England are on the verge of appointing a new manager, which means that it’s a day to have opinions. If Italianness is not a quality you look for in a football coach, this is not the day to keep your thoughts a secret. If you had a dream about David Beckham last night, and he was holding a calzone, and he was in black and white, and he just looked at you in a way that said, “I’m so beautiful that I haven’t opened my mouth in fourteen years,” please get to a phone immediately.
It’s a day for opinions, and here’s mine: I think this Capello fellow is going to be an interesting choice for England. England, right now, are like a team that woke up in a hospital bed with a headache and a strange family sobbing beside them. They don’t seem to know who they are. They’re missing their identity. And Capello seems like a stubborn enough ego (unlike Steve McClaren, who was basically a slice of cheese ready to melt on the sandwich of anyone who approached him with a camera) to have an actual chance of giving them a new one.
Giving a team a personality is one of the least-well-defined skills in football management. You can talk about melding individual talents into a coherent whole, but most of the time talking about melding is just a distracting way to promise that you don’t know what you mean. It’s hard to talk about giving a team an identity because what’s an identity for a team? You know one when you see it—Italy has one; Switzerland doesn’t, quite—and you know it has to do with a team meaning something, so that when you think about the team, some distinct connotation arises in your mind, over and above personnel or kit colors or tactics. But how the connotation gets there is to some extent a mystery.
Teams don’t always need strong personalities in order to succeed—France won every trophy under the sun without one, no matter how hard people tried to extrapolate one from the essentially characterless Zidane—but the greatest teams all have them, and there’s something about the culture of football in England that suggests that, until the team gets one, the drinking subset of their fans is going to go on viewing the world through a hard red prism of utterly pointless rage.
Anyway, in a spirit of encouragement, I’ve put together a list of five managers whose appointments brought a strong new personality to their teams. It’s not that they’re the greatest managers of all time, or the most tactically innovative, though there are some of each on the list. But they all were able to impart a distinct identity to their sides, often one that sharply contrasted with what was there before. Whether Capello joins them or not will be fascinating to see.
Gusztáv Sebes — Hungary (1949). He took over a team that was best known for slowly trundling up the pitch and kicking a ball into the side of a haystack and transformed them into the most dynamic squad in Europe. Under Sebes, the famous Aranycsapat, the “Golden Team”—featuring the fearsome Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, and the great Nándor Hidegkuti—developed an identity based on speed, movement, and fluidity, one which revolved around an attacking 4-2-4 formation and the innovative use of a withdrawn striker. What Sebes called their “socialist football” style anticipated Total Football by decades in requiring players to rotate among different positions. They achieved a still-unmatched 32-game unbeaten streak, scored six goals against England at Wembley, and remain the greatest team ever to be cheated out of the 1954 World Cup.
Bill Shankly — Liverpool (1959). The obvious choice, but he couldn’t be left off the list. Shankly changed everything that could be changed about Liverpool while somehow preserving a sense of the club’s innate identity. Liverpool were still Liverpool, but somehow, under Shankly, that no longer meant they were terrible.
Helenio Herrera — Inter Milan (1960). Inter were hardly strangers to winning when Herrera took over—they were only nine years removed from their last title in Serie A, which was their seventh overall—but under his reign, they became the center of the catenaccio revolution that transformed, not only Inter, but all of Italian football. Suddenly, the word “Inter” meant a towering libero, a clinical counterattack, and a stifling 1-0 win. If you listen to people who lived through it, it would be 25 years before an Italian club scored a second goal in a match.
Rinus Michels — Ajax (1965). The seeds of Total Football were planted at Ajax by Jack Reynolds and developed invisibly for years, but it was Michels’s arrival as manager that reversed the decline of the Spurgeon/Gruber/Rowley years and brought the revolution into flower. Suddenly Ajax were not only moving in an interesting way on the pitch, they were moving in an interesting way and scoring three goals in the first fifteen minutes. Michels’s disciplinarian demeanor (he was nicknamed “The General”) never quite matched the liberated grace with which his teams played on the pitch, but one way or another he created the conditions that they needed to succeed. We can thank his Ajax team not only for the brilliance of Johan Cruyff and the perfection of the offside trap, but also for developments in football that are still taking place today—witness the number of Ajax-connected managers, administrators and players involved at high levels in top clubs throughout Europe.
Arsène Wenger — Arsenal (1996). How much more completely can you change the personality of a club? All the way through the George Graham/Bruce Rioch years, “boring, boring Arsenal” played in a style that seemed to have a walrus mustache and be deathly afraid of crying. It was just the thing for an elephant hunt, but for beautiful football, not quite. Then Wenger arrived, and ever since they’ve been writing florid symphonies. The mechanical back lines and windy hoofs upfield have been replaced by intricate passing and movement so mathematically pure that I think they may have established a Unified Field Theory once in a 4-0 win against Millwall. Their old identity seems like a prehistoric relic. Arsenal, dull? I doubt an eleven-year-old fan could even be made to believe it.
This isn’t a complete list, obviously, just a few names that came to mind, and I’d love to hear more suggestions. Which managers have most dramatically changed the character of a team or the culture around it? What do you think: which managers should Capello be looking to emulate?
Brian Phillips is keeping the seat warm for the next man at The Run of Play.