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Sep 7, 2009

The management factor

All quiet on the Spanish league front this week, with the traditional stop-start beginning to the season dictated by the September wave of World Cup qualifiers. Spain thrashed Belgium 5-0, but that's hardly news. Nobody expected anything else, but the blip at the hands of the USA back in June seems to have had the desired effect, and the team is looking even more awesome than before. Belgium made their contribution to this, and Spain will have harder games to contemplate in the future, but the balance of the side seemed nigh-on perfect.

Xabi Alonso and one of Barça's less celebrated players, Sergio Busquets, were far too much for the Belgian midfield, who toiled with dignity but who lacked any coherent game plan. In contrast, every time Alonso had the ball, there was a dizzying amount of options open to him, such was the movement of the team in general.

With Xavi moved slightly forward of his Barcelona position, Silva running riot and Villa's intelligent holding play up front, it was only a matter of time before Spain opened the floodgates (it took them 40 minutes). Even Piqué got in on the act, scoring a splendid goal and continuing to look a better player than the one who spent a year on the bench at Old Trafford.

Meanwhile, national manager Vicente Del Bosque, every day looking more like a large basset hound, gazed from the touchline with a curiously detached expression, as if he was thinking about what he was going to get for his supper later on. Could my own grandmother manage this team? I think so, although she passed away in 1980.

It did make me wonder a little though, during this weekend respite from the league, about the whole issue of managers, and to what extent they will influence the outcomes of this season's Spanish fare. Besides, over the summer I managed to squeeze in a little reading, taking in 'We are the Damned United' about Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, and Barney Ronay's 'The Manager', which was a very good read.

Ronay's thesis (albeit a bit Brit-centric) is that the post-modern manager represents a gradual shift to a smooth new breed, a kind of guru figure who is possessed not only of man-management skills but also of something more arcane, something a bit 'special', as Mourinho liked to call himself. Wenger comes to mind, as does Pelligrini, Real Madrid's new leader. Florentino Pérez, long an admirer of Wenger, was allegedly convinced to take on Pelligrini after noticing that he bore a certain resemblance to the Arsenal manager, both physically and in his general manner. If you can't get the real one, settle for the one that looks a bit like him.

Also Pep Guardiola, having taken Barcelona to the triple in his first serious season as a manager, is being spoken of now in more mystic terms, as if he possesses these paranormal qualities that other managers just don't have. Poor Mark Hughes at Manchester City may one day cradle the league trophy under his arms, but nobody will ever consider him to be 'special'. He remains a 'manager' in the literal sense of the word. But we do seem to be moving into an era in which the man at the helm of the squad is expected to be so much more than before – manager, charismatic demagogue, guru, witty sound-bite provider, father figure, media-savvy and economist. No wonder they get paid so much.

It follows from this that the old paternalistic figures from the quarries of the working-class – the Bill Shankly, Jock Stein and Brian Clough types from the British scene, are being replaced by a new breed of more cerebral types, possessed of digital competence and the latest in fancy diets. Their UEFA badges gleam from their navy-blue jackets like medals from the war. Sir Alex Ferguson, and perhaps Harry Redknapp, are the last of the old guard, and even they have been persuaded (reluctantly you feel) to take on some of the characteristics of the new wave.

In Spain, the contrast has never quite been of this order. Miguel Muñoz, who still holds the record number of titles for a manager in Spain (9) was with Real Madrid before as a player, and belongs to a certain 'family' idea here, where celebrated players are sought after to continue an unbroken line of happy association with their club. Johan Cruyff is another obvious example, and Di Stéfano also returned to manage the club he revolutionised as a player. José Antonio Camacho returned twice to Real Madrid as manager, but never quite made it there – for various reasons. He managed the national side and is now in the hot seat at Osasuna, but he is still the face of the more traditional Spanish manager, all balls, bluster and armpit stains.

For the Spanish working-classes, a collective now as difficult to define as in any other modern European country, the buzzword of the past was carácter. This noun describes a person who talks loudly and with conviction (not necessarily with intelligence) and who will probably end an argument by thumping his or her opponent. There is still a certain generation of football nostalgics who go all misty-eyed when they recall Camacho's tackle on Cruyff, the season after the Dutchman had contributed to Real Madrid's most humiliating home defeat in the history of el clásico.

