Tevez is proof of player power

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on ESPN, 17 February 2012

There were no fine robes, no rings, and the fatted calves of Manchester survived the night untroubled. But the prodigal son is back at the Etihad, and give or take a few weeks of fitness work, it seems that we will once again be treated to the sight of Carlos Tevezseated on the bench he famously refused to disembark four months ago. The possibilities are fascinating, and it can only be hoped that his sense of humor has survived the intense golfing holiday.

If you’re reading, Carlos, refuse to warm up again. Just for chuckles.

More seriously, it is entirely unclear what effect his return will have on Manchester City and the destination of the title. It’s not a straightforward case of City (re)gaining last season’s Premier League top scorer. Dressing rooms are delicate and volatile compromises of perceived and permitted authority, quivering with the egos of hyperindulged multimillionaires at the peak of their craft. And not only is Tevez returning to compete with players bought first to complement and then to replace him; he’s returning to work for the manager who publicly vowed that he would never darken his teamsheet again. And, not content with the $14.3 million in fines levied by City for his absence — which he contests — he may have to cough up more shortly, if comments made in an interview with Argentine television comparing his treatment by Mancini to that afforded “a dog” are verified and frowned upon by the club hierarchy. Mancini, cutely, believes he may have treated Tevez “too well.

That Tevez is back at all is a consequence of City’s refusal to accept offers it deemed inadequate over the January transfer window. But the fact is that the Argentine’s return looks, on the face of it, to represent a certain kind of defeat for Mancini, who declared in remarkably clear terms that Tevez was finished at the club. While he may simply refuse to pick him, that brings its own risks: Tevez fulminating on the other side of the world is one thing; in the Elite Development Squad quite another, and whatever the eventual outcome of Mancini’s being undermined — and it might be that a newly energized Tevez propels City to their first title since dinosaurs roamed the earth — the fact that Mancini has been is unquestionable. Player power has carried the day.

It’s a little basic, but you can divide football clubs into roughly three spheres of influence: directorial (owners and other suits), managerial (the manager/head coach and his staff), and the players. Obviously, there is much blurring between the lines — long-entrenched managers exercise significant power throughout a club, while senior players take on coaching roles over time — and responsibilities, particularly for transfers, aren’t always delineated so neatly. But the rise in player power is, conceptually, the expansion of the influence of the player(s) from the simple position of doing as you’re told and being paid what you’re given, to a more complex situation, in which they can both demand and actually receive more money and more influence.

We should acknowledge that player power isn’t always a destructive or negative thing, and can on occasion compensate for weak management. Both Avram Grant and Raymond Domenech were carried to within inches of two of football’s shiniest prizes by Chelsea and France teams that were, by common consent, being run by the senior players. England’s run to the semifinals of Italia 1990 was built on the back of tactical adjustments that came from dialogue between Bobby Robson and his senior players (claims that Robson steadfastly denied). And we should also note that bust-ups between players and managers are nothing new, but are simply given more precedence in this age of 24-hour news, and the gaping Internet information maw.

But if football teams need managers — and I think we can all agree that they do — then having them inhibited in their functions by the intrusion of newly powerful players is, at best, dangerous. Whether down to bad advice, selfishness, idiocy, an overflow of ego or a genuine (if misguided) desire to fix whatever might be broken, a dressing room that thinks it knows better than the man appointed to guide it can quickly derail a season, end managerial careers and destabilize the entire club.

Commenting on Tevez’s return, Sir Alex Ferguson traced the origins of player power back to the rise of agents and the liberalization of players’ contracts (something he’s talked about for years now), warning that it threatens the game. While Ferguson is hardly impartial — as not only a manager, but the one firmly in charge of City’s title rivals — his words ring true, and not just in Manchester. It was reported this week that Chelsea’s players — asked to (gasp) attend work on their day off after the muddy puddle of a performance against Everton — responded to criticism from Andre Villas-Boas with harsh words of their own, with the situation developing into a full-grown row in front of the visiting Roman Abramovich.

There is a familiar pattern here: Senior players were cited as being unhappy with Luiz Felipe Scolari’s reign as well; unattributed stories of “bust-ups” and off-the-record criticisms of training methods began to appear. Yesterday, Villas-Boas gave himself a vote of confidence: “they [the players] don’t have to back my project, only the owner has to back my project.” It may have been meant as a warning to his dressing room, but taken at face value, he is badly wrong, and Chelsea’s aging mishmash of a squad no longer has the latent quality to perform while disenchanted.

Like everything else in football, it’s about money. Players — particularly at the very elite end of the market — are worth more than managers: They cost more to get, they require more to keep, and these values are skewed by how difficult they are to replace. Because of this, they’re also conversely harder to get rid of; if, say, five players are undermining a manager, it’s easier and cheaper to get rid of him than them. Players are more use to the club in terms of their off-field worth, after all, no kid ever asked for “VILLAS-BOAS 8” on the back of his shirt. And there is also an inbuilt imbalance in responsibility. Simply put, if a manager manages badly, he gets fired; if players play badly, the manager gets fired. Players know this, and if they don’t, then their agents do. Theirs is increasingly the whip hand.

Beyond serious economic collapse, it’s difficult to see how this genie could ever be crammed back into the bottle. UEFA’s impending Financial Fair Play rules are not about making clubs spend less money, only money that they don’t have and must borrow; there will still be clubs that can generate and spend huge amounts, and even if this redresses the balance a touch, the old tyrannical days are gone. Power, once ceded, tends not to return; the culture of football has changed, and the era of the all-powerful Misters is drawing to a close. Even Jose Mourinho, as iron a fist as football can boast at the moment, has been confronted with training-ground truculence from Real’s Spanish corps, and it’s good for his employment prospects that he gets on with Cristiano Ronaldo.

In soccer’s modern era, players have the money, and players have the power. They can ransom clubs for wages and get managers sacked. And since a cure seems unlikely, the key is prevention. Take Villas-Boas as an example: Without pausing to doubt his talent as a manager, the wisdom of appointing him to lead that squad was questionable; as Scolari found out, they don’t necessarily respond well to new ways of playing football. While the inner workings of Abramovich’s mind are a mystery to us all — ESPN hasn’t yet sprung forthe 1.25 million pounds required to rent his yacht for a week — one wonders how much thought was given to the need for Villas-Boas to jell with his players, as opposed to just his tactical innovations and his Motley Crue-esque commitment to goals, goals, goals. This Chelsea side has flourished (in varying degrees) under Carlo Ancelotti, Guus Hiddink and Mourinho, and Villas-Boas, superficial resemblance to Mourinho aside, doesn’t have much in common with any of them.

Just as buying a player isn’t about finding a good player, but about finding a good one who will work with everyone else — remember the perceived negative impact of Faustino Asprilla on Newcastle United? — so finding a manager, in these days of player power, has to be as much about compatibility. And while this has always been true to a certain extent — the Clough-At-Leeds Precedent — the equalizing of power means that the holistic element of managerial recruitment is more important than ever. While Tevez and Mancini’s differences were sparked by various external factors, including the Argentine’s inability to secure a move over the summer despite the ever-present shadow of agent Kia Joorabchian, it is clear that there is some distance between their notions of how one should treat the other.

As Tevez already knows, such distance is expensive. Manchester City will be hoping that it doesn’t prove disruptive as well.


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