When Sheffield United parted company with Chris Wilder last month, Pep Guardiola spoke out. He claimed that if the two football managers swapped jobs, they would be seen completely differently to the way they are.
Guardiola is viewed by many as the greatest manager of them all, an innovator with the most professorial tactical mind around. Wilder, despite impressing in the Premier League in the past two years, still has the stigma of being an ageing British journeyman.
It undoubtedly does Guardiola a disservice to claim that he is only as good as his players. He was complimenting Wilder, saying that his approach to the game is equally as refined and he could challenge for titles with good investment. But his words raise a point which should be considered; football almost universally values players ahead of managers, despite team selections and planning falling at the feet of the latter.
If results are going well, the team often takes the credit, if they are going poorly, the coach takes the stick and, ultimately, pays the price. This attitude is perpetuated by the coaches themselves but it arguably distorts the truth about who plays the most important role within a team’s structure.
Guardiola and Wilder are two very interesting case studies. The former has won all there is to win with some of the world’s biggest clubs and coached the best players. Their ability to perform is essentially what makes his experimental ideas work. His critics have long suggested his achievements wouldn’t be near so great if he didn’t inherit the squads he had at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City — something Guardiola himself appears to agree with.
Wilder, though somewhat dismissed as one of the top football managers upon Sheffield United’s promotion to the top flight two years ago, worked wonders in taking the club from League One to the brink of European qualification this time a year ago, before a disastrous relegation campaign. They may have run out of steam, but their rise was galvanised by one man, without whom it would have been impossible.
The majority of the key players at City under Guardiola — Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and Fernandinho to name a few — were at the club and unable to win consistently before he arrived. Their current success has been inspired by his work on the training ground; the majority of recent title winners have relied heavily on the man in the dugout. No player was more important than Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United during his near 30-year dynasty at Old Trafford, while Jose Mourinho was able to win the Champions League twice with two unfashionable teams — FC Porto and Inter.
Why, then, do players invariably cost more to sign and only get sacked when acts of criminality or violent conduct occur, while football managers can be sent on their way after a four defeats? Does this expose an unfair imbalance?
There are coaches who hide behind the quality of their players but, generally speaking, it cannot be right that on-pitch talent is so much more expensive than that in the dugout, which is comparatively disposable too. Julian Nagelsmann became the most expensive coach in world football when he agreed to join Bayern for €25million compensation from RB Leipzig this week.
The 33-year-old is befitting of such a pricetag, having already proven himself as a sensation in the Bundesliga at both Hoffenheim and Leipzig. He is charged with continuing Bayern’s domestic dominance and will be responsible for all that comes with that. He is the club’s new face for all intents and purposes, yet he will be joined at his new club by defender Dayot Upamecano, who may cost twice as much to recruit.
Neymar, the most expensive player in history, cost just under ten times the amount of Nagelsmann. His move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain four years ago distorted the transfer window massively but the discrepancy between players and football managers in terms of value has been a point of order for much longer. One is a cog in a machine — sometimes an incredibly important cog — the other is the beating heart of the club. The man who sets the tone and leads from the front.
Even in modern times, when ‘head coaches’ are not as involved in the day-to-day running of things and only focus on the team, it is what they put forward on a match day which dictates everything else.
Of course, economically speaking, there is nowhere near as much value in football managers. Players have image rights and bonuses which mean they dictate the market to a greater extent, plus they are a rarer commodity because their careers are so short. Age may appear to have an impact on a coach’s relevance, but in reality, they can adapt and move with the times for decades. Any player has 15 years at the top of their game if they are lucky, so the demand on those years is much higher.
It is certainly an interesting topic of discussion which comes down to that philosophical issue about who is more important. The Nagelsmann deal has shocked a number of people within football, but he is expected to be the next great star of coaching. He could guide Bayern to an even stronger position than they are now, winning yet more European honours. If a player made that impact, clubs would break the bank for them and nothing would be said.
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