No Mourinho magic in Manchester

March 12, 2009

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Charismatic leadership can be like a conjuring trick which seems to defy all rational principles. But there are limits to what can be achieved, as Jose Mourinho found out at Old Trafford

The European Cup tie was billed as the clash of two great football managers as Jose Mourinho brought his Inter Milan team to Old Trafford [Wed 11th March 2009] after a goalless first leg at Milan. Manchester United and Inter headed their respective national leagues. United had won the trophy in 2008, and had since won a fledgling competition to establish themselves as World Champions. Most commentators considered United to be a stronger team. Inter had further problems from injuries to key players.

And yet …

And yet there was a degree of caution in the press in predicting a winner. On the home goals rule, a score draw would be enough for Inter to go through. But the main consideration the pundits mentioned in favour of the Italian team was Mourinho’s overwhelming winning record against Manchester teams (which means teams managed by Sir Alex Ferguson). This record, first with Porto, and then Chelsea, was part of the legend of Mourinho, the self-styled special one, and charismatic leader.

Mourinho may not have spooked Alex Ferguson, but he had had his usual effect at a distance on supporters and media alike.

Even the first leg could be claimed a minor victory for Jose. United played well but were denied by Inter in the first half, who then came back strongly after half time. Mourinho was assumed to have worked his magic during the interval or a team considered to have fewer world-class players in their prime.

The effects of charisma

The preservation of the image of a special one was captured in the post-match conference in Milan. Mourinho had, unusually, not acknowledged his counterpart on the touchline, when the match ended.

THis was not intended as a mark of disrespect. I have a special exit from the field, the special one explained. But he had left a message for Sir Alex with a ‘three houndred pound bottle of wine’ at his hotel, to say he would look forward to meting at Old Trafford for the second leg.

Two weeks later

Now at Manchester, Mourinho’s customary swagger is evident as comes into view on the touchline wearing his trademark black magician’s cloak (sorry, overcoat). The crowd in the theatre of dreams boo him energetically and theatrically. The contest starts.

Four minutes later, and the magic spell seems to have gone wrong. Slack marking from Inter, and United take the lead. Technically Inter win still win if they score one goal and United do not add to their tally. Mourinho paces around uttering incantations.

But maybe he still has inspired something special in his players. Manchester’s skill levels drop off (Afterwards, Ferguson was caustic on their sloppiness). His team gets to half time lucky to preserve the lead. United were still appearing scrappy and uncomfortable as the second half started. Then United score another goal, in one of the few world-class moves of the game. Even then, with Milan now needing two goals to triumph, the players played nervously in a way that was at odds with the score, and their record at Old Trafford for many months.

The limits of charisma

United repelled fluent moves from their opponents, cameras switching from time to time to Jose on the touchline. As his team created chance after chance and failed convert them, his body language began to change. It was like watching one of those cartoon characters racing over a cliff, and pedalling furiously in mid-air before fantasy yields to the reality of gravity, and the character plunges to earth.

The crowd chanted “You’re not special anymore” but more with a mix of relief and black humour than of spite.

We were witnessing the limits of charisma. Maybe not gone for ever, but vanquished in one particular battle in one particular place. Even the magician’s cloak looked more like a perfectly ordinary if expensive piece of clothing, more often associated with mourners at a funeral.

The final whistle blows. N special tunnel for Jose. The two great managers execute a clumsy embrace for public consumption. In the press conference shortly afterwards, Jose says Manchester United are ‘at their maximum’ and will win everything they compete for this year.

Of course. It takes super-special magic to defeat a chosen one.


Fabio Capello gets a make-over

December 17, 2007

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Fabio Capello, The New Manager for England’s football team, has been appointed to one of toughest of leadership posts in sport. The mechanics of myth-making are illustrated in the first episodes of what will be a long-running drama

Within days of Fabio Capello’s appointment as England football manager, the myth-making machines were into full-scale production mode. Strictly speaking, they were mostly engaged in reworking the ideas from an earlier text.

The Build-up to Fabio’s appointment

The build-up to his appointment was itself conducted with considerable intensity, albeit with a few too many overtones of awaiting the puff of white smoke from the Vatican conclave which would announce the appointment of a new Pope.

