A few years ago, around the same time people started getting extremely animated by things such as net spends and expected goals, there came a school of emerging thought that challenged the traditional narrative of footballing performance, arguing – in effect – that the influence of a manager was vastly overstated. Matches are won by the best players, so the hypothesis went, and the best players cost money, and thus a club’s wage bill was a far more reliable predictor of success than whichever bloke happened to be sitting on a padded car seat in the dugout.
In this reading, the era of the all-powerful manager – the patriarchal visionary who oversaw everything from tactics to contract negotiations to the temperature of the away showers – was gone, if it ever really existed. Football’s centre of gravity had shifted away from the manager’s office towards the sporting director, the medical department, the boardroom and the fund markets. And so the game’s enduring fixation on managers – talking about them, listening to them, hiring and sacking them – was an outdated affectation, a fundamental misunderstanding of how the game itself functioned. Austere and exhaustive academic articles were commissioned on the subject. Long, boring data-heavy books were written and occasionally even purchased.
As a piece of empirical analysis, the theory of the powerless manager made a lot of sense. It explained why managers would often enjoy a “bounce” after joining a new club, before regressing to the mean. It explained why a manager might enjoy success at one club before failing spectacularly at the next: because none of this actually means anything, right? Most of all it seemed to explain how Zinedine Zidane could lead one of the world’s richest clubs to three Champions Leagues without ever actually seeming to do anything at all.
But as with many theories, there was a large gaping hole in the middle of it. Perhaps “blind spot” is a more accurate term. Because essentially it comes down to what you regard as the ultimate meaning of football, the reason it is worth your time. Is it the pursuit of performance, or a ritual and a rite? Is it primarily a destination, or a journey? Is it defined by victory and defeat, or the feelings it creates along the way? The reason for posing these questions here is that in only one of these realities is Ange Postecoglou a brilliant manager.
Maybe this sounds a little like damnation by faint praise. But if in fact we subscribe to the theory that the manager is basically a marginal influence, then it must follow that there are hardly any brilliant managers in the world. Pep Guardiola probably, Jürgen Klopp maybe, and everyone else is sort of bobbing around at varying levels of competence. Postecoglou’s own career, from Australia to Japan to Scotland, seems to have oscillated between periods of mediocrity and periods of clear success. Technically and tactically, he seems to know what he’s doing. But then so does virtually everyone these days.
And this is the intractable difficulty in trying to assess the worth of a manager. In an age where everyone is playing roughly the same kind of high‑tempo vertical football, sending their scouts to the same places, working off roughly the same sets of data, where everyone has pristine training pitches and a hydrotherapy pool, where exactly is the space for a coach to be a meaningful point of difference? It boils down, in large part, to stories and projections. To salesmanship, communication, oratory, personal relationships. To how you can make people feel.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t really get Postecoglou when he arrived in England. Here was a guy who was clearly very impressive in press conferences, whose Celtic teams had played attractive football while continually falling short in Europe, whose immense and often devotional appeal seemed to stem more from how he carried himself than anything he had tangibly achieved. It took a while for the penny to drop that far from being window dressing, this is actually the stuff of which modern management is made. Particularly at Tottenham, where the prospects for an actual trophy are scarce and there will always be at least six richer clubs out there. Spurs didn’t need another military strategist or surly technocrat. They needed a pastor.
And when Postecoglou holds court, you listen. Probably it helps that he was raised outside the bubble of European football and its well-worn vernacular, and so what he says sounds fresh and free of cliche. He quips in short digestible phrases, rarely wastes a word, often employs contrast for effect. “They go through enough pain, they deserve some happiness,” he said of Tottenham’s fans at the weekend. Like all the best preachers, faith and suffering lie at the heart of his message. He understands the power of rivalry and would frequently throw Celtic fans a little red meat with a dig at Rangers. His intolerance of VAR (“it’s ruining the football experience”) and xG (“the one that gets me is XL, that’s all my clothes”) establish his authenticity and common touch. He says “mate” a lot, talks about his fantasy football team, the podcasts he listens to, going to the movies with his kids. The subtext here is one any cleric will be innately familiar with: look, I’m just like you. I know your struggle. But I’ve also seen the promised land. Mate, let’s go there together.
Spurs will always have the income and players to finish somewhere around the top six. That part almost takes care of itself. But as a famous self-help manual once almost said, man cannot survive on gritty 1-0 wins at Fulham alone. “It’s not always just about the destination,” Postecoglou says. “There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the journey.” And these days, unless you support one of the very biggest clubs, what fans crave above all is a sense of belonging, a rudder, an emotional stake in a game that has largely forsaken them. This is where the coach comes in.
Football is a dark and confusing and corrupted place. The devil is everywhere you look. But here’s Ange, putting a big meaty arm around your shoulder and telling you it’s going to be OK. In a sport without clear destinations, where the big prizes have already been sold, perhaps the journey is all there is left.