Managing the Man Inside the Player

Louis van Gaal’s decision to substitute Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul before the Netherlands’ penalty shootout against Costa Rica at the 2014 World Cup was hailed a managerial masterclass as Krul became hero of the day, a sentiment no one expressed for Roberto Mancini’s late substitution of Gianluigi Donnarumma for Salvatore Sirigu in Italy’s Euro 2020 match against Wales. But it meant everything to the backup goalkeeper. Behind one of the most talented young stoppers in the game, Sirigu probably didn’t expect to get on the pitch at any point during the tournament. It’s a feeling Mancini, who says his biggest regret was not playing at a World Cup despite his inclusion in Italy’s 1990 squad, empathises with, and the move shows he understands the importance of managing the man inside the player.

On a fundamental level, man management is about judging a player’s mentality and creating conditions which allow them to perform. ‘Make the player happy’ sounds simple as a concept, yet it rarely is in practice. Difficulties arise with the nuances of individuals and realising what stimulates the squad’s consummate professional differs from what gets the joker going. One needs only listen to ex-players turned pundits ridiculing Cristiano Ronaldo’s preening or Neymar’s esports adventures to know all players are not fabricated from the same mould, configured to obey to a single command. It’s no wonder then we’re all familiar with the stories of managers getting it wrong—and it happens more than we realise.

Were it easy to analyse and understand the reasons behind a sub-par individual performance, the stock of coaches renowned for their man management would be paltry compared to the pure tacticians. In reality, there are a plethora of factors contributing to what we see over the course of 90 minutes, many of which remain behind closed doors for most of us. Given the stigma around talking about mental health, it’s then even harder to nail down man management issues when they’re the crux of a player’s woes. It takes a brave person to share their personal struggles, and one player to do that is Luke Shaw, displaying an openness he should be commended for. 

From early in his career, fans and media earmarked Shaw as a player to watch out for. He made 67 senior appearances for Southampton before joining Manchester United aged 18 for a then record fee for a teenager. The pressure and expectation associated with joining such a prestigious club at a young age is a factor Shaw has referenced when talking about his mental health, something he encourages others to do as well. Another is his career hampering injuries, yet observers also recognised his relationship with ex-Manchester United manager José Mourinho, who critics have long called alienating, was not conducive to a healthy mental state. Indeed, United teammate Paul Pogba was another to fall out with Mourinho, and it’s fair to say Shaw didn’t respond well to his manager’s attempts to motivate him. But disciplinarian Mourinho values commitment and focus, and he wouldn’t have persistently and publicly pushed Shaw had he not admired him, nor if his brand of man management wasn’t historically successful.

While Amazon’s fly-on-the-wall documentary All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur helped show not every player is smitten with Mourinho, notably Danny Rose while the two were together at Spurs, there are plenty who are. In one anecdote in his autobiography, Zlatan Ibrahimović refers to Mourinho’s indifferent reaction to him scoring in a match while at Internazionale and how that drove him to score again and once more at which point he got the reaction he craved from his manager. The pair have linked up twice in their careers, and it’s evident Mourinho’s understanding of the enigmatic Swede and what he wants when on the pitch is key to their strong relationship. Mourinho’s man management has not always been pretty, but there’s a reason he’s popular with some big personalities and industrious workers—he knows how to motivate them and delivers results. Given that requires listening and learning, it’s no surprise he has voiced his respect for a coach many consider as one of the game’s best man managers.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s success evades no one, and his brutal hairdryer treatment following an embarrassing performance is legendary. But in the documentary Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In, an insightful piece that investigates his life and makeup, his ex-player Eric Cantona speaks about the positive treatment he received. When it comes to footballers, there have been few as unique as the man banned 8 months for silencing a Crystal Palace supporter with a kung-fu kick mid-match and who responded to the incident by philosophising about seagulls. At a glance, Cantona was of the most inscrutable and challenging personalities to manage, which is why his move to Manchester United raised eyebrows. His success was far from guaranteed, and Cantona understands it was the genius of his manager that let him excel.

“In anything I do in my life, if I don’t feel free, I become crazy. He knew exactly what I needed psychologically. But when somebody like Alex Ferguson gives you the freedom you need, to express yourself, you have to deserve it.”

Every relationship is a two-way street, and as Ferguson had the nous and experience to get the best out of his player, Cantona recognised and appreciated the respect his manager gave him, paying him back for it. Each enabled and contributed towards the other’s success, but Ferguson was also highly demanding of his players, highlighting how fluid, adaptive management facilitates the distinct characters of a team.

Nowadays, Cantona might be referred to as ‘a problem player’, not that he wasn’t back in the 90s. The label isn’t referring to his ability to cause problems for the opposition, rather himself and his team. As he was for Manchester United, clubs in the present day would consider him a gamble. With the pervasive levels of scouting that now extend beyond the pitch and afford teams deeper insight into potential recruits, it’s possible only a select few teams would pursue him. But in elite sport, managers and competitors explore every edge, such are the margins and the rewards for overcoming them. Along with the desire to simplify players’ lives to allow them to focus on their game, it explains why clubs and their player liaison officers arrange accommodation for new transfers, assist player families, hire personal chefs, and seemingly take care of players as if they were royalty. While there is a huge emphasis on making the right signings, clubs also go the extra mile to ensure everyone is comfortable and fits in.

Sometimes though, it’s not about the amenities and support staff, nor tapping into a player’s psyche to unlock their potential. Five league games into their infamous title winning season, Leicester hadn’t kept a single clean sheet. They would finish the season with 15, including a sequence of five straight lockouts, but they didn’t get their first until after manager Claudio Ranieri promised the squad pizza for when they eventually kept the ball out of their net. It might not have pleased the club’s dietitian, but it’s novel and reminiscent of Jürgen Klopp delivering his team meeting prior to the 2018 Champions League final against Real Madrid with his top tucked into CR7 branded boxers or Arsène Wenger deliberately mistranslating Nicolas Anelka and Marc Overmars during a dispute to create harmony between the two. It shows that sometimes it’s the basic, almost forgettable acts that inspire a player or team.

We’re often reminded that football isn’t played on paper, price tags don’t reflect performance, and stats can make anyone look like a world-beater. It’s a game that takes place in the mind of the player and manager putting their arms around each other at full time or after a substitution. In that moment, we get a glimpse into their relationship on which so much depends. But an attentive manager, in touch with the people they work with and rely upon, will offer that player the same arm when the fans are back home, the cameras off, and, arguably, it matters most.