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Thursday March 06 2008

English soccer club results in European ties last night were very poor.  London Spurs lost at home, Bolton drew at home, and Everton got beaten 2-0 in Italy.  But earlier in the week it was a different story, the general opinion being that London Arsenal’s expert slicing apart of Milan, in Milan, was the highpoint.  Liverpool and London Chelsea also won.  The Premiership rules, they all cried.  The top few clubs in the Premiership rule, more like.

The best insight into the Arsenal achievement I recently encountered was in the Times the day before it happened, in the form of a piece about Professor Wenger:

His analysis is far more detailed than which player has run the most miles or who has completed 75 per cent of passes, although those numbers form part of the picture. What counts to Wenger is knowing where they passed (was it forward or sideways), how long it took them and - down to a decimal point - at what speed.

“If I know that the passing ability of a player is averaging 3.2 seconds to receive the ball and pass it, and suddenly he goes up to 4.5, I can say to him, ‘Listen, you keep the ball too much, we need you to pass it quicker.’ If he says ‘no’, I can say look at the last three games - 2.9 seconds, 3.1, 3.2, 4.5. He’ll say, ‘People around me don’t move so much!’ But you have the statistics there to back you up, too.

“It works well with your tactical observations, too. You see that a guy never loses the ball, so you look at the number of times he passes the ball forward. You can get to the point where you can say, ‘I prefer the one who loses the ball a bit more but tries to play it forward.’ It is a concrete observation.”


James Hamilton wonders from time to time why the English never seem to produce people like Wenger, but instead have to bring them in from abroad.  It’s not that the English are incapable of intelligent creativity.  So, why can’t we apply it to football?  Why can’t we apply it, for goodness sakes, to sport of any kind?  An amazing proportion of world class English sports coaches seem to be non-English, the only big exception I personally can think of being Clive Woodward, who won the rugby World Cup with England in 2003, by doing exactly the sort of stuff that Wenger does.  In cricket, my other sporting enthusiasm, England’s recent moment of glory, the 2005 Ashes win, was presided over by a Zimbabwean, aided by an Australian who coached the bowlers.  Both have now moved on, the Australian to Australia.  The England team, despite its unchanged captain, is a shadow of its former glory.  It is now coached by an Englishman.

What gives?  Well, I’m English, and to me there is something more than somewhat ridiculous about being that clever about a mere game.  Wenger could clearly have got to the top of whatever tree he fancied climbing, as could Woodward.  So why on earth pour the one life you have into a game.  If you’re Wayne Rooney and you are supremely good at soccer and crap at everything else, fine.  Makes perfect sense.  But Wenger?  The man could be splitting atoms by now, commanding the fates of nations, moving and shaking any way and anywhere he chose.  Yet, he chooses football.

Please understand that this is not a reasoned argument I am offering.  It’s a gut reaction.  A feeling.  I haven’t analysed whether it makes sense, it’s just the way it seems to me, before any analysis begins.  All I’ve really done is restate the question.  The English don’t do world class sporting coaches.  But why not?  Because we think that being a world class sporting coach is silly.  But again: why?  Why do I, and I suspect a lot of other English people, feel this way?

I’ve read books by Woodward and by that Zimbabwean who coached the cricket team.  Now I’m in the market for a book by or about Wenger.  Part of the clue to Woodward’s oddity, his separateness from English life, I am convinced, is to be found in this story.


I share with you an inability to love football.

However, you also know Gerald Hartup and his son Gerald Jr. (my Godson), who love the ‘beautiful game.’ They did their best to inculcate some understanding of football into me, with some success.  At least I can appreciate the grace and skill of really good play. I supported Germany in ‘65… >:-}

While it may be true that football is one of the only avenues to fame and fortune open to many of the players, it would seem to be true that the managers have more career choices open to them.  But really talented people do things for the love of it. 

Sure, they could choose lots of other options; but if football management offers delight, fame, competition and fortune, it can be as rewarding as anything else.  All truly creative work is play to talented people.

You don’t seem to _work_ at taking photos (I don’t know), but you are very good at it; to the extent that Gerald persuaded me to take a closer look at it.  You have a gift.  You love doing it well, and it shows.

One possible avenue of explanation for the success of foreign managers is the British class system.  These ‘top jobs’ are all too often in the gift of privilege, and they give to each other.  Those who have to work under them resent being controlled by manifest incompetence. 

_British workers nearly always work better for foreign meritocratic managers_.  And in a world-class competitive game, this makes all the difference.

“Lions led by donkeys...”


Tony Hollick

Posted by Tony Hollick on 07 March 2008

None of these great managers were great players. Wenger, Mourinho, Woodward had pretty obscure playing careers. I think they must have spent a lot of time as players both being very frustrated with their own limitations, and being very frustrated with the way players more talented than themselves failed to take advantage of the fact.
There is also a high preponderance of great managers who got injured early in their careers: Cloughie, and in US football, John Madden.

As soon as they retired/got injured they decided: right, now I’ll show them.

Posted by Peter Briffa on 07 March 2008

One needs look no further than England’s own Sam Allardyce to see a local manager who analyses the game using his own innate experience together with the many benefits of technology available.
He also has the ability to bring out the best in players whose skill may be limited, but whose work ethic is exemplary: which might be a good analogy for his management techniques as well.

He never succeeded in taking Bolton to the heights of the Big 4, probably due to a lack of money available to him and he never took Newcastle anywhere, probably due to them being Newcastle. But he remains one of the most repected English managers - although perhaps mainly because of his foreign manager outlook.