We learned a lot about his unrivalled success as coach in the largest clubs in the world.

We learned of the credentials of his impressive back-room team he would bring with him

We could even see the poke-in goal administered by a youthful Capello against England at Wembley in 1973.

The established story

These initial accounts provided a consistent picture of the new manager:

Capello has guided teams to nine league championships in 16 years as a coach, although Juventus were stripped of the 2005 and 2006 titles because of the club’s involvement in a match-fixing scandal …he was the mastermind behind one of the greatest ever club performances when his AC Milan team trounced Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 Champions League final, but he will also arrive in England with a reputation as a fierce disciplinarian …Capello is not in football to make friends. He is interested only in success …Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon likened him to a dictator while he played under him at Juventus

The media, and fans appear mostly very positive, although with a minority vehemently holding to the view that ‘The England Coach needs to be English’.

The BBC as viewspaper?

A somewhat disturbing illustration of how news is fabricated can be found in the BBC treatment of the appointment. In the absence of a direct interview (for the moment), producing a news story requires a certain amount of creative effort. (Just why the story is needed so urgently seems to me a more complicated matter.)

Attempts to win an exclusive interview had stopped short at the gates of Capello’s Milanese villa. With some resourcefulness, the BBC finds one of their own expert commentators Marcel Desailly, and proceed to interview him (Sunday December)

I listened to the interview on the morning Sportsview programme. Desailly has a rapid-fire delivery, and delivers his observations with energy and emotion in fluent English. He makes it clear that he has enormous respect for Capello’s virtues as a coach.

This is hardly news. There follows that special kind of nurturing to ensure that story takes the required shape. In courtroom dramas, such actons are followed by the objection that counsel is leading the witness.

Desailly is pressed to work a little harder.. Doesn’t Capello have any weaknesses? Desailly obligingly tries to be of assistance. Maybe the new coach is not a good listener.

Hm, that’s not much of a story either, I thought. I wondered if ‘not listening’ meant not receiving the message, or not taking the views of others into account.

I was very shortly more than a bit surprised at the speed with which the replication process was taking place. The leading sports item in the next BBC news bulletin, a few minutes after the interview, was the self-same ‘story’, presented as a kind of mini-exclusive: Capello will have trouble communicating. He is a bad listener.

This was later was incorporated into the BBC webpage account of Capello’s appointment.

Former France defender Marcel Desailly, who played under Capello during both of the Italian’s spells in charge of AC Milan, believes language difficulties might not be the 61-year-old’s only barrier in the England set-up. “You can’t really communicate with him,” Desailly told Sportsweek. “When you are talking about tactics or other players he doesn’t really listen but he’s a wonderful man and loves to travel and discover new countries …”He’s not very open about football, but most of the time his ideas are the correct ones.”

This is not news

I have several problems with the ‘story’. It is not news. The widely-received story of Capello is that he does not suffer stupidity, including stupid questions from the press. He has been known to ignore such questions (‘not listen’?). He may even walk out, ending such sessions prematurely.

Another problem I have with the story is that the sense placed on Desailly’s comments is different when taken out of context, as it has been.

My third problem is that the story has been fabricated rather obviously, with the BBC interviewing one of its own, (that’s OK) and then presented the results in a dodgy way and claiming them as an exclusive. (not OK). That’s how news stories are fabricated and replicated.

The process followed the pattern at the BBC in the stories involving Robert Peston and Northern Rock, which we reported on in an earlier post.

BBC financial expert Robert Peston has an inside track into City chatter. He reports the chatter. Usually with insight and authority. Then the BBC takes its own exclusive story, from its own employee, and makes another story out of it. In the role as celebrity, Peston is now presented as making news rather than reporting on it.

This sounds to me rather like The Independent’s stance as ‘a viewspaper not a newspaper’. Maybe that’s what the BBC is also in danger of becoming.


Mourinho’s job is safe: Update

April 21, 2007

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An earlier post reviewed the prospects of Jose Mourinho staying with Chelsea Football Club. Renewed rumours have broken out at the start of the 2007-8 League season as Chelsea results took a dip. Relations between owner and coach blow from luke-warm to Russian Steppes cold

Original Post

Speculation has been rife for nearly a year that Jose Mourinho will lose his job as Chelsea Coach at the end of the season. CEO Peter Kenyon announces that Mourinho’s job is safe. So why is this unlikely to end speculation? The question takes us into the matter of how leaders in general may fail to convince the press and the wider public of their integrity.

