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Where’s the Next Generation of Great Coaches?

by Marko Florentino
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Twenty years, it would appear, is a very long time indeed. This week, a brief video montage fluttered through the flotsam and jetsam that clog my (and your) social media feeds — the engagement-farming banalities, the craven attention-seekers, the willfully deranged Kate Middleton theories — to celebrate the glorious madness of 2004.

That was the year, after all, when Greece won the European Championship, a triumph so unexpected that at least one squad member had to rearrange his wedding around the team’s progress. The Greek triumph came a few weeks after Porto, led by a charismatic young coach with hair more pepper than salt, lifted the Champions League trophy.

That was after Werder Bremen finished the season as champion of Germany and Valencia secured its second Spanish title in three years. Whoever compiled the video did not even need to mention the victory by a Colombian minnow, Once Caldas, in the Copa Libertadores to declare that 2004 had been a year for the underdog.

The compilation clip could, at a push, be used as a sort of generational Rorschach test. It might inspire, in older viewers, that bittersweet pang of nostalgia, the ghost of a memory that this is how things used — and therefore ought — to be. Werder Bremen should be able to win the Bundesliga. Porto should be contenders to be champion of Europe. You might not want to watch Greece win the Euros again, but it was nice that it happened.

Younger fans, though, may well interpret it differently. They have grown up in an era of dominance and dynasty, in which the sport’s major teams have established unprecedented primacy over their rivals, and stasis has become the truest marker of excellence. The sight of all of these unfamiliar teams lifting trophies might reinforce their suspicion that soccer is rather better now than it was then.

There are two things worth pointing out in rebuttal. The first is that 2004 was an outlier even by the standards of the time. The previous six editions of the Champions League, for example, had been won by Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and A.C. Milan. And the second — albeit obvious only with the benefit of hindsight — is that it was a liminal year.

The best measure of that came between seasons in a summer of considerable change. In the space of three months, half a dozen of Europe’s major clubs appointed new managers. Some of the candidates they appointed were successful. Some were not. Some, it would emerge later, had strongly-held beliefs about the healing powers of cheese.

To modern eyes, though, what is most striking is how risky so many of those hires seem now. Juventus’s decision to appoint Fabio Capello — his mien, even then, that of a stern immortal hewn from basalt — appeared a safe bet, but many of the others were not.

Inter Milan hired Roberto Mancini, who had won only one honor, a Coppa Italia, as a coach, and had most recently led Lazio to an unspectacular sixth-place finish. Bayern Munich went for Felix Magath, the cheese enthusiast, on the back of a celebrated playing career and his guiding Stuttgart to fourth place in the Bundesliga.

Real Madrid followed a similar playbook: José Antonio Camacho was one of the club’s more beloved alumni, a factor that probably played as significant a role in his appointment as the Portuguese Cup he had won in his brief spell in charge of Benfica.

Indeed, even the two standout hires on the market — José Mourinho and Rafael Benítez — came with caveats. Mourinho had turned Porto into champions of Europe, something that even in the olden times of the early 21st century was not really supposed to happen, but he was not yet 40. His fire had burned impossibly brightly, but (at that stage) worryingly briefly.

Benítez, unlikely as it sounds now, was arguably the more cautious choice. His Valencia team had won two Spanish titles in three seasons, and had just lifted the UEFA Cup. Still, his résumé was not flawless: Before joining Valencia, he had been a somewhat peripatetic figure at relatively minor Spanish teams. It was not enough to dissuade Liverpool, though, from bringing him on board.

Two decades on, this summer is likely to bring coaching change on a similar scale. Liverpool, Barcelona and Bayern Munich already know that they must appoint new managers. There is a reasonable chance that A.C. Milan, Juventus, Chelsea and Manchester United will join them.

There is Rúben Amorim, winner of a Portuguese title and a couple of domestic cups at Sporting. There is Sebastian Hoeness, who would probably not be pleased to be depicted as a modern-day Magath but who has also taken Stuttgart to the Champions League. There is Roberto De Zerbi, the early promise of his Brighton tenure now starting to fade.

The cases for each seem almost outweighed by caveats; with any of their appointments, there would be the unavoidable feeling of taking a shot in the dark. Amorim has worked only in Portugal. Hoeness has never won a major honor. Brighton is no adequate proving ground for the pressures of Old Trafford or Turin’s Allianz Arena.

It is this, of course, that makes that suite of appointments in 2004 seem so alien, that makes the contrast between then and now seem so stark. Of course, a modern team would appoint a manager like Mourinho who had just won the Champions League. Of course, a coach who had won any of the major domestic leagues on a first try would be in demand by bigger clubs.

But those things do not happen anymore, not really. It is the fact that Alonso is on the cusp of achieving it that makes him so exceptional, and so compelling. Even the sort of success Mancini or Magath had enjoyed is vanishingly rare, so greedily do the elite gobble up major trophies, so desperately do they cling to their places near the summit of their domestic leagues. Nobody will ever make a video declaring 2024 the year of the underdog.

For a vast majority of coaches at the start of their careers, no matter how talented they may be, all they can hope to muster is a form of qualified success: outperforming their salary bill; employing a bold and daring style; surviving in Europe for long enough to win some fleeting kudos.

At the same time, even that is no longer necessarily enough. The task of managing Sporting — with its squad of young promise and gnarled journeymen — is a world away from taking charge of the superstars at Barcelona or Manchester United. Coping with the stresses of Stuttgart is no longer adequate preparation for the expectation to win every game at Bayern Munich.

That is why, in recent years, those managers who have landed the game’s most prestigious jobs have either played for those clubs — Frank Lampard, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Xavi Hernández — or already managed one of their rivals. There is a chasm between the great and the merely good, and the perception is that nobody is able to jump it.

