Last Wednesday night, the capital of Spain was ablaze. Real Madrid partied with its fans until dawn – at one point even smashing the Copa Del Rey trophy they had won just hours earlier – celebrating the team’s first piece of silver in three long years.
The newspapers, the fans, the broadcasters and the players all gave credit to one man: manager Jose Mourinho. The team carried him on their shoulders throughout Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium, and for one night at least, a man who some see as destroying the legacy of Madrid was a hero.
The reaction to Real’s win, and the tactics Mourniho used to secure it, was curious and intermittently vicious. Opposing partisans Johan Cruyff and Alfredo di Stefano both rounded on a manager they see as anti-football, more street tough than tactician. And yet, both men had to acknowledge that the locked-door football that Mourinho’s men display is winning. Moreover, Mourinho has demonstrated that he can and will win with a variety of teams.
And that begs the question: How much success is due to the talent a team has on the field, and how much is due to the men on the sidelines who marshal it?
Soccer is a funny sport: It’s the rare game where once the whistle blows, there’s little the manager can do about the action on the field. He has three subs and a half-time talk, and that’s about it. The work has to be done before the team even takes the field, and the majority of the work today is in preparing players for their opponents.
But anyone can draw on a chalkboard. The difference between good and great is how well a manager handles a group of highly-paid egos. The best managers – Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guaridola, Johan Cruyff at Barcelona and Guus Hiddink with national teams – have excelled at this. That skill is the difference between winning and losing.
A good manager convinces his team not simply that they are able to win but that they will win. The proof can be found in contrasting Ferguson’s performance this season with Manchester United with his closest rivals at Chelsea and Arsenal. Ferguson’s bunch is hardly the most gifted, most balanced or even most skilled side playing in the Premier League. What they are is unshakable. Any man wearing United’s shirt shares that belief, and it’s all due to the fact that Ferguson tells them it’s true.
Arsenal, who have collapsed utterly under the increasingly embattled management of Arsene Wenger, would kill for one day of that kind of fortitude. Chelsea, which rounded on its manager both in the dressing room and in the boardroom as soon as things went south, have made a comeback purely out of pride.
A bad manager, on the other hand, kills a team. Inter Milan under Rafa Benitez was gloomy, moody and insipid. No one thinks Leonardo is a tactical genius – in fact, his work in that regard has been ruthlessly exposed – but as a man-manager, he got his Inter team competing and contending after they had been thought dead.
Need more proof? Consider the gulf between Liverpool under Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish. One side had all its players healthy and looked headed to relegation. The other is missing its captain for the season and looks joyously unshackled. One side had a defense that didn’t believe it could stop a check. The other flies in with abandon and has been key to their recent run of form.
The difference of course between good – which is fair to say about a Harry Redknapp, a Sam Allardyce or a Leonardo – and great is that once you have belief, how you marshal it. Mourinho and Ferguson’s special nature is that they can get their players to do anything they ask. There’s no moaning about playing out of position, no questioning of the game plan, and certainly no leaking of locker room bust-ups. Their star players would carry water if asked to – and that’s what makes their teams championship material.
It’s a strain of ruthlessness, and it is what is taking Manchester United towards their 19th Premier League title. That same ruthlessness is what has Real Madrid licking its chops as it prepares to face Barcelona.
And it’s that ruthlessness that makes the manager the most vital part of any great team.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay’s Premier League.