Nostalgia is a dominant part of football. Each fan has memories of their club or international team’s success or failure, famous players or managers, and important matches in their history. This is something that the marketing departments at clubs use to amplify the commercial appeal of the club and build a following.
A key part of maximizing a club’s appeal in the eyes of new and existing football fans is the club philosophy’ or the ‘style of play’. Managers have lost jobs, clubs have regressed, and players have left after failing to adapt to the standards set.
Nuno Espirito Santo
Nuno Espirito Santo was the latest addition to this list of managers who have not lived up to the club’s expectations of aligning the team to a particular style of play.
Tottenham’s Chairman Daniel Levy after Jose Mourinho was relieved his duties promised fans of bringing in a manager who would bring back exciting, open, and attacking football to the club.
After a long search they then settled ith the fired Nuno Espirito after seeing his work at Wolverhampton but that would not last long as he did not live up to the expectations, he was fired and Conte was brought in to replace him.
At Manchester United, after Jose Mourinho was sacked following poor performance, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced him on interim capacity, a move that was praised.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a key member of the Sir Alex Ferguson era was praised for his connection to the United team and fans, more importantly, he was seen as someone who could get the team playing in the now overused ‘United Way’ – a term given to Ferguson’s teams to play open football and score last-minute winners.
Former United players turned pundits spent months lambasting Mourinho and his predecessor Louis van Gaal on their penchant towards a more defensive style of play and expensive acquisitions.
Fast forward to 2021, United is in a spot of bother after a heavy summer of spending. They are sixth in the table after humiliating losses to Liverpool and noisy neighbors Manchester City and trophyless since Mourinho departed in 2018.
Incidentally, Mourinho was also the last of the United managers, who brought silverware to Old Trafford. This is a manager who has brought back a watered-down version of the Ferguson style of play, brought in players who he believed can get them winning trophies, and yet has not been able to deliver silverware to the club.
What could be the problem
Is it important for a manager to move away from their preferred style of play in favor of the style of play that fans of yesteryear have been used to? Does it in turn lead to a decline in these managers not being able to innovate in their time at clubs? More importantly, can they win games and trophies by trying to adapt to the club philosophies?
There are very few instances in the modern era where managers at major European clubs have won trophies by being aligned with the club’s renowned style of play and bringing their own touch to the team.
Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Erik Ten Hag, Carlo Ancelotti, Antonio Conte, Hansi Flick, Max Allegri, and Mikel Arteta are some of the names that come to mind.
They have either ensured that the club continues to win by sticking to their own principles or have imbibed the style of play that most present-day football fans have known or seen on the internet.
Guardiola and Ten Hag, in particular, are outliers who achieved success at clubs that are built on Johann Cryuff’s idea of total football. Guardiola has been branded as one who is constantly innovating with systems, players, and philosophies even today.
Fullbacks as midfielders, inverted wingers, using strikers as wingbacks, and center halves as temporary strikers are among the many surprises that the Catalan has shown the footballing world.
Contrast that to the success that Klopp, Conte, Flick, and Allegri have all had and it does show that it is not necessary to adhere to the style of play that is advertised to the fans or has been used to before. What was common was that they brought an approach that was designed to win.
The Liverpool way was always one that prioritized a pass and moves approach. Managers like Brendan Rodgers and Kenny Dalglish attempted to bring this approach back to the club. Instead, the Reds achieved domestic and European success recently under Klopp using his brand of counter-pressing football.
Before Conte’s arrival, Chelsea and Inter Milan both were teams that were primarily comfortable with a 4-2-3-1 and had a reputation of being miserly than entertaining.
The fiery Italian ensured success arrived at both these clubs by implementing his staple 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 system which ensured that they both entertained and gave the goalkeeper extended vacations on the pitch.
Internationally, Italy and Germany are clear examples of how managers dared to move out of the stereotypes that were associated with their teams to win trophies with their teams.
Germany and Italy till Joachim Loew and Roberto Mancini became part of the coaching staff, were always seen as a team that relied on experience, graft, tenacity, dour football, and sometimes dark arts to win trophies. The words ‘exciting’, ‘passing game’, ‘attacking football’ were rarely associated with these teams.
Germany surprised the world when they hosted the World Cup in 2006 and suddenly, we were witness to a young German team that was fast, on the front foot, and playing possession-based football.
This team went on to lose in the semi-finals against Marcello Lippi’s Italy which was at that moment the anti-Germany. That Germany team earned rave reviews, especially head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was being linked with a host of top club jobs around Europe.
Few people knew that it was Loew and Flick who were the brains behind the operation. Loew would go on to head the national team post-2006 where he built on that body of work to construct the core of the side that would eventually win the World Cup in 2014.
Nostalgia is a powerful sentiment. It reminds fans of where their team was and how they played during their years of success.
It gives them a sense of comfort during trying times. Nuno and Solskjaer were brought in to take their clubs back to the times when they could dish out attacking football that was considered the club’s philosophy.
This additional pressure has only led to an absence of silverware in their search to find a way to play in the club way. It also reminded everyone that success or the closest chance of success for these clubs came only when the manager brought his tactical acumen and innovation to the table and not nostalgia.