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Oct 26, 21

Tactics, Tactful or Tactless? Football Management Techniques Under the Spotlight

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Thomas Tuchel has, in a very short time, become recognised as one of the best managers working in the Premier League today. Since arriving at Chelsea in January 2021, he has turned the Blues into a force to be reckoned with, winning the Champions League in June and putting them firmly in the hunt for the Premier League this season (they currently sit top of the table at the time of writing.
But if you spend a couple of minutes ‘googling’ for articles with insights into Tuchel’s style of management, you often come up with a variation of the following statement: “Great coach, difficult person”. That description has followed Tuchel for most of his (relatively short) career so far. He is a master tactician, but one who finds the PR side of the game difficult. While things are great at Chelsea now, problems with that balancing act haunted the German coach during his tenure at Paris Saint Germain, where he complained of having to act like a politician.
And yet, if we consider one of Tuchel’s Premier League rivals, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, might we say the opposite is true: Great person, poor coach. We mean no disrespect to Solskjaer here, but that is the consensus you get from most Manchester United fans. They have become more and more frustrated with the manager’s lack of tactical input.

Solskjaer accused of lacking tactical awareness
The Norwegian himself suggested as much in a recent interview, stating that “Football is a simple game. Sometimes we look too much into the intricacies to explain it, but it’s about passion and desire.”. That statement has been trotted out by disgruntled United fans who claim Solskjaer is out of his depth at the club. They cite it as proof of the manager’s tactical shortcomings.
But Solskjaer seems to be a very good ‘man manager’. His United team – despite recent setbacks – is characterised by resolve. Last season, the Red Devils had a ridiculous number of come-from-behind wins. It’s hard not to like the Norwegian, and you can see that the players like him too. Nobody has ever called him “difficult”.
We won’t go as far as saying that Solskjaer is the anti-Tuchel, as you can’t go into absolutisms in football. Solskjaer does deploy tactics, sometimes astutely, and Tuchel has many personable qualities. But they represent the dichotomy at the heart of football management: are tactics more important than motivation?

Clough dismissed tactics
Because we are in an era of tactical innovators – Tuchel, Guardiola, Klopp, Conte – it’s sometimes easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is a new question. It most certainly is not. Consider Brian Clough, for example. Clough was an enigma. If you haven’t seen Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the man in The Damned United, you really should, as it’s one of the best sports movies of all time. But, in that film, Sheen captures some of that enigmaticness that characterised Clough, probably more so than any of the interview footage that exists on YouTube.

Nevertheless, Clough, who landed two European Cups as manager of unfashionable Nottingham Forest, also spoke of “overcomplicating” and the exaggerated usefulness of tactics. While he was also difficult – he once punched Roy Keane when they were at Forest together – his motivational skills were second to none. Some say that Clough’s vocal dismissal of tactics was something of a ruse, but he, like many others, shared the belief that great players find a way to play together.

You can see that there is a seductiveness to this line of thought. For example, how do you coach Lionel Messi? Or other mavericks from George Best to Zinedine Zidane to Ronaldinho? You’ll find quotes from their managers who have said they just let them get on with it. Of course, not every team will be blessed with those once-in-a-generation talents, but you can make a case for great players knowing exactly what they have to do on the pitch. Pundits who take that line of thought – Graeme Souness is one example – then hold the belief that Manchester United’s players simply aren’t good enough.

The truth, of course, is a lot more complex. Some might hold that Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has the perfect blend of tactical insight and man-management required for success. Most Liverpool fans would feel that way. Klopp changes players – see Thiago Alcantara for evidence – convincing them of their place in his system. And right now, it’s yielding dividends. You would be hard-pressed to find one Liverpool fan on the planet unhappy with the German being in charge.

All of this is fluid, too. Jose Mourinho was once seen as one of the most compelling motivators in football. His Chelsea tenure was characterised by players looking like they would die for the cause. But his time at Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United suggested the opposite – just ask Luke Shaw if you want proof.
But as Mourinho’s personal touch waned, so too did the consensus that the Portuguese was a brilliant tactician. So which is the more important quality? The truth is we just don’t know. And years from now, it is still likely to cause debate.

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