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Home > In Modern Football, Clubs Want Managers They Can Control

In Modern Football, Clubs Want Managers They Can Control

Control. It is the theme as managerial sacking season commences – and with it a new set of managerial appointments bloom. A new breed of owners wants a new breed of manager, in fact in many cases they do not want a manager at all, in the old sense of the word, but a head coach or some other approximation.

At Manchester United, Ineos seeks a replacement for Erik ten Hag – a successor who will be assimilated into the plan that the new controlling stakeholders have for the club. It is the same at Chelsea where Behdad Eghbali, the key power at the club representing the dominant consortium partner Clearlake Capital, prepares to make his third managerial hire in two years. Liverpool have appointed a head coach, in Arne Slot, less experienced and of a lower profile than any manager since the Boot Room dynasty, bar perhaps Brendan Rodgers in 2012.

The transition of English football to the European model of a controlling sporting director, with the various sporting departments under him has been gradual. Recruitment, medical, sports science, data analysis, academy – even multi-club partners – have been added to that portfolio. Entrusting it all to the manager preparing the first team would be absurd. Yet this summer never has the manager, or head coach, felt more like one of many departmental heads. It can be seen in the profile of managers who are in demand – and in those who are not.

The new breed of owners wants a collaborative manager or head coach to work with the first-team squad, pick the players, convey it all cogently to the media – and know the limits of their power. One can see it in the kind of coaches being identified for United and Chelsea. There is also a vacancy at Brighton and Hove Albion who have long perfected the continuity model and maintained progress, in no small measure, by virtue of owner Tony Bloom’s excellent proprietary data.

Kieran McKenna, Enzo Maresca, and Thomas Frank – the latter a Premier League manager already at a club that has clear boundaries on player trading. These are young, or younger managers, who accept that the role is changing. Like Slot at Liverpool, they are being considered for jobs at United or Chelsea, or both, that would in eras past have been out of reach for coaches of their relatively limited development.

Consider also those who have been overlooked this summer: Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Thomas Tuchel. Coaches, certainly, but also managers who assert their power in different ways. All of them masters, to different degrees, of media performance, and all of them liable to speak their minds in a range of languages, about ownership. That is, certainly, an approach that certain owners would like to consign to history. No wonder Mourinho said in these pages that he wishes to be simply a head coach. He has read the room.

Jose Mourinho has been overlooked for some big jobs despite a CV full of silverware Credit: Getty Images/Simone Arveda Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Eghbali are not owners who have staked all that investment with the intention of handing the club over to a manager who might assume complete control. Not that a single manager running a super-club with 1,000 employees, huge academy programmes and partner clubs around the world would be sustainable. Yet the stripe of manager being considered is of a level of inexperience not yet seen. These owners want to run the clubs and they want the coaches to fit that system.

The essential challenge of the manager’s job requires a certain authority – or at least the illusion of it. A club can trim his power but must be wary of shearing too much. The thousand challenges of persuading a squad of wealthy, successful young men to put it on the line over and over again are not simple. Neither is the job of being the club’s face to the world, variously wise, confident, hectoring, antagonistic, placatory.

Jurgen Klopp was a master of it, of course, and with success came the power to shape Liverpool the way he saw fit. By the end of his time at Anfield, the most recent sporting director had been an old friend from Germany and Klopp’s influence could be felt in other areas too. Not long after his departure was announced the owner Fenway Sports Group was able to persuade Michael Edwards to return in an elevated role.

Jurgen Klopp has been replaced by a more collegiate structure at Liverpool Credit: Getty Images/Andrew Powell Soon others were coming back – Edwards’ successor as sporting director, Julian Ward, the former loans manager, Dave Woodfine. A manager in the traditional sense had departed. Those who had left during his reign came back. Quickly a new powerbase was established – to which Slot must answer.

Successful managers, or head coaches, find it hard to resist seizing control when success gives them the opportunity. Mikel Arteta works under a sporting director structure at Arsenal but he may feel that two successive second-place finishes gives him the scope for greater direct control.

Gareth Southgate, a contender for the United job, has “England manager” as his official title for a reason. He redefined that job in many different aspects over eight years but he is at heart a manager. His assistant Steve Holland does most of the coaching and Southgate concentrates on the managing. That is the selections, the difficult phone-calls, the big judgements on tactical approach, and team culture. He is certainly not pliant.

There are others too – Roberto De Zerbi who challenged Bloom to change his recruitment approach at Brighton. There was only going to be one winner there.

The reduction of managerial power is nothing new. The size of modern clubs mean they have to be run in a different way. But now, rather than weigh dubious assurances from an older generation of assertive coaches that they have learned to accept their place, those same clubs have looked elsewhere. For new young coaches – who know no other way.