Posted by 6000 on 07 March 2008

Brian said:

“The English don’t do world class sporting coaches.  But why not?  Because we think that being a world class sporting coach is silly.  But again: why?  Why do I, and I suspect a lot of other English people, feel this way?”

You have hit the nail on the head as usual, Brian! how many times have we all in our lives been told…
“it doesn’t matter if you lose, for it’s ONLY A GAME...” and “it’s not the winning that matters, it’s taking part!” we have over the decades come to believe it, but Johnny Foreigner has seen through this pretentious crap for what it is, and never took it seriously. So he produces better managers and trainers than we.

Furthermore, we are (still) USED TO being able to find out how to split atoms, invent jet engines, harness inductively-generated electricity, discover electrons etc, have scientific Units named after more of our chaps than all the rest of the wolrd put together, and you all know the rest. So why bother with mere “games”, the winning of which we have taught our generations to belittle?

Posted by David Davis on 07 March 2008

Hi, Dave,

Actually, Henri Coanda (look him up) invented, designed built and flew the first jet engine, in 1910.

He used a piston engine to drive a compressor, which sent compressed air into steel canisters either side of the fuselage.  There, fuel was injected and ignited, and the resulting jetstreams were directed rearwards by nozzles.  Quite like the briliant tip-jets in the innovative Fairey Rotodyne.

He flew about 100 yards before the fuselage started to char.  This taught him about bounday-layer effects. >:-}

Heinkel, in 1938, were flying axial jet engines with a front centrifugal impeller and coupled centrifugal exhaust turbine to power the compressor.  Rather like a turbocharger.

Have you read Stephen Hastings’ “The Murder of the TSR-2”?



Posted by Tony Hollick on 07 March 2008

You may be right Tony! But what about Brian’s point about the British not being able to do sports ciaches and “managers” effectively?!

I’ll look up the TSR2 thing. I remeber being scandalised by its demise as a young man.

Posted by David Davis on 08 March 2008

I have always liked Wenger. Aresenal is the club that (since the Premier league was founded 15 years ago) has been slowly evolving from being a top half of the table club into one of the great clubs of Europe. Of the four top English clubs, the other three have had advantages of history or money, but Arsenal is the one which has got where it has through exceptionally good management of the club, and Wenger is a big part of that.

However, that is not what I meant to comment about here. What I actually wanted to do was look at what you wrote through Australian eyes. Firstly, Australian sporting teams tend to refer to a “coach” rather than a “manager”, and I may use that terminology here. The terminology is telling though. In Australia, managers are not held in high regard. They have a lower profile, and they are seldom given the credit for a team’s success or the blame for their failure in the way that they are in Britain or in Europe. Credit tends to go principally to players. The manager’s job is not generally regarded as terribly important. Australians find it peculiar when an English sporting team wins something and the manager gets knighted or a higher honour than the ones the players get.

The Australian cricket team for a number of years had a coach who did take an approach like Wenger, and who was extremely keen on detailed tactical analysis, and statistal approaches to the game and the like. Australia won a higher percentage of matches when he was coach than at any other time in the history of Australian cricket. That was of course John Buchanan. In return, he was rather mocked for this (and for not having had a serious career as a player), in the media (particularly from the commentary box full of retired players) and in general. Australians don’t really think that nerd stuff is what makes a sportsman great. Or at least, it doesn’t fit the popular idea of national character. (This review of Buchanan’s book is quite telling).

Of course, the other side of all this is that Australia does produce high quality coaches and managers when they are needed. After Australia won zero gold medals in the 1976 Olympics, it was acknowledged by the powers that be in many sports that the old approach of not doing a lot of this stuff did not work, and large numbers of highly intensive coaching programs were set up to develop and manage elite level athletes. (The Australian Cricket Academy is one of these). Lots of money (often tax money) was spent and highly detailed and tactical coaching programs were set up for many sports. We like to pretend that this sort of stuff is not important, though, and often that it is not even going on.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 09 March 2008

Hi, Dave,

Having worked in dozens of “shop-floor” jobs and managerial posts and owning my own businesses, it continues to be my opinion that British management all too often leaves a lot to be desired.

As I said in reply to Brian:

“One possible avenue of explanation for the success of foreign managers is the British class system.  These ‘top jobs’ are all too often in the gift of privilege, and they give to each other.  Those who have to work under them resent being controlled by manifest incompetence. “

“Lions led by donkeys” as someone once said.

Most people would concede that National Coal Board management was grotesquely inadequate.  The obvious remedy was to give the coal mines as co-ops to those who worked in them, pit by pit. They could invest in electricity generation or whatever.  But Thatcher hated co-ops, because one took “her” customers away from her parents’ grocery shop when she was young.

So Thatcher hired a foreign manager (Ian McGregor) and launched a civil war which destroyed the coal industry at a cost to the taxpayers of UKP 6 billion.

Miners who owned their places of work would have had little use for Scargill etc.  I recall John Blundell writing on the IEA web site that the sole purpose of a business is to enrich the people who own it.

Well, if we look at the audited balance-sheets of the free-market Mondragon co-operatives, we find that their annual return on capital, at 8%, is twice that of the average for Spanish investor-owned businesses. With no government assistance at all.

I’ll choose the free market over Crony Capitalism any day.



Posted by Tony Hollick on 09 March 2008
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