Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Success? It's a vision thing

As Carlo Ancelotti and Kenny Dalglish made increasingly large bids for Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll on transfer deadline day, they gave the impression of drunk punters clinging to the side of a roulette table desperately trying to make one last bet to recoup their losses before the bouncers threw them out.

At the bar there were two other chaps having a good old chuckle at the spectacle, perhaps over a bottle of decent claret, with their wallets firmly in their pockets.  They, of course, were Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

More than ever this season the notion of the 'Big Four' seems to be fracturing and the two clubs most likely to fall out of that elite group are Chelsea and Liverpool.  Both these teams have had success in the last decade or so, but this has come in spite of, not because of, the way they have been run with both having lacked the cohesive, long-term strategy that, by contrast, defines Manchester United and the Arsenal.

Just look at the clubs at the most basic level - since Wenger joined The Gunners in 1996, United and Arsenal have had one manager each while Liverpool have had five (including one caretaker) and Chelsea have had 10 (including two caretakers). No Blues boss has managed more than three full seasons in that period - not hard to see why none of them has had the time to implement a long-term strategy.

John, I'm special but I'm not that special

Jose Mourinho brought great and instant success to Chelsea, but he is a different kind of manager to Wenger and Ferguson.  As Alastair Campbell might say, the Portuguese doesn't do legacy, he is more about 'project' management - taking charge at a club and reinvigorating it in the short term before moving on to the next challenge. Either way, take the Special One out of Chelsea's recent history and you have to question whether they would have won the title at all let alone the Double last year.

While Liverpool managers have fared slightly better than their Chelsea counterparts, significantly this period saw the end to the legendary Boot Room dynasty at Anfield, where Roy Evans - not to be confused with Pat Butcher's late husband - was the last manager to emerge from 'within' Anfield.

The Boot Room was established by Bill Shankly and allowed him to fully impose his ethos on the club while harnessing the abilities of his coaches.  So strong was this unified vision that when Shankly retired Bob Paisley stepped into his job and the club's run of success continued seamlessly. The Boot Room also produced managers Joe Fagan and Evans (and caretaker boss Ronnie Moran) while having a huge influence over Dalglish in his first stint as manager, in fact the Scot has already said he wants to re-introduce the Boot Room mentality since he took hold of the reins for a second time at Anfield.

Not only have Ferguson and Wenger had the luxury of time, they've also had the stability brought by support from the owners of their respective clubs, giving them the confidence and freedom to implement their strategies. Conversely even the most successful recent managers at Chelsea and Liverpool have had to cope with off-the-pitch disruption.

Mourinho was undermined by the appointment of Avram Grant as Director of Football and left the club by 'mutual consent' just two months later. More recently Ancelotti, fresh from winning the double, saw his trusted assistant Ray Wilkins sacked behind his back, the team, which had won 13 of its first 17 games this season, then went on to win just two of the 11 following Wilkins' sacking.  Nice work, Mr Abramovich

At Anfield, Rafa Benitez's tenure started brightly winning the Champions League and FA Cup in his first two seasons, but it was increasingly marred by the off-the-pitch rivalry between co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillette which led to inertia in several areas and saw the club finish seventh in Benitez's final season.

Interestingly, Manchester United's worst run in the Premier League (between 2003/04 and 2005/06) came when Ferguson fell into dispute with JP Magnier over his share of stud fees for 'the ultimate horse' Rock of Gibraltar. As the row rumbled on though the courts, billionaire Magnier and his associates relentlessly upped their stake in the club until they effectively ruled the roost at Old Trafford and became Ferguson's bosses. Even the great managers, it seems, need to feel secure.

Manchester United and Arsenal's recent success has also, like that of most successful clubs, been built on the foundations of youth. Any club needs to insulate itself from the loss of key players, whether that is through sale or injury and a strong youth-development policy is a highly cost-effective way of doing this while also helping to strengthen the ethos and vision of a club on and off the pitch.

By contrast the Liverpool and Chelsea youth production lines seem to have ground to a halt.  Not since John Terry in 1998 has a Chelsea youth player managed to stake a long-term place in the first team and it's a similar length of time since the last products of Liverpool's youth team (Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard) broke through the ranks. This makes 'refreshing' the team - replacing older players with younger ones without losing experience or disrupting a winning pattern - that much harder.

The problem has been exacerbated by a chaotic approach to player recruitment at both clubs. Prior to the eye-wateringly costly signing of Torres, only Nicholas Anelka had really supplemented the signings made by Mourinho at Chelsea and the club is regularly accused of having a squad which is too old.  The spine of the team - Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Didier Drogba, Terry and Anelka - are all 30 or over and all are showing signs of fatigue particularly after the summer's World Cup. The huge punt on Torres increasingly seems like a desperate move by a club trying to compensate for the lack of that all-important long-term strategy.

Likewise at Anfield, Gerard Houillier - the first post-Boot Room boss - spent highly before being sacked.  His replacement, Benitez, the spent significant sums to impose his vision on the club, although he was often at loggerheads with former chief executive Rick Parry, blaming him for failing to sign key transfer targets. Then Roy Hodgson was able to bring in players before being sacked after less than half a season. Again, this lack of a clearly-defined strategic vision has meant the club has just had to pay over the odds to refresh its forward line (although as Liverpool's owner John W Henry has pointed out, this was all effectively funded with Chelsea's money).

The elephant in the blog is, of course, Arsenal's lack of silverware over the last five seasons - something which is becoming an increasingly large stick with which to beat Wenger. Yet The Gunners had a very specific set of targets in the last few years - spend less on players while funding the move to a new stadium and continuing to qualify for the Champions League.  Boxes ticked on all counts - nice one, Arsene. In fact Arsenal have recently recorded a record profit which should see them well placed to challenge for honours in the future (if the Frenchman can remember his PIN number, that is).

It's hard to know what to say about Chelsea. The day the club spunked £50m all over Anfield it also announced a loss of £70m. How this quite tallies with the stated aim of making the club self-financing in line with Uefa's financial fair play policy, which is looming large on the horizon, is anyone's guess. Abramovich can keep throwing money at a problem, but when he's down to his last couple of yachts even he will surely realise it's not a viable, long-term solution.

We've lost how much?!

At Old Trafford, the Glazier family's leveraged buy-out of Manchester United four years ago means the club recently posted an arse-clenching record loss of £84m. The sums are enough to make your brain leak out of your nose and it's a testament to the stability and momentum that Ferguson has built at Old Trafford over the last quarter of a century that the club is still competing at the highest end of the Premier League.  But how long can that last with interest payments alone running in the region of £42m a year?

Which leaves us with Liverpool. The club is now debt-free following last year's sale to the Fenway Sports Group. They maybe another bunch of Yanks, but they know a thing or two about turning clubs around. In 2002 they bought the Boston Red Sox and two years later ended the club's 86-year wait for the World Series (and then won it again two seasons later for good measure). 

Perhaps that punt on Carroll wasn't so desperate after all.  If Dalglish can recapture the spirit of the Boot Room and build a happy marriage with the FSG's Moneyball mentality, then perhaps Liverpool can knock United back off that fucking perch everyone keeps going on about.


Neil said...

the ferguson / glaziers / magniers thing is very interesting. United fans often gloss over the simple fact that Ferguson is directly responsible for the position the club find themselves in now. Magnier sold the club having bought more and more equity until he was in a position to sell the lot for a good deal of profit to a rather 'dubious' new owner, effectively washing his hands of all involvement in the club. Fergusons own personal greed was undoubtedly the catalyst for this decision.

Roger Domeneghetti said...

That's a very interesting point, which I hadn't really considered! Cheers, mate.