When a politician says “I’m not standing for leader” the message is rarely taken at face-value. I’m most familiar with the UK scene, but it seems a pretty universal reaction. We assume that the politician will find wriggle room so that the original statement did not mean what it sounded like. I suspect that there is widely shared tacit knowledge that the politician is saying something he wants us to believe, while reserving the right to claim that something else was meant, if and when that becomes convenient or necessary.

We can examine this through the highly specific incident in which Chelsea CEO Peter Kenyon has denied the story that Coach Jose Mourinho will be fired at the end of the year. Kenyon could hardly have been more specific. In an interview published on the club’s website he was reported as saying

“Jose’s got a contract until 2010 and we’re not going to sack him. He’s got the full support of the board, that’s really important”

There have been no press stories to indicate that Kenyon habitually misleads the public in his public statements. Yet, my suspicion is, that there is something in stories about Mourinho’s future. An earier denial by team captain John Terry did not not prevent the rumors from continuing. The Press is discounting the public statements without having prior cause for doubting the spokesmen.

Don’t ruin a good story

One broader issue is the attraction to many journalists to keep a good story running. Some have made claims to know that JM is going, with ‘exclusive’ claims that yet another international coaching star has been approached. (Germany’s coach Juergen Klinsmann is the latest of a long line of heirs apparent).

There’s little follow-up mileage in a headline that says ‘Jose to stay’. Maybe this kind of wish from journalists helps achieve self-fulfilling prophesies from time to time. It probably contributes to the uncertainties and insecurities of high-profile jobs. But one factor is hardly enough to explain everything. It pays to look more widely.

The Owner’s influence

In Football, the club owner is often one major factor in the coach’s survival. In the case of Chelsea, owner Abramovich has about as much power as any one person can wield. Whatever Kenyon says, even if Jose’s got a contract to 2010, and even if he has the full support of the board today …. well, you can fill in the dots for yourself. How about ‘things might change if Chelsea fails to win the European Cup, or the Premiership, or the FA cup, or any combination of the three’ ? Abramovich’s reluctance to talk with the press simply adds to speculation.

Jose’s leadership record

Mourinho’s leadership record at Chelsea over the last three years has been outstanding. Before his arrival he had already established himself as one of the most successful coaches in world football. This gives credibility to his somewhat ironic self-description as The Special One. He has recently made it clear that he would like to stay at the club, implying that the decision to leave would not be his.

Leadership and trust

Leadership is often said to be the process of influencing others in seeking to achieve one’s goals. An important aspect is shaping the sense that others make of critical situations. Kenyon would like to reassure fans, as well as the media, that there is no ‘Jose Mourinho problem’ at Chelsea. We have also seen how such a statement may not be taken on trust.

In some contrast, Jose Mourinho seems to be achieving that precious asset in his relationship with his players. He has communicated his belief that the players, too, are ‘special ones’ . When needed, a half-time reminder from the Coach (coupled with shrewd and sometimes daring substitutions) has resulted in the second half, a return to the high levels of performance demanded of the players.

Charismatic leaders achieve their results partly through a form of unconditional trust that they induce in followers. ‘Less special ones’ have to rely on force of argument, often against the reluctance of others to believe what they are being told.

If we want to speculate …

We should take a look at the pattern of behaviours of the actors in the past. Kenyon has tended to be a ‘safe pair of hands’, perhaps tending to a parsimony in revealing and addressing inconvenient information. Abramovich has tended to achieve his results in a discrete fashion. Mourinho has tended to push his employers to get his own way, and has been known to put his job on the line to achieve what he wants. Which suggests that if and when Mourinho leaves, it will hardly be a case of ‘going quiet into that good night’.

Correction, but is it better?

The entry was modified to eliminate the earlier misspelling of Jose’s name. It originally referred to someone called Mourhino. I was tempted to retain the accidental error, but decided it was a bit of cheap and accidental graffiiti and maybe it explained why the post was not being hit very often (message to othe dyslectics out there …).


