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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

When There’s No Next Step on the Coaching Ladder

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Marcelo Gallardo has the sort of managerial résumé that should make him irresistible to most, if not all, of Europe’s elite clubs.

He has been in his current post for seven years, long enough to prove he is no mercenary, flickering brightly and briefly before moving on elsewhere. He has demonstrated that he can cope with the deepest pressure and the loftiest expectations. He has shown that he can ride the political currents that swirl around any major club. He has learned to work on a (relative) budget.

Most of all, he has won. He has won over and over again. At River Plate, Gallardo has collected a dozen major trophies as a manager. He has won two continental championships, and come within two minutes of a third. One of his predecessors at the Buenos Aires club, Ramon Díaz, has described him as the greatest coach in the team’s history.

It is not hard to understand, then, why Gallardo’s name is frequently linked with Europe’s great houses — most recently with the vacancy created by Barcelona’s decision to end Ronald Koeman’s loveless 14-month tenure. That the speculation never seems to coalesce into anything, that there always seems to be a preferred candidate that is not him, requires a little further explanation.

Gallardo has won a dozen trophies, and two continental titles, at River Plate.Credit…Nelson Almeida/Agence France-Presse, via Pool/Afp Via Getty Images

Several of Europe’s most illustrious teams have, in recent years, appointed managers who made — by traditional metrics — little or no sense. Some of them have been successful: Zinedine Zidane, for example, won three Champions League titles in three years at Real Madrid, despite finding himself in his first coaching job.

And some of them have, well, turned out a little differently. Andrea Pirlo was appointed Juventus manager around three weeks after being given his first coaching role, in charge of the club’s under-23 side. He had never taken charge of an official game. He was dismissed after a single season. Frank Lampard lasted a little longer at Chelsea. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is still clinging on, somehow, at Manchester United.

A variety of factors have gone into that trend. One, of course, is the desire — shared by almost every major team — to find and nurture its own version of Pep Guardiola. Those searches are rooted in the widespread delusion that, at every club, there is some revolutionary genius lurking somewhere in the shadows, waiting for the chance to transform the game as we know it.

There is, too, a cynical calculation at play. Iconic former players have always been fast-tracked into management, aided by a belief, one that can withstand even a flood of evidence, that their talent can be passed on, and also abetted by a knowledge among executives that appointing a club legend generates instant good will and — more precious still — patience among fans.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s popularity and pedigree as a player may be extending his run at Manchester United.Credit…Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But perhaps the biggest shift is in what the superclubs regard as relevant prior experience. A track record of success in management is no longer, strictly speaking, necessary. Or, rather, a particular stripe of success is no longer regarded as valid, because what constitutes success is so difficult to measure.

Instead, much more important is a knowledge of how these giant, sprawling temples of self-importance work, a sense of being comfortable within them, a feeling of belonging. It is that change that has deprived Gallardo, and many coaches like him, of a chance. And it has given the superclubs something of a problem.

There was, at some point in the dim and distant past, a distinct ladder for a manager to climb. A coach would start at some lower rung on the ladder — either as an assistant or at a smaller team — and slowly prove their worth. They might win promotion to the top division, take a smaller team on a European run, turn a contender into a champion.

Then, and only then, would the superclubs strike. It is the approach that took Jürgen Klopp from Mainz to Borussia Dortmund and then on to Liverpool. It is how Carlo Ancelotti went from Reggiana to Parma to Juventus and on to almost every other major team in Europe. It is how Mauricio Pochettino made it from Espanyol to Southampton to Tottenham and then, after a brief break, to Paris St.-Germain. All of them took one club to another level, and were rewarded with a step up themselves.

Mauricio Pochettino’s track record with Tottenham’s stars earned him a star-studded second act at Paris St.-Germain.Credit…Franck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This is the mechanism that should, now, promote Gallardo. He is ready for it. He has more than proved his worth on one rung. But there is an overriding sensation that it does not quite work like that anymore, that the rules of the game have changed, and that, all of a sudden, everything he has done does not count. And it does not count because of where he has done it.

