have with their main courses.
That, certainly, is what almost every academic study on the influence of soccer managers has concluded. Some have entered popular discourse: the research in “Soccernomics” that estimated that a manager is responsible for only 8 percent of a team’s results; the work in “The Numbers Game” that placed the figure at around double that.
Some have remained adrift in academia — one, in 2013, found that interim managers tended to have more direct impact on results than permanent ones — but reached the same broad conclusion.
Only the true greats, people like Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, had a tangible, discernible impact. Everyone else was at the mercy of factors not entirely within their control: a club’s financial potency, the quality of player on the books, the strength of their opponents. It is only necessary to glance at Paris St.-Germain to know that, even with a high-caliber manager and a high-quality squad, sometimes the mix is not right; something has to spark, something between chemistry and alchemy, to make things work.
That conclusion, though, is not quite as straightforward as it appears. Eight percent, to use the lowest available estimate, may not sound like a lot, but in the context of elite soccer, in particular, it is a huge and unwieldy variable.
This is a sport, after all, of fine margins: a brief loss of concentration, a slight tactical distinction, a single decision made instinctively by a brilliant player can all decide a game. That the identity of a single staff member can be directly responsible for almost a tenth of the outcome is proof not of a manager’s irrelevance, but of the opposite.
Manchester United — yes, them again — is a case in point. United has one of the most expensive, richly remunerated squads in soccer history. This is supposed to be the great corollary with performance: How much you pay your players is, in theory, the best gauge for where they will help you finish in the league.
But, at the point that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was fired, United was marooned in seventh place in the Premier League. It had been humiliated, in quick succession, by Liverpool and Manchester City and Watford. There was little or no cohesion in defense, no identifiable plan in attack, no real sense that anyone knew what they were supposed to be doing at all.
Not all of that is the manager’s fault, of course: United’s haphazard recruitment policy and its outdated, flawed structure were the primary culprits. But that the problems should have been so visible, so pronounced under Solskjaer, a coach so obviously out of his depth, serve as a potent reminder that, no matter how good your players, they are not enough on their own.
They need to be organized effectively, too: not only to compete with City and Liverpool, two of the four best teams on the planet, but to survive against a straggler like Watford. In a sport of fine margins, after all, it does not take much to shift the balance, and to shift it drastically. A merely good manager may look like they do not have much of an impact. When one does not meet even that bar, the effect, as we have seen, is obvious, whatever they do with the ketchup.
When the Reward Comes After the Season
There are, at least, mitigating circumstances. Borussia Dortmund went into its game against Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League on Wednesday without a raft of first-choice players: no Mats Hummels, no Giovanni Reyna, no Raphael Guerreiro and, of course, no Erling Haaland. Marco Rose, the coach, had resources so diminished that he could not even fill his quota of substitutes.
Still, that Dortmund’s involvement in the Champions League should be over not only before spring, but before December, should be regarded as something of a failure. Not least because — in Ajax, Sporting and Besiktas, the Turkish champion — Dortmund could hardly bemoan the cruel vicissitudes of a tough group-stage draw.
That even that pool proved too much, though, hints that balance has been lost at Dortmund. For more than a decade, the club has been held up as a paradigm of how to thrive in soccer’s new world: Dortmund’s success has been built, essentially, on turning itself into a springboard for the world’s brightest young talents, a way-station on the road to greatness.
That praise was not misplaced. Though there has been no Bundesliga title at Dortmund since 2012, the club has remained competitive — by and large — while regularly selling off or being divested of soccer’s next generation: Robert Lewandowski and Christian Pulisic and, most recently, Jadon Sancho.
There is a sense, though, of ever-diminishing returns. While the stars keep forming — Haaland will go next summer, and probably Jude Bellingham the year after that — the results are dwindling.