Match Of The Day: Brown versus Osborne

April 18, 2007

Many of us missed Match Of The Day, Brown against Osborne, in the Westminster League. Although televised, the match attracted fewer viewers than the Manchester United/ Sheffield United Premiership football clash, which I watched. Sheffield United seemed to drag the front-runners down to their level. Meanwhile, at Westminster …

The Westminster match was a hastily arranged fixture in advance of more serious contests over the coming months. Brown had been challenged to defend his actions of a decade ago. It was to turn into a one-on-one battle between Chancellor Gordon and his Conservative man-marker, George Osborne.

Two hundred miles to the North West, Sheffield’s finest were at Old Trafford, where they were fighting for their place in the Premier League against the table leaders Manchester United.

Sheffield Manager Neil Warnock said that his team would be facing the best team in the world. While this would be contested by many fans from teams in the English league and beyond, he was effectively making the point that Sheffield were massive underdogs (you could have placed a bet at 14 to 1 for a Sheffield win).

What Sheffield did at Old Trafford

What Sheffield did at Old Trafford was to compete physically, never giving up, against more talented opposition. Young and energetic defenders followed their manager’s plan in man-to-man marking against some of the most elusive and skillful players in the world. Tackles flew in which sidelined United players, and added to concerns about the casualties sustained in recent battles.

The result was as predicted by the bookies a win for the table-toppers and likely Champions. But the win was a narrow 2-0. A week ago, also at Old Trafford, Manchester United had scored seven goals to win a quarter final match against one of Italy’s top teams. General consensus was that Sheffield had dragged the Manchester team down to their level.

Meanwhile in the Westminster League …

Please understand: I am just playing with this metaphor to see how a sporting battle might offer insights into a political contest. In this metaphorical sense, Gordon Brown might be seen as the odds-on favorites, entering the field with a ten-year record for financial success. His opponents’ tactics (like those of Sheffield United) were to challenge public perceptions of the top dog.

Over a decade, Gordon Brown has been regularly called upon to defend his financial actions, in such matches. He has been largely successful in preserving his reputation as a skillful and prudent Chancellor. (Let’s not forget his long-time ally Prudence).

I only caught the highlights in a late night news broadcast, which also indicated the final score had been a comfortable but not overwhelming victory for Gordon Brown. Had the conservatives set up a dogged man-to-man marking system that had minimized the nature of their defeat? Possibly. Had they dragged the Government forces into a scrappier sort of tussle than they would have liked? Again, possibly.

The BBC reported that

The arguments have been well rehearsed over the past few weeks, even years, but shadow chancellor George Osborne was not going to let that stop him .. The “raid” on pension funds had been a con, had devastated the funds leaving Britain with the worst system in Europe and been done in the face of official advice warning him of the consequences ..

The Conservative party went all out on this anti-Brown campaign, even producing a mock newspaper, imaginatively called The Moon, to hand out to rush hour commuters at train stations around the country, and declaring “Gordon Brown ate my pension”.

Gordon Brown ate my pension.

Yes, these are the defiant words of a street fighter.

Did the conservative battle plan work?

To the extent that they had shaped the nature of the fight. To the extent that the Tabloidification of the argument may contribute even marginally to a public perception of the Chancellor (shortly to become Prime Minister) as a man of stealth. It may be a dirty battle, but it may not have been totally futile.

In business, I have reflected on smear campaigns for many years. I’d like to see some decently researched evidence. If there’s anyone out there with some solid evidence I’d like to hear from you. In absence of such evidence I hold to a business principle. You smear your opponents at your peril. It’s a kind of wicked problem-solving. The unintended consequence is to risk a wider reaction of ‘a plague on all your houses’ among the neutrals. It contributes to the low opinion held of politicians by increasing proportions of voters (or perhaps, I should say non-voters).

These are the leaders we deserve, for as long as we accept the tactics of the playground which too often we are witness to.

Postscript

It was The Times wot done it. Originally, the story of Gordon the Pension Snatcher was broken exclusively by the Times newspaper. Today, it tucked away its report of the Brown-Osborne battle on page 22. Perhaps the accompanying Parliamentary Sketch by Ann Treneman rarther spoiled the Thunderer’s thunder. The headline ran ‘Hurricane Gordon sweeps in and demolishes his opponent’. Ouch!


