Old-school coaching tactics have no place in modern football

Charlie Giese explains why managers such as O’Neill and Mourinho must get with the times

Both at club level and internationally, the footballing world has seen many football managers coming under scrutiny for failing to adapt their coaching styles to modern times. José Mourinho is in the news constantly at the moment as the media debate rages over whether he will be sacked or not. Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane are also under pressure as their Ireland side play what some people see as outdated and amateur football. Questions arise as to how younger coaches such as Gareth Southgate are finding new ways of achieving success outside the traditional methods of coaching exercised by his veteran peers.

Martin O’Neill is certainly what you would call an “old-school” manager – someone who sees himself as more of a player-manager than a coach. According to many players who have served under O’Neill, he does not concern himself overly with tactics or team-shape, or any of the matters which surely keep the likes of Pep Guardiola or Antonio Conte up at night. Instead, it is motivation, persuasion, and a positive working environment that have proved to be his bread and butter. Many of the more technical aspects of the game are left up to his team of coaches, most notably Roy Keane.

While one cannot argue that O’Neill has enjoyed success in his career, it is hard to see Ireland achieving new levels of success while under his leadership. When watching Ireland play, it is clear to see the lack of shape and organisation that underlies their playing style, the players often just do not seem to know what to do and are regularly outclassed by sides whose calibre of player is not superior, but who are simply better coached.

So how much longer will the FAI continue to back O’Neill? After losing out on World Cup qualification after losing 5-1 on aggregate against Denmark in the play-offs, O’Neill’s future as the Republic of Ireland manager was cast into doubt. Having signed a new two-year contract weeks before their capitulation at the Aviva, O’Neill remarked that he would be meeting with FAI Chief Executive, John Delaney, to discuss the situation.

Fast forward a year and Ireland have failed to win in their last four games, their last win was a 2-0 victory against the USA in July, and O’Neill is still in charge. It is difficult to see what it will take for O’Neill to be swept out, perhaps the upcoming Nations League games against Denmark and Northern Ireland will influence that decision. With the Euro 2020 qualifiers beginning in March 2019, it is imperative that the FAI either back O’Neill 100% or find a suitable replacement in time for that campaign.

In club football, the trend of managers dealing solely with on-pitch issues is becoming increasingly prevalent. In today’s football environment where so many managers focus solely on matters on the training ground, it can be difficult for the more traditional manager, the omnipotent gaffer, to find success. More and more clubs are appointing other management staff, with titles like Technical Directors or Directors of Football, to take care of off-the-pitch matters.

“While the name of the roles might be different, there is a perception that all teams are moving away from having all-controlling managers.”

When Unai Emery took over at Arsenal this year he was given the title of Head Coach. The same is the case for Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea. In fact, six sides in the Premier League now have head coaches rather than managers. While the name of the roles might be different, there is a perception that all teams are moving away from having all-controlling managers.

Perhaps this is because the average time a manager spends at a club at the highest level is 13 months. Of course, clubs cannot plan in 13-month intervals, they must think four or five years ahead. As a result, having a head coach in charge of your team as well as other officials taking care of off-the-pitch issues reduces the turmoil a club faces when a manager leaves. Notably, one possible fallout from this can be dissatisfaction on the coach’s part, with regard to how dealings outside of his control are handled. Antonio Conte infamously fell out with the Chelsea hierarchy in the 2017/18 season over the club’s transfer activity. This ultimately led to huge discontent in the Chelsea camp, a very poor season and Conte being let go. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the future of football management lies in head coaches solely plying their trade on the training pitch and not in boardrooms.

Naturally, however, coaches will still have widely varying management styles and approaches. Much has been made in recent weeks of Manchester United’s poor form, and José Mourinho, in particular, has been receiving much of the blame for this. While the Special One’s record is difficult to question, it can be hard to see how United are going to ever play the kind of attacking football the Old Trafford faithful are crying out to see from them.

Mourinho’s success has traditionally been based on a solid defence, a tactic that served him well during his spell at Chelsea as the Blues won the Premier League in his first two years in charge. This season, however, United have conceded 16 goals in nine games, while only scoring 15. Not only is Mourinho failing to unlock the attacking potential of his side, it seems they are now regularly leaking goals as well. While Mourinho has spent the last two months complaining that his defensive transfer targets were not acquired, many see this complaint as valid.

Alternatively, the point has been made that Mourinho’s moaning must be undermining the confidence of his players and cannot be creating an atmosphere conducive to the squad improving. While the self-proclaimed genius has never had a problem with flaunting his ego and telling the world that he is the best, it seems that now his hubris is holding him back. It seems that he is too stubborn to admit that he is going about things the wrong way. Granted, perhaps the players simply aren’t good enough, as he says. Nevertheless, it is difficult to explain how players like Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku so quickly lost their form under the Portuguese manager. Lukaku hasn’t scored in eight games now.

In complete contrast to Mourinho stands Gareth Southgate – a young, positive, and energetic coach who led England to a very impressive World Cup run in which in they were eventually bested by Croatia in the semi-finals. While it may be true that England did not face an above average team until they met Croatia, Southgate still managed to drive many of England’s players to new and unprecedented levels, pushing players such as Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier to heights previously unseen.

“Positivity and an energetic atmosphere can be very useful tools when trying to motivate your players.”

One thing which was mentioned frequently both during and after the tournament was the positive atmosphere Southgate managed to create in his camp in Russia. This undoubtedly aided the Three Lions in their great form. Every member of the squad seemed genuinely invested in Southgate’s philosophy and strategy. This does not arise out of nowhere. Clear communication and an open manner are needed to get all players on board. Southgate is setting the tone for young coaches, and any aspiring manager should try to emulate how he has moulded his squad into a highly organised and cohesive unit. What has been especially impressive is new players like Harry Winks or Ben Chilwell coming into the squad and instantly adapting to England’s playing style, which is a testament to the ability of the manager. Clearly, positivity and an energetic atmosphere can be very useful tools when trying to motivate players.

So while there are many different coaches with various management styles in the modern game, all of which are achieving various levels of success, it would seem that old school management is going out of fashion, and head coaches are in.