By: Jonathan Townsend
February 18, 2014
Imagine for a moment there’s a team where players were held to similar standards as the manager. Let’s call this team Accountability United. Contrary to the forgivable assumption the team is comprised of accountants; I assure you the club’s name and crest is reflective, of the club’s credo – Accountable, Dependable, Proud.
Perhaps this club has redefined football’s modern landscape. Since the advent and injection of big money in the world’s top leagues, it seems football has started a dangerous migration away from the stadium pitches to a brutally different setting more recognizable with the gladiatorial arenas scattered across the Roman Empire and the aroma of freshly-cut grass has been replaced with a metaphorical sanguine stench hanging in the air – evidence that managerial mediocrity and defeat is unacceptable.
Surely, I speak metaphorically; after all, we live in “civilized” times, do we not?
Accountability United should be a strong team, perhaps one of the strongest for one simple reason: Player Accountability. You may wonder exactly what Player Accountability means. The concept is simple: at Accountability United, every single player taking the pitch is held to the high standards as dictated in their contract, just like the manager. If they don’t live up to the terms of their contract, they are dismissed, penalized, deemed surplus to requirements.
The very notion of this concept is undoubtedly too incredulous for most conventional football minds to fathom. But let’s attempt to expand on this idea if only for a moment. Save for that bit of fictitious thinking, there is glaring problem with underperforming players hiding behind agent-inflated wage demands that could take away from the product on the pitch. I’m not suggesting players don’t deserve what they earn for they are opportunists and the best in their profession in a free market, good on them. However, something is amiss.
The managerial carousel in football is perplexing. For any club, the man pulling the strings is not necessarily the man calling the shots. Let that sink in for a moment. A manager takes control of a team attempting to assemble a squad echoing his vision while validating his collective experiences in the game – all in an attempt not to garner the respect of the players, supporters, board, executive committee and the club’s owner, but to win. Winning is all that matters; simple enough.
Football management is tricky business. The modern football club’s front door is literally a revolving door. The door a manager enters is the one he’ll exit through, the one facing the media and public at large. Performance is everything and numbers in the win/loss columns don’t lie. When a manager doesn’t gel with the club’s ethos, he’s subject (perhaps rightly so) to getting sacked simply because it’s much easier to replace one man than 24.
For example, Chelsea under Roman Abramovich’s ownership has burned through ten managers – including the return of José Mourinho. Some of the faithfully departed Chelsea managers won significant silverware and didn’t drop the level of play at the club, and yet, still found themselves out of a job. Imagine if Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres were judged in the same manner that managers were subject to by the owner. So, if winning is the ultimate measure of success, Chelsea has certainly enjoyed a decade of more success than any other time in their history.
The shadowy Russian henchman in the chairman’s box demands success. He dictates exacting moves with the club personnel. Roman Abramovich uses them as chess pieces on the bloodstained chessboard of world football with Bobby Fischer-like ruthlessness and a motivation to decimate the very notion of defeat. Perhaps in Mourinho, Abramovich has found his Mikhail Tal (Fischer’s greatest rival), his managerial Grandmaster with a personality strong enough to succeed at Chelsea.
José Mourinho has set an impressive benchmark up to this writing, having still never lost a Premier League match at home. Much like Tal, who posthumously still holds the records for both the first and second longest unbeaten streaks in competitive chess history, Mourinho walks to his own beat. He’s not a man who fears the egos in his dressing room – for none are bigger and more imposing than his own, which could be a large part of his success at every club he’s managed.
On another side of the managerial spectrum, the latest questions bouncing off the stratosphere revolve around Manchester United and their luckless manager, David Moyes. For all the stick Moyes has earned this season, it is clear United’s players haven’t played to their potential. For a moment, let’s put tactics aside.
The lack of player accountability for the Red Devils is telling and for every misstep Moyes makes, there is a clear lack of application on part of the players. Anyone, be it Moyes, Mourinho, or any other manager inheriting Sir Alex Ferguson’s throne, would also inherit the poisoned chalice. Conceivably this descent from greatness has been in the works long before the former Everton boss took over at United.
Ferguson’s greatness as a manager is evidenced by his ability to get the best out of slightly above average players while developing young talent and attracting world-class players. The difference? When those players didn’t perform, or more importantly, conform to his system and values, he shipped them out. Make no mistake, Moyes is in over his head, but his calm public personality coupled with the ever-common sight on the touchline of a man lost for words and ability to take decisive action during a match is on him. But the lack of leadership on the pitch and in the dressing room is glaringly obvious.
It may take a year for the shell-shock to wear off at Manchester United. The bulwark that is the Theatre of Dreams has become the Theatre of Screams this campaign. There is a belief that good managers need time and clubs need stability to secure longevity, but the throne Ferguson relinquished was not the one he inherited. The game’s infrastructure and the marketing machine that is global branding make it a different beast than the Manchester United of 1986.
At Manchester United there are is no hiding. Well, so we thought, but big name players have hid behind every single shellacking of David Moyes while the long-term servants of the club haven’t shown the grit necessary to dictate matches in a meaningful way. Under Moyes, it may never happen and that’s a reality that supporters of such an esteemed club will have to accept.
Every empire has a shelf life and deep down, everyone knows that Manchester United and the world may never see another Sir Alex Ferguson just as Liverpool knew there could never be another Bill Shankly. Ironically, perhaps the only commonality David Moyes shares with those two greats is the Scottish blood coursing through his veins. Managers are judged first on their ability to win matches and silverware, and second on their personality. The problem is for David Moyes is the best managers blend their ability with their personality to win games.
Manchester United doesn’t have a general in the mold of a Roy Keane in the dressing room anymore, but if they did, wins, draws, losses aside, players would be less likely to drop their performance level as much as they have this campaign. At the moment, David Moyes doesn’t need to win games; he needs to win over his players. The players need to win the matches.
I know, I know, dear reader, you’re no doubt thinking, but what about the tactical analysis? What about it? It’s not the losses or draws that should worry Manchester United, but the manner of the results. That’s the worrying part. These are seasoned professionals. These are the reigning Champions, are they not? This same team won the league by eleven points last season, right? The point is there is enough experience and quality to do better, even with Moyes’ faults.
Manchester United will likely clean house during the next transfer window and perhaps after Moyes brings in his own players (even though the Marouane Fellaini experiment has failed), he’ll then be judged by the board like he has by everyone else. Until then, it would seem that David Moyes will have to redefine his managerial skill if he hopes to stay at United past this subpar campaign.
Ultimately, when they step across the chalk, the players play the game and for the money modern footballers make, the supporters, journalists, and the world of armchair cynics are justified in their disgust and abject anger at the lack of accountability modern players exude. A common gripe is that no commoner would be able to mail it in at work and still keep their job, earn a paycheck, and escape criticism, so why should players? Why does everything fall on the manager?
Of course, these aren’t common folk; these are presumably the best in the footballing business. And perchance, therein lies part of the problem; players make so much money and live a life so far above and removed from the supporters and cities that gather at football’s shrines to watch them play. They are tone deaf to the fact that player accountability is merely a trait of football’s Old Guard.
By Jonathan Townsend.
Follow Me on Twitter @jon_townsend3