The suspicion is that Dortmund’s priorities have changed: that selling players is no longer a byproduct of composing a young team capable of competing, but that competing is now a happy, occasional consequence of composing a young team that can be sold. Not reaching the knockout rounds of the Champions League is a failure, of course. But that is not the trophy Dortmund was hoping to win this year. Its aim, instead, is to make sure that Haaland can be sold at a vast profit in the summer. That remains on course. Whether that is the right course, though, is a different matter.
The Super League Will Come Again
It is, in a way, the punishment they deserve. Six months ago, the architects of the European Super League had grand, hubristic visions of breaking free from the unwanted control of faceless, supranational bureaucracies. Now, their revolutionary idea only exists — so much as it exists at all — in the legalistic quagmire of the European Parliament.
We will not dally on the details of this, because they are, by their very nature, intensely boring: This week, the European Union’s assembly passed a resolution opposing “breakaway leagues,” and pledging to uphold what it described as the “European model for sport.” The motion was nonbinding, so has no material consequence, but it represented yet another setback for the cabal of clubs who refuse to let the subject rest.
Before the various uneasy allies who came together to suppress the revolt celebrate too loudly, though, it is worth considering the situation — as things stand — in the Champions League. All four English teams have made it safely through despite, in three cases, barely breaking a sweat, and in one, that of Manchester United, not being very good.
That contrasts starkly with the reality of life at their traditional, continental counterweights. Juventus has made it through, but was humiliated by Chelsea. Both Atlético Madrid and Barcelona may miss the knockouts. Germany and Spain may have only one representative each in the last 16.
The dynamics here are clear: England has emerged unscathed from the pandemic — as witnessed by the multibillion-dollar broadcast deal the Premier League signed with NBC last week — while most of Europe’s major leagues have not. A handful of teams, like Bayern Munich and Paris St.-Germain, might not have lost ground, but nor have they gained it. For most, though, the gap that was already opening between England and everyone else has suddenly become a chasm.
There have already been two all-English Champions League finals in the last three years. The economic currents swirling around the game make it very likely there will be more, many more, in the near future.
That is not, to be clear, healthy for soccer as a whole. It is obviously not healthy for Europe’s major powers. More and more may come to recognize that in seasons to come. The idea of a Super League — one excluding the English teams — may not remain tangled in the European Parliament for long.
An excellent alternative viewpoint on last week’s newsletter from William Ireland, who from memory may, in fact, be a Bill.
“The inability of Barcelona and Real Madrid to treat the Premier League as a feeder league is a problem for the Premier League, too,” he wrote. “The reality is that moving players before they grow stale and distracted has been great for the English teams. You wonder how much better their teams could be if some of their older players had been plucked away by the Liga duopoly. That problem is likely to get worse as teams keep acquiring more players and do not have any easy way to lose any from their current roster.”
This is, I would agree, an issue that Premier League clubs are going to have to think about more and more. There is no longer a viable outlet for the players they would like to move on, either to cash in when their value is highest or their decline imminent, or because a newer, shinier trinket has captured their attention. Part of me wonders if it is a natural part of the cycle: the same phenomenon that has undermined Barcelona, say, but writ large across a league.
George Gorecki, meanwhile, contests the idea that Africa should have more than five spots at a World Cup. “The African countries are among the least impressive, when it comes to their performances at the finals,” he wrote.
“In every World Cup from 1990 to 2010, only one African team reached the knockout stage. In 2014, there were two, while in 2018, there were none. An African team has reached the quarterfinals only three times.” If anything, he suggested, this means “Africa should probably relinquish some of their places.”
I would quibble with that. For one: Africa might send more teams to the knockout rounds if it had more teams in the tournament. Two out of five reaching the last 16 in 2014 is pretty good going, isn’t it?
Second: African qualifying is substantially more arbitrary than it really ought to be. The final round of home-and-away playoffs, in particular, means there tends to be at least one, if not two, of the continent’s best sides left behind. I would agree, though, that Africa’s performances have not improved as it looked as if they might in the 1990s. But at least part of the responsibility for that, to me, is structural.