All of Gallardo’s success, so far, has come in South America. He won a league championship with Nacional in Uruguay and was rewarded with a post at River Plate, one of the biggest clubs in the world by anyone’s standards, an environment as impatient and demanding and expectant as anywhere. There, he has twice delivered the Copa Libertadores.

But while Europe’s major clubs have no problem appointing Argentines — several of Gallardo’s countrymen work in high-profile posts in European soccer, including Pochettino and Atlético Madrid’s Diego Simeone — they have long felt that success does not easily translate to the Old World.

Occasionally, that fear has been well-placed: Carlos Bianchi turned first Vélez Sarsfield and then Boca Juniors into the finest teams in Latin America, but struggled to make an impact at Roma and then, a decade later, at Atlético. Others, like Marcelo Bielsa, have made the leap a little more easily.

That skepticism, though, no longer applies just to South Americans. Europe’s superclubs increasingly see an ocean all around them. Gallardo is not the only coach who might, by now, have expected to receive the call from one of the game’s giants. He is not the only one who has built a body of work that should make him a compelling candidate.

There is Erik ten Hag, the Ajax coach, who has turned his club into a powerhouse in the Netherlands and is on the verge of his second deep run in the Champions League. There is Rúben Amorim, a decade or so younger, who has already ended Sporting Lisbon’s two-decade wait for a Portuguese title. There is Marco Rose, who has risen from Red Bull Salzburg to Borussia Mönchengladbach and then Dortmund.

These are the coaches Barcelona or Manchester United should be looking to appoint now. They are the coaches Real Madrid or Juventus might have approached in the summer. They are, most likely, the next big things.

Instead, Barcelona is hopeful of replacing Koeman with Xavi Hernández, less for his stint at Al Sadd in the Qatar Stars League than for his emotional connection with the club. Manchester United has vowed to stand by Solskjaer; if and when it changes its mind, it is expected to go for Antonio Conte or Pochettino, persuaded by their proven success.

At Barcelona, the big job is not for everyone.Credit…Franck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Both Barcelona and United are, at least, exhibiting more imagination than either Real Madrid or Juventus: When their positions came up a few months ago, both handed them back to managers they had already fired. Ancelotti returned to Real Madrid — taking over from Zidane, himself on his second stint — and, two years after the club declared itself ready to move on from him, Massimiliano Allegri was restored at Juventus.

This is not just a lack of foresight; it is a self-inflicted inability to read meaning into a manager’s achievement. The elite clubs have believed — rightly or wrongly, but certainly logically — for some time that the only reliable guide to a manager’s suitability is previous experience at that level.

That is why, for example, Eddie Howe’s success with Bournemouth was not deemed enough to get him a job at Liverpool or Arsenal. He might have proved his ability in the Premier League, but that was of secondary relevance to demonstrating an aptitude at Borussia Dortmund or Sevilla, teams that compete in the Champions League and have budgets and pressures to match.

The issue is that the game has become so stratified, so quickly, that the pool of clubs deemed suitable hunting grounds has withered to almost nothing. The elite are now so vast, so powerful, that only a few teams can serve as a reasonable approximation.

Dortmund’s Marco Rose is following what used to be the path to a big club. That might not be true anymore.Credit…Ina Fassbender/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Certainly, there is nowhere outside Europe’s major leagues, which counts against Ten Hag, Amorim and Gallardo, and within those competitions there are only a handful: the Milan clubs, perhaps; probably Dortmund; possibly Lyon and Marseille.

And even then, it is not entirely clear what a manager would have to do to stand out. Klopp’s star rose when he led Borussia Dortmund to the Bundesliga title in successive campaigns. Rafa Benítez shot to prominence by making Valencia champion of Spain. José Mourinho captured the imagination by winning the Champions League with F.C. Porto.

The game, in 2021, has been shaped to mitigate against repeats of all of those achievements. If Rose takes Dortmund to second place behind Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, is that success, or is it simply meeting expectations? What does it mean if Ajax wins the Eredivisie, again? Is it failure if Amorim’s Sporting is eliminated in the group phase of the Champions League, or is all of this nothing more than economic determinism? How can any of this be parsed?