In reality, of course, that is not true. Just as Benítez and Mourinho and Mancini managed to grow into the roles they earned in the summer of 2004, so Amorim or Hoeness or De Zerbi might look an inspired appointment from the vantage point of 2044.

Whether any of the superpowers are brave enough to take that chance today, though, is a different matter. It is a problem entirely of their own making. And only they, ultimately, have the power to solve it.

The long wait ended in the tumult of the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday. After years of disappointment, of desperate near misses and bitter failures, Arsenal finally made it happen: The Premier League leaders failed to score a second goal against a resolute F.C. Porto, ensuring that the Champions League would — after eight long years — see a penalty shootout.

Of course, what with fate being a cruel and mocking force, a second duly followed: On Wednesday, Atlético Madrid took Inter Milan to penalties, too, with Diego Simeone’s side eventually winning to take a place in the quarterfinals of Europe’s somewhat jaded elite club competition.

Those two shootouts were — remarkably — the first the tournament has seen since Atlético’s defeat to Real Madrid in the 2016 final. We have, in other words, managed almost eight editions of a knockout soccer tournament, one designed to taper into a single, evenly-matched fixture, without a single game going to penalties. And that, scientifically, seems weird.

In these situations, there is an overwhelming desire a) to find an all-encompassing explanation and b) to ignore the fact that, sometimes, stuff just happens. That second bit remains the likeliest rationale, but there are other factors worth considering.

It might, to some extent, be a consequence of European soccer’s increasing wealth gap: The last 16 and even the quarterfinals have, in recent years, grown ever more lopsided as power in the European game has become concentrated among a handful of teams.

But the level to which the true elite have pushed the game may be just as relevant. As the very best teams have become impossibly intricate tactical masterpieces, so, too, have they become more vulnerable to systemic failure: If a certain gambit does not work, or is exposed by the opposition, they are more liable to being overwhelmed.

There was something refreshing about the games in London and Madrid this week. This is how European soccer used to look, and used to feel — a welcome blast of nostalgia in a competition that has an obsession with modernity, with the future, with the next big thing.

Liverpool, then, will be the next to fall. In the coming months, the club intends to join the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, Brighton, Aston Villa and a host of others and “expand its portfolio,” a piece of euphemistic jargon that means it will buy another soccer team, strip it of its existential purpose and place it in a form of corporate service.

Liverpool’s hierarchy believes it has little or no choice but to join the growing ranks of rich clubs with expansive, club-owned feeder systems. Establishing a network of teams is the only way the club can compete with its rivals, as Michael Edwards — the celebrated sporting director now restored to Anfield as the head of soccer operations for the team’s owner, Fenway Sport Group — put it this week.

It is easy to see why Edwards and F.S.G. believe that. Soccer seems at some point to have agreed that multiclub ownership was the way forward. Some 300 or so clubs are now part of these models, inspired by the likes of City Football Group and the Red Bull herd. Many more will follow: Newcastle, among others, is exploring its options, too.

The problem is that the argument in favor of this approach does not extend much beyond the fact that everyone else is doing it. The benefits seem indistinct: sharing a little information, spreading a few costs, centralizing the development of the occasional player.

The hazards, on the other hand, are clear: not just a threat to competitive integrity across Europe, but the wholesale erosion of the rich, varied mosaic that has been the sport’s strength, replaced by the unapologetic diminution of social institutions in the interests of unchecked greed and ambition. Whether that cost is worth the benefit is a question too few seem to ask.

Something of a change of pace this week: just a single piece of correspondence, courtesy of David Heath. Correspondence, in fact, may not be the right word. David’s email was really more of a confession, the expiation of a jersey-related sin that seems to have been burdening his soul for some time, brought about by our discussion last week of how teams choose which jerseys to wear.

A couple of decades ago, while David was serving as chief executive at Kilmarnock, a middleweight club in Scotland, he — in his own words — “set aside all semblance of sporting integrity in pursuit of a European place.

“This moral descent,” he admitted, “culminated in the ‘Red jersey affair.’” This, it would seem, is the source of David’s shame.

As some of you may know, Kilmarnock traditionally plays in very fetching blue-and-white stripes. It always has. That season, its away jersey was yellow. There was also a red jersey, for use — in theory — when Kilmarnock met a team on the road that also played in yellow. (Motherwell, Livingston, maybe Partick Thistle?)

We’ll let David take up the story (with light edits). “We had a few away games at a crucial juncture of the season in our third red jersey. This was designed in part to boost sales of this unusual and popular color over the Christmas period. The club went on an excellent run of form, though, and the jerseys took on a talismanic status.

“With a vital home match looming, I was approached by a delegation consisting of the kit manager, team manager and commercial manager pleading with me to find a means of playing at home in the red jersey. Mesmerized by the allure of our precious red, I approached the league secretary directly.

“He was an amiable, if firm, gentleman, always willing to interpret league rules in a flexible manner but also resolute in their enforcement. In what he would later class — somewhat Homerically — as ‘dissembling indirectness,’ I explored with him scenarios in which a club might resort to ‘emergency kit management.’

“At the time, we reused jerseys extensively and had our own in-stadium laundry. The sudden malfunction of that laundry at the last moment could not have been reasonably foreseen. Faced with the potential of a match’s postponement in front of an expectant crowd, I had no alternative but to send the team out in the red jerseys.

“In a subsequent display of pettiness by the league, we were allowed no further games in red that season, went into decline and finished seventh.”

This, presumably, was all the proof that David needed that Kilmarnock’s red jerseys did, in fact, have some special power. “The following season, we promoted it to our away kit,” he said. “We finished a strong fourth.”

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