The young Camacho almost put Cruyff into the stands with a sliding tackle of X-rated ferocity, and their subsequent management styles came to mirror the differences between them. Cruyff was working-class too, but as a manager he was innovative and a risk-taker. His control-freak tendencies, well documented by certain ex-players of that Dream Team period, are a testament to the fact that he was not in the guru mould, but he was certainly something different.

Of course, Spain has always been more open to foreign influence on its football than has Britain, for example. This is only natural, given that the Brits started it all and exported it all, but remained reluctant to let any suspicious-looking foreigners tamper with their national product. Even after the trauma of the Wembley fiasco in 1953 against the Hungarians, foreign management was still not seen as an option.

Contrast this with the amount of post-war managers in Spain who came from foreign shores, bringing their expertise and differing perspectives. Barça brought over the (in)famous Helenio Herrera in 1959, when the English were still running around in loin-cloths, wielding their dinosaur bones. Indeed, of the top ten title winners in Spanish management, only Muñoz, Luis Molowny and Rafa Bentiez figure as Spaniards.

Looking at the present top-flight bunch, the overwhelming tendency is for home-bred chappies now. The only non-Spaniards are Hugo Sánchez (Mexico), now in his second season at Almería, Pochettino (Argentina) at Espanyol, and Manuel Pelligrini (Chile) at Real Madrid. The rest are home-grown. Ones to look out for? At the top of that list is Michel, once of Real Madrid and Spain, turned manager after a long and annoying spell as a commentator on TVE1.

Despite his slicked-back smooth-talking confidence with a microphone following on from his gel-oiled days as a player, he did talk a lot of sense, and was a perceptive if rather over-opinionated observer of the game. And you always felt that he would want to give it a go, that he would want to try out his gantry-infused views on a more close-up version, down in the dressing room of a club.

So far he has neither succeeded nor failed, at Rayo Vallecano, Castilla (although they went down under him) and now at Getafe. He will want to use the latter as a stepping-stone to return to the club that made him famous, but he will have to wait. He probably fancies the national job too, when Del Bosque decides to hang up his string vest, and being one of the new guard - a definite pretender to the guru school, he may well go far. This will depend entirely on the season that Getafe have, but their 1-4 win at Santander represents a decent start, to say the least. Barcelona at home next week should prove a more interesting test.

Unai Emery at Valencia is another that belongs to the quiet guru school, with a meticulous softly-softly psychological approach that puts him firmly in the post-modern camp. Despite all the various disasters that have befallen the club of late, he seems oblivious to it all. If he can construct a decent campaign out of the rubble of a once great club, he may be destined for greater things.

At another of the clubs expected to be in the top six, Abel Resino will stay at Atlético Madrid for another season, or at least that's what his contract says. Having come with no gold stars on his CV, Atlético's qualification for the Champions League has earned him another season to prove his worth. The jury is still out on him, but the fact that Agüero and Forlan are still around just might have had something to do with him.

Elsewhere, the four horsemen of a previous age, Joaquin Caparrós (Athletic), Gregorio Manzano (Mallorca), Manuel Preciado (Sporting) and Miguel Angel Lotina (Deportivo) will swear and stamp their feet in a defiant show of carácter that will set them apart from the new kids, led by the quietly authoritarian but saintly Guardiola.

Well, Lotina is a bit of a softie actually, but there's always room for one of those. Ernesto Valverde will try to make it again after an initially promising start at Athletic and Espanyol, but filling the guru's boots at Villarreal will not be easy, whilst Cuco Ziganda, another just out of his apprenticeship, looks to have his work cut out at newly-promoted Xerez.

Keep watching the benches this year for thoughtful and intelligent expressions, concise Mourinho-type declarations of wit and wisdom destined for a Christmas book collection of quotations, paternalistic Pelligrini expressions, spittle-infused shows of carácter and razor-sharp Guardiola haircuts. It's all to play for.

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