A Battle of Humility

“I am very arrogant.  I am one of the best managers in the world.” - Louis van Gaal, May 2016

Despite the sometimes unsavoury elements of Leicester’s phenomenal season - take your pick from racist strikers, a common assault right-back or the small matter of an ongoing Financial Fair Play investigation - one constant that never fails to please narrative-friendly journalists is the charming new grandfather of English football, one Claudio Ranieri. His self-effacing nature and casual bonhomie has given the frantic and frenzied year at the King Power Stadium a veneer of serenity, although the close relationship he enjoys with his players is often overlooked as a crucial element of their title triumph.  

One notable absence from the Premier League run-in this season has been the undercurrent of mind games, psychological shoot-outs or I would love it moments at the top of the table. In years past, football fans were generally treated to the parallel plot-lines conjured up by the likes of José Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson as the press conference became as much of a battleground as the football pitch, but in the aforementioned Ranieri and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino we have two managers who are happy to let their players do the talking. This is a refreshing change, and one that hints at a new development in coaching at the top of the game.

With the benefit of hindsight, Chelsea’s collapse this year has been on the cards for a while. The famous third season syndrome that afflicts José Mourinho, while overstated by many, is no fluke either.  Mourinho can be an exhausting man; as anyone who has covered his press conferences at Stamford Bridge will attest, with more suspicion and paranoia in his demeanour than a highly-strung Cold War spy gone off-grid.  He is unrelenting and obstinate, and although these are manipulative tactics more than character traits, it undeniably begins to adversely affect the players at one stage or another, not least when he unceremoniously throws some of them under the bus after a frustrating result or performance.  

The modern footballer is generally a more sensitive soul than the likes of Roy Keane or Jamie Carragher, and if Mourinho acts in a similar fashion on the training ground it is sure to cause problems and therefore sub-par performances.  Much like how Sir Alex Ferguson failed to keep Paul Pogba at Old Trafford, it seems that the hard-line disciplinarian approach is on the wane, or at least losing some of its effectiveness. Instead, the managers that are bringing the best from the players at their disposal favour a lighter touch - which isn’t to say that they are not hard taskmasters, evident by Tottenham’s doubled-up training schedules and Ranieri’s suffer-no-fools reputation that he masks with his slightly aloof nature.  

“I’ve been waiting for someone to say that for ages, thank God for that. I’m over the moon about that. For me, he’s not just the manager on the pitch but it’s how he is off the pitch. He is the man to take this club forward and on to new levels. It’s just everything about him; his aura, as well. This is a relief and it’s what I was saying about the foundations. They are set now – and he is a big part of that.” - Kyle Walker on Mauricio Pochettino contract extension. April 2016

Such an approach is based around being closer to the players, and defining the role in less black-and-white terms.  So while Kyle Walker is fully aware who the boss is, he can still feel like the manager is part of the team more than in charge of it, the opposite of the draconian “headteacher” style employed by other coaches that can be stifling in close quarters. There is also more care (and respect) shown towards the players, and with that the development of a team synergy or ethos is given the necessary oxygen to flourish.

The intrinsic motivation that comes from buying into a team mentality cannot be overlooked - the well-documented pizza-making exploits of the Leicester squad being the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Ranieri has created a winning mentality at the club.  

Just try finding instances of Ranieri speaking negatively about anything this season (few and far between), and compare to the incessant bleating from the likes of Arsene Wenger or Sam Allardyce, who shortly after complaining about fixture congestion bemoaned a two-week period without a competitive match following the overcrowded run of Christmas contests. The shortcomings of the team are then seen as being beyond their control - subtly different to Mourinho’s ploy of fabricating conspiracy theories which itself becomes stagnant in the long-term.  Instead, the mantras of Ranieri were about faith and trust in the team, and focused on their own circumstances rather than any external influences.  

“If you saw us in training, it’s just pure passion and togetherness. Everyone’s so close, everyone knows what to do if they are called upon in the first team.” - Jeffrey Schlupp, April 2016

As we previously mentioned on this site, even if the Leicester miracle is not repeated by another club, they have at least shown that a club’s finances, wage structure and star names are given too much gravitas by pundits and fans alike. The nouveau riche - those Premier league clubs about to take their place in the world’s 30 richest clubs this summer - will no longer roll over for anyone, meaning tighter games and fiercer contests across the top flight.  

Just like this year though, the difference between winning and losing will not be dependent on how many zeroes are at the end of the bank balance. The intangibles - team cohesion, a battling spirit - will again have their say. Any clubs that are considering a managerial switch would do well to consider not just the records or titles of their chosen man, but also their temperament.