Player-Manager syndrome

Player-Manager syndrome
Nov 25, 2016


On the 15th of July 2016 Marc Wilmots was shown the door by URBSFA, the Royal Belgian Football Association, after an overly disappointing euro 2016 campaign, culminating in a quarter-final elimination at the hands of Chris Coleman’s european first-timers Wales. Wilmots was the Belgian national team’s coach for just over 4 years, overseeing Belgium’s first qualification for a world cup since 2002 (a tournament he participated in as a player). Although he was initially lauded for his ability to bring Belgium’s young and talented team together for the 2014 world cup qualifiers, Wilmots faced criticism in the final months of his tenure as Belgium manager, criticism that many (including myself) consider to have been too little too late, in the face of his early success as Belgium manager. Indeed, although Wilmots took a “Golden generation” of Belgian footballers to two consecutive tournament quarter-finals, he was denounced for not rotating players enough, playing the same formations too often, having faith in the wrong players at certain moments (see Romelu Lukaku at euro 2016) and ultimately being a man-motivator without an ounce of tactical knowledge in an era of great tactical minds.

Player-Manager syndrome.

What exactly is Player-Manager syndrome? Well as the name evokes, it’s the constant choice made by clubs to select a new manager based on their ability as a player. In Marc Wilmots’ case, he was a borderline legendary player for the Belgian national team, scoring 28 goals in 70 games for the red devils, and was a well-respected player in the footballing world overall, with 133 goals in 421 games for multiple clubs, notably Schalke 04 and Standard de Liège. This did make for an impressive CV, but he was appointed Belgium manager after a failed stint in politics and a one year spell at Sint-Truiden, where he was sacked after taking them precariously close to relegation. This lack of managerial experience or ability leads one to believe that the URBSFA’s choice in appointing Wilmots was purely sentimental, and would do more for the overall morale of the team and FA than their performances on the pitch, as did happen at Euro 2016.


Marc Wilmots is not the only case however. Shearer, Adams, Ince, Souness, Keane, Platt, Voller, Barnes, Robson, Gascoigne, Matthaus, Maradona… the list goes on and on. All legendary players in their time, but honestly woeful managers when called upon. Now, you might say, “Hold on a minute, even though those great players were bad managers, it doesn’t mean that that’s always the case, most big managers were successful players (Dalgish, Guardiola, Cruyff etc)” and I do agree, but that’s because we haven’t ever witnessed a baseball-style influx of “moneyball” managers, who know the game, but not from playing it. Aside from the obvious example of Jose Mourinho, my favourite example is that of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. Although the former had a somewhat remarkable player career, the latter did not, but this power duo were as close to unstoppable as managers could get in the 80’s. Their ability to completely reshape players, adapt teams to formations and outwit opponents propelled Forest to the top of european football for two years running. While it is true that they did have experience in the game as players, their talents as tacticians and coaches outrank even the best today. As the former AC Milan and Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi, who never had a professional career before turning to coaching, once said:

“You do not have to have been a horse to be a jockey”

Yet still today, 23 years after Clough’s departure from Forest, clubs appoint managers without taking their coaching ability into consideration, and I believe it reveals an issue deeper rooted in football: image. When you think about it, do major multinational corporations take mere weeks to appoint new CEO’s or CFO’s, receiving immense pressure from shareholders? No. They take their time, they review resumes and they make an informed decision after months. Now although it is difficult, even morally wrong to compare a football club, whose purpose is pleasing the people, to a corporation, whose sole purpose is satisfying the financial interest of their shareholders, the appointment of people in power (unless monarchical) is a lengthy and well thought out business in almost all private or public sectors apart from in the footballing world. When a football manager is relieved of their post there are typically mere days before the next match, and in tough situations where relegation is at stake, a decision taking more than a few weeks could have catastrophic effects on the club and the fanbase’s views on the club. Indeed, pressure isprobably the second biggest reason as to why managerial appointments are made so hastily, as the constant pressure and presence from fans both on and around gamedays puts an immense burden on the team’s directors and board, forcing them into making a hasty decision, and more importantly, a decision that settles the fans.


When I say that pleasing the fans is the club’s priority with the appointment of a manager, I’m not promoting the now much scrutinized idea that the board is there to pleased the fans, I’m making an affirmation, because sure enough the biggest reason as to why managerial appointments are made, something more important than keeping the fans at bay, is making everyone happy. When Newcastle appointed Alan Shearer as manager in 2009, they were already “as good as relegated”, and although they could’ve taken an extra week to appoint a manager who would’ve given them slightly higher odds of survival, they opted for a manager who, despite the results, wouldn’t get himself, and thus also the club in the fans’ bad books. Other notable examples are Liverpool bringing back Kenny Dalgish and more recently, Real Madrid appointing Zinedine Zidane as head coach. Described as an “apprentice coach […] with much to learn” by a senior Real Madrid director at the time, Real Madrid icon Zinedine Zidane was called up to manage los Blancos midway through the 2015/16 season, a decision that, had he not been a famous footballer, would’ve been heavily scrutinized by the general public. But this appointment was not a blind hope he would pull it off, it was a calculated move to get Real Madrid fans back on the hype train after the controversial sacking of Ancelotti and even more contentious decision of replacing him with Rafa Benitez. The fact that Zidane turned out to be a good manager is beside the point.

It all goes to show that although clubs are becoming more technical and seeing the advantages of taking statistics into greater account nowadays, they are still hit with Player-Manager syndrome, but not for the reasons you might guess. Let’s just hope more clubs start making more researched appointments for the good of the club, not their image from now on.

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