Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Success and Conservatism: The Manager’s Dilemma

In his book “The Mackericks English Football When Flair Wore Flares” (1994), Rob Steen suggested that winning the World Cup in 1966 was the worst thing that could have happened to English football because “it established deep in the English footballing consciousness the notion that the functionality of Alf Ramsay’s side was the only way to achieve success”. Steen was making the important point that the problem with success is that it breeds conservatism.

In his brilliant book, “Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics” (2008), Jonathan Wilson argues that really great managers in the past never allowed themselves to become conservative football managers. Wilson provides a short-list of these managers that includes two Scotsman, Bill Shankly and Alex Ferguson. It is no coincidence that these two great managers were brought up in working-class areas by parents who were active socialists. They grew up in a tradition that believed in the need for permanent revolution. The same could also be said of Brian Clough, another manager who constantly reminded people of his socialist beliefs.

The main point about great managers is that they are never satisfied with success. This is what gives Ferguson such an advantage over Arsene Wenger, who sticks rigidly to a formula that in the past brought success. Ferguson carefully analyzes every match and even when his club is winning easily, he will still make changes if he observes a weakness in his team. The vast majority of managers cannot do this. They will only replace players when their individual mistakes have resulted in the team dropping points. In other words, the great manager takes pre-emptive action.

There is no doubt that Zola and Clarke have done a great job so far at the club. Since losing to Spurs on 8th December, West Ham’s form has been very consistent, winning six, drawing three and losing only once (rather unluckily against Aston Villa). It has been a tremendous effort when you consider the quality of the players in the team. I would argue that if you studied the squads of all the premiership clubs, West Ham is the most over-achieving side in the league. In the language of an Ofsted inspection, Zola and Clarke are providing “added-value”.

Despite this good run I have observed two serious problems that needed to be addressed in the transfer window. First of all, in every game, the opposition targets Lucas Neill as the team’s weak-link. This could be seen in the game against Arsenal on Saturday. Samir Nasri causing a great deal of panic in the opening stages with his pace down the left flank. Valon Behrami did what he could to help Neill but there is little he can do when the full-back gives the ball away, as he does on numerous occasions. This problem is reflected in the statistics. So far this season Neill has an average rating of 6.10. This is the lowest rating of any first-team regular. There is nothing new in this. Last season Neill had an averaging rating of 6.06, also the worst figure anyone who played over 30 games.

The problem for Zola is that the only squad member who he has so far considered to play at right-back other than Neill, is Julian Faubert, who has an average rating of 5.65 this season. As there has been talk for sometime that Faubert would leave during the transfer window, it is strange that the club has not lined-up anyone to take his place. It seems that the club had been talking to Bryce Moon and Radiu Homei, but Scott Duxbury failed to conclude either deal. As both players have struggled to get in their club’s first-team, it is hard to see how they would have added much to the current squad.

The second problem concerns the first-team pool of players. It has often been said that one way you can accurately judge a team is by looking at the quality on the bench. On Saturday, the West Ham bench consisted of Lastuvka, Lopez, Savio, Boa Morte, Spector, Tristan and Sears. It is hard to think of any other premiership side that has a weaker group of players waiting to be called into the first-team.

I am sure that Zola and Clarke have identified these two problems. The only answer is that West Ham does not have any money to buy or take players on loan. It would seem that they do not think enough of Lopez or Spector to start them in games or even bring them on as substitutes. One possibility is to coach Tomkins to play in this position. Last season Curbishley had Tomkins playing at full-back in a couple of reserve games.

I believe that Zola has already done enough this season to suggest that he has the potential to be extremely successful in this terribly difficult profession. However, he has so far been very lucky with injuries. The quality of the current squad means that Zola has no chance this season to show that he has the potential to reach the standards of managers such as Shankly, Clough and Ferguson.

John Simkin

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