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Why the world’s best football managers are great strategists

by Richard Willner, Head of Strategy
05th Dec 2016 - 4 min read

Jose Mourinho parks the bus at Anfield and gets panned by pundits and Liverpool supporters. He also gets what he came for: a Premier League point thanks to a lifeless 0-0 draw.

And while football regularly throws up unpredictable events – which, for Mourinho, is a first-minute goalkeeping gaffe which leads to a 4-0 thrashing at Chelsea the following week – the managers who succeed are those able to deal with these blips and stay on their chosen course.

In other words, the best football managers are great strategists.

Mourinho, a strategy addict, may still fail, relatively, at Manchester United. Football is a fast-moving industry – as is digital marketing – and needs an agile approach.

His strategy, of stifling the opposition, demanding hard work from all his players and encouraging his players to, shall we say, gain a competitive advantage is unlikely to change, and may be of a time, but his success speaks for itself.

arsene-wengerTactical limitations

Where Mourinho arguably falls down is the tactical side of the game. His formations tend to be rigid and he can struggle to adapt in-game.

Arsene Wenger could be accused of the same. His strategic vision of a side retaining possession and packed full of skilled exponents has been, on the whole, positive for the English Premier League.

But he could be questioned tactically.   

On the flip side, football is littered with tacticians, who come and go.

Tactics will only ever get you so far; just as a manager can have a short-term impact on a team to save them from relegation or win the last couple of rounds of a cup competition. But come the start of the next season, they are found wanting.

kevin-keeganShort-term wins

The heart-pounding, hair-raising pre-match talks worked for a while, but there was no depth, no long-term plan. Kevin Keegan was considered one of football’s great motivators but that’s where it stopped.

Every football fan loved watching Ossie Ardiles’ Spurs side of 1993/94 but his style ended in a 15th place finish and the sack soon after. Throwing five men up front might work for a little while because you catch teams unawares, but Ossie was soon found out and become easy pickings.

You don’t want trembly knees as a strategist; you need a strong constitution.

Look at Roberto di Matteo. He took a Chelsea side to Champions’ League glory thanks to minor changes, as his captain John Terry recalled: “There are little things I look back on and think ‘that was a great touch from him’.”

Those worked in the short-term but he then struggled in the Chelsea job and future positions. His latest, at Aston Villa, saw him tinker with tactics, constantly changing formation and personnel. It smacked of someone without a long-term plan and resulted in the sack.

si-alex-fergusonStrategy and tactics in sync

It might be why Sir Alex Ferguson is arguably the greatest manager of all time: he had a clear strategy but was also an adaptable tactician. He wasn’t wedded to a formation, particularly when he saw how football was evolving, but his overarching approach never changed; he never wavered from his footballing strategy: use pace to dominate opposition and maintain the highest of standards.

Pep Guardiola’s strategy will never change: Pressure the opposition when not in possession; keep the ball when you’ve got it. His strategy is very different to Fergie’s. Patience and guile v pace and relentlessness.

The difference in approach and strategy makes football fascinating.

Digital marketing’s not too different. Your strategy might not be the same as the next person’s, but attempt to achieve success without one and you’re going to be fighting relegation rather than challenging for the title.

 

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