The Beaten Manager
This article first appeared in Issue 2 of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2011
Not every match features a Beaten Manager. There are draws, for instance. There are games in which the winning goal comes so late that the losing coach hardly has time to realise that he’s lost. Then there are managers who’ve won so much, over so many years, that a single loss pings right off their fort of Carling Cups. Alex Ferguson generally takes in a defeat as though he’s been stung by a bee – a nasty surprise, a real mood-blackener, but not the sort of thing that makes a man feel beaten.
No: the Beaten Manager only springs (or, more precisely, sort of plops) into existence at those odd moments when a game is out of reach and yet time still remains on the clock, leaking out in its agonising way. If you’re down 4-0 with 10 minutes remaining, odds are you’re a Beaten Manager. You’ve made your substitutions; they were useless. You tried your adjustments and they failed. At 2-0 down, you took off a defender for a midfielder and promptly gave up two goals. Now all you can do is slump on the bench, adrift in your own futility, cosmic pain swirling in your eyes.
Maybe you put up a brave front, striding the touchline and barking orders at a fullback who isn’t listening. Maybe you tilt your head and murmur at your assistant, analytical to the last. Probably the greatest Beaten Manager of recent times was José Mourinho in Real Madrid’s vaporising 5-1 loss to Barcelona last November. For what seemed like the entire second half, he remained squelched in his chair, totally unmoving, yet somehow sinking in place, as if he weighed one pound more with every second that passed. He looked less like a coach and more like a tectonic event. Arsène Wenger, with his watery pride, is a splendid Beaten Manager – often, weirdly, even when Arsenal are winning – but Mourinho carried the role to a new anti-peak.
What thoughts trouble the Beaten Manager’s mind? A friend pointed out to me the other day that football is extremely resistant to concepts. The ideas on which we build our tactical understanding of the game – formation, position – aren’t really essential parts of it; they’re illusions we’ve dreamed up because they’re useful. Most tactical innovations come about when someone upends one of those ideas – drops a striker on the wing, say, or tosses a left-footed player on the right flank; in other words, when someone exposes the unreality of those illusions in a bold and successful way. But isn’t the game itself, with its brilliant, maddening fluidity, exposing the same thing all the time?
The Beaten Manager, more than any figure in football, exemplifies the game’s power to elude our understanding. He tried to navigate it with his best ideas and it drowned him miles offshore. The Beaten Manager may be the saddest person in the stadium. But he’s also the closest to one of football’s truths.