Sports FOOTBALL What is the secret of managing people in football?

What is the secret of managing people in football?

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MAnagers develop training sessions, draw up complex tactical plans, manage multi-million dollar budgets, answer difficult questions from the world press, withstand the pressure of the club’s fan base – and yet, when it comes to managing people, some of them struggle. Why? Because relationships are complex.

Players have different personalities shaped by their unique upbringing, they have egos and environments. The best managers strike the right balance between being tough on players and being sensitive to their needs. “The hardest thing in management is dealing with different personalities,” says former Brighton manager Mickey Adams, who led the club to successive promotions around the turn of the century.

“You have to figure out what makes them tick. I see many managers losing their jobs because they can’t build personal relationships. You must understand the feelings and weaknesses of the players and show empathy, as well as coax and demand the highest standards from them.

“When I played, I didn’t care that the coach got in my face and said that I was crap. My reaction would be: “I will prove you wrong and show you that you are not.” It’s out of the game now because the modern player needs you to constantly reinforce him how good he is. Whatever era you’re talking about, one thing hasn’t changed – you need the support of the characters who run the dressing room. Without them, you’re in trouble.”

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Characters are often the leaders and winners of matches. Managers use different methods to activate their assistants. The hand on the shoulder was Harry Redknapp’s favorite move. It makes sense to the layman. You charge the player with compliments and give him complete freedom of action off the field as long as he does. Paolo Di Canio, Raphael van der Vaart and Paul Merson were all extraordinary playmakers who benefited from this method.

In the 2002-03 season, Merson told Redknapp that he needed to go to Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance clinic due to problems with alcohol and gambling, but instead he flew off on vacation to Barbados. Merson thought he got away with it until he ran into one of Redknapp’s best friends. Instead of punishing his captain, the Portsmouth manager turned a blind eye to this. Merson scored 12 goals as the club won the league and were promoted to the Premier League. “I came back, so tanned – it was January,” says Merson. “He just got through it. He never said a word about it and told me two years later.”

Paul Merson in action for Portsmouth during their 2002-03 promotional season. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Jurgen Klopp cultivated an almost religious devotion to his players, creating very personal relationships. Being tactile and showing a genuine interest in their lives, he established the trust and connection that helped the team overcome crushing defeats in major finals and win the Champions League and Premier League.

Gini Wijnaldum, one of their key players in these successes, snubbed Tottenham in favor of Liverpool after talking to Klopp. “I had great conversations with [Mauricio] Pochettino and Klopp,” he said in 2016. “But at the meeting with Jürgen, we laughed and talked not only about football. He was interested in my personal life and that was good for me. He was interested not only in Wijnaldum the football player, but also Wijnaldum the man.

“When you are not on the football field, you have to communicate like people, and it’s good if you know something about the other person. This simplifies the task. Every workout we do is geared towards improving you as a player. It’s different from what I’ve experienced before and I’m really happy with it. The manager gives you confidence. He is not a manager who yells at you or gets mad at you whenever you make a mistake. He’ll only get mad if you don’t do what you’re good at.”

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Professor Sophia Jowett of Loughborough University has developed this approach into framework called 3+1C: Proximity, Commitment, Complementarity and Shared Orientation. Wijnaldum’s report talks about sharing personal data (intimacy), challenging workouts (commitment), a similar outlook on life (complementarity and co-orientation), and strong lines of communication. After speaking with a number of mentors and mentees, she found that these four elements create “positive, effective and harmonious” relationships that can provide “a platform on which weaknesses and needs can be expressed and goals and objectives can be achieved.”

And, in theory, Klopp’s hugs don’t just suffocate the recipient. The “cuddling” or “love” hormone oxytocin is produced by the brain when people hug each other or create social bonds. When Klopp hugs a player, he activates the feel-good hormone in the body.

This doesn’t work for everyone. When you look at Steven Gerrard’s accomplishments under Rafa Benítez – FA Cup and Champions League victories and Player and Writer Footballer of the Year awards – you might be forgiven for thinking they were close. In truth, they were not like that at all. Gerrard says that Benítez’s “frostyness” has allowed him to shine because he is “hungry” for praise.