It leaves the elite teams in a peculiar Catch-22: They want to employ managers with the right sort of experience, but the only way those managers can get that experience is by being employed. Still, it is hard to feel too much pity for the superclubs: They are the ones, after all, who have done so much to distort soccer’s reality in their favor.

Far more deserving of sympathy are the coaches, like Gallardo, who find themselves trapped by a game whose rules have shifted underneath them. He, like the others, has done all he can. He has twice conquered a continent. He has built an irresistible résumé, only to be told that he has done it all in the wrong place.

Right Idea, Wrong Teams

Diego Maradona’s memory has never faded in Naples.Credit…Yara Nardi/Reuters

There could, in many ways, have been no more fitting tribute. A year after the death of Diego Maradona, two of his former clubs have announced plans to face each other for a cup in his honor. The game, between Boca Juniors and Barcelona, will be played in January. It will be staged in Riyadh.

We could probably just leave it there, but to be clear: Maradona spent two seasons at Barcelona, one of them interrupted by injury, and often traced many of the demons that haunted him to his time there. He may be indelibly associated with Boca, and his love for the club is not in question — after retirement, he maintained a private box at the Bombonera — but he enjoyed only a single campaign there in his prime. By the time he returned in 1995, he was a shadow of what he had been.

It is a shame that both of these teams, then, should be trying to lay claim to his legacy. Far more fitting would be a two-legged tie between the teams where he spent the bulk of his career, staged at the stadiums that now bear his name: the home of Argentinos Juniors, where he started his career, and that of Napoli, where he sealed his legend.

The brands of Barcelona and Boca Juniors are much more potent than either of those clubs, of course. They are far more glamorous targets for Saudi cash in that country’s attempts to dress itself up as a sporting powerhouse rather than, you know, a repressive autocracy. But they should not be allowed to contort history to suit their own ends, to weight Maradona’s story in their favor, to erase those places where he wrote the majority of it from the record.


Events, ultimately, have a habit of making fools of us all. Scarcely 48 hours after a finely crafted newsletter appeared in your inboxes, explaining how Manchester United had perfected the art of soccer-as-content, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer let his team lose by 5-0 to Liverpool, raising the possibility that the club might actually do something to get out of its content sweet spot, with the devastating consequence that last week’s column might have seemed wrongheaded.

Liverpool 5, Manchester United 0. Ronaldo? Still the star of United’s drama.Credit…Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Still, let’s look for silver linings: Manchester United remains trapped by self-doubt, and so has not (yet) fired Solskjaer; defeat has proved, once again, that what is bad for Manchester United the team can be good for the exposure of Manchester United the brand; and Jim O’Mahony has paid me the compliment of thinking I am too young to remember the 1990s.

“You are too young to have witnessed United’s heroic efforts saving themselves from defeat in the final minutes of a game during the 1990s,” he wrote. (I’m not.) “United of the 1990s would often play badly in the first half and then change momentum, often with a heroic substitute, and win the game. The name of one key substitute for United from that era was Solskjaer.”

This is all true, of course: Manchester United long ago had a taste for the dramatic comeback. I’m not sure it happened quite as much as we think it did, though. I’m also not sure it’s something that should serve as an aspiration. Much better to have games won nice and early.

George Weissman is not a man who seems to respect my need to fill a word count. “Your column boils down the incontrovertible fact that the whole should always exceed the sum of its parts, and that is rarely the case since the retirement of Alex Ferguson,” he wrote. That basically sums up Manchester United, yes. But it does not fill a newsletter.

We’ll end on a more philosophical question from David DeKock, channeling his inner Charles Hughes. “On every throw-in from the penalty area sideline, teams should heave it into the danger area and see what happens,” he wrote. “Why do teams not do this every single time? Have there been studies on percentages?”

For a long time, the answer to this would have been stylistic: A long throw-in was seen as unsophisticated, a little agricultural, the sort of thing that Stoke City did. Now, though, I do sense that it is changing: Brentford and Midtjylland, two of the more forward-thinking teams, treat throw-ins as David would advocate. So, too, does Liverpool, which employs a specialist throw-in coach. All three are analytically driven, which leads me to believe that they have numbers to explain their choice, though they have not (as far as I know) chosen to share them.

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