Whether we are happy or regret it, football has never been more ‘scientific’ than it is today. Whether it’s the players’ diet, the management of their biorhythms, sports medicine, data analysis … we could go on like this for a long time. It is as if all clubs are engaged in an arms race promised to them by the refinements of technology, in search of the ‘marginal gain’ that could bend the laws of statistics and bring the coin down on the right side of – almost – every hit.
Yet at the same time, in one area at least, football has arguably never been more irrational than it is now; and not in just any field, one of the most essential, the most determining: that of the choice of coaches.
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A new notion has emerged, that of their supposed ‘DNA’, a mysterious notion whose, when we stop there for a moment, the ‘scientific’ connotation has no more meaning than the jargon used by lithotherapists to give legitimacy to their rantings. But it is however taking into account the DNA of the coaches they had chosen that clubs like Barcelona, Juve, Chelsea, AS Monaco and Manchester United turned to Ronald Koeman, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, Thierry Henry and Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer. With the success we know.
Cruyff was the generician
It has obviously happened in the past that former club legends have found him once he has crossed the sideline, to the greater good of both parties. Carlo Ancelotti, for example, won the scudetto and the Champions League with Milan as player and coach; but it was not by magic, or because of some sort of mystical fellowship with his heart club.
Before returning to the San Siro, Carletto had passed through Reggiana, Parma and Juve. He followed a path traced by almost all the great Italian technicians, who, sooner or later, go around the great institutions of calcium without caring too much about their particular affinities. Capello: Milan, Roma, Juve. Lippi: Sampdoria, Atalanta, Napoli, Juve, Inter. Trapattoni, Milan’s ‘historic’ player, coached the Rossoneri well, but it was with Juve and Inter, their two biggest enemies, that he won most of his titles. DNA? What DNA?
Credit: Getty Images
There was Cruyff, of course. But Cruyff, whatever his deep attachment to Catalonia, did not succeed because of his DNA. In fact, in this specific case, the heir was the geneticist. This DNA, he invented it.
So why this obsession today? Why are Barcelona, again, who have just separated from Ronald Koeman, now considering calling on Xavi? Xavi, whose technical experience is limited to two seasons with Al Sadd, who was already champion of Qatar when he took over in May 2019?
Desperation of cause and pressure from supporters
Perhaps it is in desperation, as a chronically ill patient turns to crystal handlers when traditional medicine forfeits. Barcelona were already in dire straits – financially and sportingly – when Koeman, the legendary 1992 Wembley final scorer, took over from Quique Setien. Manchester United didn’t quite know which way to turn after experiencing the demon Mourinho, and so turned to the legendary goalscorer in the 1999 Camp Nou final.
“For Xavi it’s the worst possible time but there will never be good timing with this team”
The pressure of the supporters was also there for something. By choosing ‘heroes’ like Koeman, Solskjaer – or Pirlo, or Lampard -, the leaders of the clubs concerned knew how to gain support from their bases; they also knew that by doing this politeness to a brilliant past, they were ‘buying time’, as the Anglo-Saxons say. The ghost would also be a unifier, would give at least a moment’s respite to the shaken institution.
And sometimes, it’s true, it is a unifier and a respite that is needed. No one will deny that Solskjaer, in particular, was an inspired choice to pacify a locker room poisoned by the end of the Mourinhian reign. But, once peace was restored, was he the one to rebuild the vast edifice that the specter of Alex Ferguson had never ceased to haunt? No, obviously; and we did not wait for the disaster of last Sunday to find out.
A myth stronger than ever
Italians have a wonderful word, ferryman – literally, the ‘ferryman’ who leads his boat from one side of the river to the other – to qualify these technicians whose role is to manage a transition and, who, once arrived safely, then leave the hand to better qualified than them to take to the open sea. Solskjaer was – should have been – one of them in the case of Manchester United. The circumstances made that his connections with the history and the experience of the club represented a real advantage, which he had the merit of knowing how to exploit. The famous ‘DNA’ had a specific function to fulfill in the Mancunian environment according to Sir Alex; it was nonetheless a fiction.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Sir Alex Ferguson
Yes, a fiction, which we maintain today as never before, which is no accident. It is when something is missing that it takes on the most prominence and is given unprecedented importance, and that thing that has come to be missing is quite simply identity. What the identities of Barcelona and Manchester United are today is difficult to pin down. The more we proclaim them loud and clear, the more we fall back on them, the more we express the fear that they have disappeared.
But what exactly were they? Something fluid and intangible, something elusive, something akin to the faith that continues to live in the supporters, a faith that the Glazer family has never shared, and that the mistakes of the Barcelona leaders have shaken even in its foundations by their incompetence. This is why the myth of DNA, of a sort of mystical link between a glorious past and an uncertain present, has never been stronger than today. This is why it no longer means anything, if it has never meant anything.
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