Thursday, 16 January 2014

A tale of two coaches

Imagine a 44-year-old former footballer who has spent the last five years as a coach at a large European football club. When the club sack the manager they turn to this man - who has been involved in the youth set-up of the club as well as assisting the first team - to be manager.

Now imagine a 37-year-old player who announces his retirement from playing. It is then announced he will take over as manager of one of the largest clubs in Europe.

Most would assume that the 44-year-old's appointment would be less contentious. Those of you who will have seen through my hoary ruse, will know that the the opposite is true. Tim Sherwood's appointment as manager of Spurs has been considerably more contentious and controversial than Clarence Seedorf's appointment as manager of AC Milan (certainly in the English-speaking blogosphere). (In Italy there are greater rumbles about whether Milan spinning him as the new Sacchi or new Capello really is a fair comparison)

Why is that?

Like all groups there are intrinsic biases within the footballing chattering classes. There are certain totems that must be adhered too. Modern football is generally rubbish. Artful central midfielders are too be loved. Tactics must be discussed using terms that you would never hear on 'Match of the Day'. Passing statistics are masturbatory material. Heat maps, inverted wingers and so on are the order of the day. Certain aspects of English footballing culture are to be despised and, in fact, actually discouraged.

That isn't to say the footballing twitterati are wrong. Certain aspects of English footballing culture are to be despised and discouraged. English football's anti-intellectualism is certainly one of them (
more thoughts on English football's anti-intellectualism here).

Tim Sherwood, in his early weeks as Tottenham manager, seems keen to join that anti-intellectual tradition. One imagines him standing at the touchline of Spurs' training camp checking player's bags to ensure there are no copies of 'Inverting the Pyramid'.

In doing so, the golf-club of ex-pros who dominate the media circuit lap him up. Those men are men who believe that only ex-players can succeed at management, who believe that discussions of tactics and thinking hard about the game are unnecessary, who think 'what is wrong after all with 4-4-bloody-2'. One can tell them by their smirk as they announce Tottenham have won and a little quip along the lines of: 'oh by the way Gary I think you'll find Sherwood set out his team in a 4-4-2 formation... formations, eh?' with Cheshire Cat grins as if they've just eaten a mouthful of squirty cream whilst getting a handjob.

Actually, the problem is that Sherwood is guilty by association. The despatching of Villas-Boas combined with the sins of other former players who got big clubs straight out the box, who skipped the divisions, who didn't do their coaching badges are being thrown at Sherwood through no real fault of his own. This neglects the fact that he seems to be innovative in his approach. He is giving youth a chance and seems to be taking a chainsaw to the considerable amount of dead wood in the Spurs squad.

Sherwood isn't helped by his fans in the media. To those that condemn Sherwood the fact that two of his biggest fans are Jamie ''top, top'' Redknapp and the greatest chancer in the game Harry Redknapp are significant arguments for the prosecution. Sherwood, in my view, is probably more than a little hard done by.

There is a level of disappointment in Spurs' treatment of Villas-Boas and this informs views on Sherwood (there was not really much sympathy for Allegri). Those who condemn Villas-Boas would do well to remember that in Spurs all-time list only two managers won a higher percentage of their games than Villas-Boas. There were legitimate reasons to dislike Villas-Boas. There may have been good reasons to sack him - getting horsed by Liverpool and City didn't exactly help (neither did Villas-Boas referring to being horsed as suffering ''an expressive result'). One can't help but notice the golf-club nodding their heads and saying 'not a proper football man. Told you so''. Arrigo Sacchi couldn't have existed or survived in England. Another blogpost entirely.

Seedorf, on the other hand, cannot be accused of anti-intellectualism. Here is a player whose footballing education has spanned two continents and four countries, who is grounded in the Ajax tradition, who is hyper-intelligent, who moved to Brazil largely to learn more about the game, who speaks five languages, and who has undertaken university courses. On television he seems - in a second language - knowledgeable, warm and intelligent. Man-crushes are the order of the day. Compare this to Sherwood: a man who confuses ''was'' and ''were'' on an almost deliberate basis and who refers to himself constantly in the third person which in rappers from South Central LA may be endearing but middle-aged footballers from St Albans just sounds bizarre.

Seedorf was - from his Ajax debut throughout his career - one of those players who seemed to see the game, run the game and manage the game on the pitch. He played the game as if he were a manager on the pitch. It is why he was so good. It is why it is assumed that he will succeed. That neglects, however, his own issues (his pretty shoddy ownership of Monza) and the massive issues that run through AC Milan like a particularly aggressive laxative.

Regardless, where Spurs have largely been viewed as wreckless, AC Milan have been praised for sound judgement. Where Spurs have been accused of clinging to a gilded past which wasn't all that golden, AC Milan are viewed as looking to the future. Giving a large English club to a newbie is insanity. Giving the job of turning around the fortunes of the second most successful European club to a newbie is, well, not.

This is odd in the extreme. Sherwood is a gamble, no doubt, but not an enormous one. Certainly not as big a gamble as Seedorf to Milan. There's only so wrong it can go under him. It was unlikely when he got the role that Spurs would finish in the top four. That is slightly more likely after a fine early run but essentially the pressure is off him - if he finishes in the top six (which I think he shall) he'll have done well. If he somehow holds off United, Liverpool and Everton to fourth then many bloggers will be eating their words. This is a club he knows inside out - as shown by his trusting of youth when the easy option would have been to stack the team with the expensive signings.

Seedorf may know AC Milan inside out but times are harder. Relegation is an option. At
 his first managerial role has inherited a Milan side in serious decline. After 19 games they sit 30 points behind Juventus in first place and 20 points behind Benitez's Napoli in 3rd. They are just six points from the relegation zone. For those of us who saw AC Milan in the 1990s or in the noughties this is unthinkable. 

There is majesty in the Milan squad in Balotelli, Robinho and Kaka. On their day, they can be scintillating but they are not consistent. Keisuke Honda will add to their abilities but they are missing the wonderful El Shaarawy through injury. Elsewhere the squad is full of men who, in the glory days, wouldn't have been on the bench let alone in the team.  There are no longer the funds to buy galacticos.

So Seedorf has been dealt a hell of a hand and Berlusconi is playing a high-risk game of poker. There is little doubt that Seedorf is a deep-thinker about the game. Many will point to other high-profile Dutch examples of successful coaches who have done well straight off the bat (de Boer, Rijkaard). They will overlook the less successful examples of Blind and van Basten. I doubt nationality matters.

His early moves seem clever - trying to bring in Crespo and Stam to his team. Neither are massively experienced but like him they are well regarded at Milan. That won't mitigate the issues that having two bosses (Barbara Berlusconi and Galliani - and that's before we consider Bunga Bunga's potential for madness) necessarily brings but it will help in other regards.

So a tough job for anyone. I think, however, I fall into the camp of thinking it will work. An experienced manager who doesn't know how Milan works would struggle. Seedorf, a newbie to management but a man who understands AC Milan, may well make it work. That Machivallian ability is necessary. When allied with his intelligence I suspect it will work.

Two coaches. Very different men. Very different outlooks on the game and on life. Very similar circumstances to their appointments. It may well be both succeed. Sherwood could only survive in England's chalky soils. Seedorf, I'd imagine even with the hand he has been dealt, will be able to survive anywhere. Would that England could produce a Seedorf.


1 comment:

dearieme said...

If Sherwood's career depends on Adabayor, I shiver for him.