Jurgen Klopp hugs Georginio Wijnaldum.
Jurgen Klopp hugs Georginio Wijnaldum. Photograph: John Powell/Liverpool/Getty

“I can pick up the phone and talk to all my previous Liverpool managers except Rafa,” Gerrard wrote in his autobiography. “It’s a shame because we shared the biggest night of our careers – the 2005 Champions League win in Istanbul – but there’s no connection between us. On a basic human level, I prefer a nice manager like Gerard Houllier or Brendan Rodgers, but in terms of football, I really don’t mind working with a colder person. Dispassionate and distant relationships with people like Rafa Benitez and Fabio Capello can sometimes bring more success.”

John Stead experienced a similar approach from Mark Hughes when they worked together at Blackburn in 2004-05. Stead had a brilliant start at Ewood Park, scoring six goals in 13 games under Graeme Souness. When Souness was replaced by Hughes, Stead suffered. “Mark Hughes was not an unpleasant character, but I could not understand him,” Stead recalls.

“I need an open and honest manager. When I don’t know what they’re thinking or can’t get direct answers, it plays on my mind and creates problems for me.” Hughes personally observed the mind games of Alex Ferguson in the dressing room, but if he was trying to provoke Stead’s reaction, it didn’t work. The striker has scored just two goals in 36 appearances under the Welshman.

Ferguson has fared better, shaking the cages of his most talented and toughest players. He directed dressing room rants at certain players to cheer up the rest of the team. “I have always had a great relationship with the coach, but in most halftime games there were moments when the coach and I were at odds with each other.” Wayne Rooney says. “He knew that by doing this to me, he was getting a message for other players. He did the same with Giggsy. Always after the game, the coach could come up to the bus and slap me. It was his way of saying, “It’s over.”

Wayne Rooney and Alex Ferguson joking in 2005
Wayne Rooney and Alex Ferguson joking in 2005 Photo: Christophe Ena/AP

Former Brighton boss Adams used a similar technique to motivate centre-back Danny Kallip when they were together. “I used to turn my back to Danny on the team and talk about defensemen,” Adams recalls. “I would say, ‘Look, guys, we need to score four goals here to win this game, because these defenders cannot be relied upon.’ I would insult him without confrontation, but he used to digest it when I found fault with him, and it really turned him on.

Ignoring key team members is one of the many tactics used by José Mourinho. John Terry received mixed messages from the manager. Mourinho praised his captain, making him feel “10 feet tall” but when Terry was injured, the coach would stop him, provoking Terry to work harder so he could get back on the field faster.

“If you knocked and missed the afternoon workout, he would come and not talk to you. He walked right past you on the treatment table,” Terry said. “You sit there, captain of the football club, and look for a high-five with an old man – and you don’t get it, he deafens you. He says to the physical therapist while you’re there, “How long?” And the physiotherapist will say: “A couple of days.” And he would just leave. He provoked me and pushed my buttons.”

While the approaches of Benitez, Ferguson and Mourinho differ, they are all designed with the same goal in mind, says sports psychologist Dan Abrahams. “They create an atmosphere of great challenge and great expectation,” explains Abrahams, who works with Premier League and England rugby players.

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“By their very nature, high challenges can create a culture of confrontation and this is definitely the case when you look at some of the stages in Mourinho’s career. They tell the team, “Here is the game plan and my philosophy. You either do it or you don’t. If you don’t, you are out. For today’s players, this is a very risky approach – they can get tired of it in two or three years. It is very difficult to be both a challenge and a high support. The golden mean lies between them. Having worked with Eddie Jones and English rugby, I know he had to soften his approach to help him understand the individual needs of each person.”

Talent in a team plays an important role in a coach’s success, but most importantly, his ability to earn the player’s commitment unlocks the team’s potential. There is no blueprint for creating the perfect connection. Every relationship between a player and a manager needs an individual plan, and even then outside influences can sabotage the configuration.

To ensure long-term success, managers must be flexible and adapt to changing social relationships, but this does not necessarily guarantee long-term relationships. Given what’s at stake – three points, huge sums of money and personal reputation – clashes are inevitable. It won’t be all cheers and trophies. The intensity of these connections can lead to burnout. In this sense, they are more like a marriage than a friendship: you may not always like each other, but there must be an understanding and commitment to a cause that goes beyond selfish goals.

However, as Adams explains, the best players are willing to enter into this marriage if you bring them success. “Don’t assume that everyone likes the manager because they don’t,” he says. “Players have to believe in you and that what you do will bring results. I must have done it right somewhere down the road because I had four promotions. So, did they like me? I’m not sure what they did. But I guarantee they respected me.”



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