Bold and lucky Generals: The case of Arsenal Football club

April 5, 2007

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A bold general may be lucky but no General can be lucky unless he is bold. The military precept has been adapted to explore the current disappointing performance of the Arsenal Football team. We ask whether the principle has any validity – in football or in military conflicts.

The excellent title to an Arsenal football blog post set me thinking. Where had I heard that before? Napoleon?

Well, almost. Turns out that the quote has a football and a military pedigree. The quote can be traced to a report in The New York Herald Tribune of a football match that had taken place at the start of the 2005 season. The game was one in which Arsenal suffered an ‘unlucky’ loss to Chelsea, when a bustling, and as yet largely unhailed Didier Drogba produced what the report decribed as

.. a fortuitous goal, a mishit by a big, bludgeoning attacker

The author of the Herald Tribune report traced the quotation in his title to the British Field Marshall, Archibald Percival Wavell. The Arsenal blog picked up on it a few years later.

And Napoleon?

It did sound a bit like a Napoleon story. That greatest of French military leaders was an early proponent of spin, so we have to be cautions about his words and intentions. There is a possibly apocryphal story of how he would consider the prospects for a junior officer by musing ‘Yes, but is he lucky’. The story fits with Napoleon’s somewhat fatalistic view of events which was coupled with a belief that there is a critical moment in battle (if not in life generally) when a great leader can seize the initiative regardless of circumstances.

Yogi’s warrior

Which story brings us back to the excellent Arsenal blog by Yogi’s warrier. I’ve noted earlier that Arsenal is well-served by intelligently written blogs It must have something to do with the civilizing impact or the other great French General, Arsene Wenger. Yogi’s warrior bemoaned Arsenal’s bad luck this season, with injuries to their main players, particularly their peerless Thiery Henry.

‘So what is wrong? More than anything I believe Arsene is having what could be called ‘bad luck’. Look at the wider picture. What else can the serious injuries to your two lead strikers be called? Careless? Hardly. Henry perhaps at a push but Arsenal tried to nurture him back from the World Cup only to have the French scupper their plans. The volume of football required of the player due to success at club and international level is the cause, as well as a stupid carelessness and stubborn pride from his national team manager. RvP’s foot? What else is that but bad luck?’

Luck, and Jose you know who

Seems to me, that luck deserves closer attention than it has received by academics, who would much rather study risk and uncertainty. With one or two exceptions, serendipity is out there with psychic studies as of dubious pedigree to warrant serious academic attention. Among the less cynical was the celebrated sociologist Robert Merton who suggested that luck could be partly explained by superior sensitivities to unexpected and unsought opportunities.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the ‘lucky General’ in the Herald Tribune story was none other than Jose Mourhino. Nor that the ‘lucky’ substitute was Didier Drogba. The win over Arsenal was about the time when the public profiles of both these figures were on the up. Since then Jose’s Chelsea have won two league titles. Mourhino’s reputation has grown even more. Drogba has largely fulfilled the promise that his mighty transfer fee required.

Even more significantly, Chelsea has also suffered ‘bad luck’ this year on the injury front. But this has been coupled by a remarkable number of ‘lucky’ wins. Although there has been talk of Chelsea losing momentum to Manchester United in the League, the gap in points between the two teams has remained almost the same over a period of several months.

Leadership lessons?

One possibility is that our beliefs are shaped by the sense we make of complicated situations, through what Herbert Simon called bounded rationality. Another factor is a tendency among one group of people to believe that they have little control over events, while other people believe they have more control over events. The positive mental attitude of the latter seems to work in a leader’s favor. So we collect events that conform to our negative beliefs, and assert we have been unlucky. It is likely to be the same mindset which leads us to attribute the success of others to their good luck. As I’ve probably written before, ‘either you believe you can or you believe you can’t. And in either case, you are probably right. Rationality is bounded (as Herb Simon taught us). Napoleon, and Jose, desplay the self-belief of charismatic leaders that transmits itself to their followers (and even to their enemies).


What Jose did next: How a leader can make a difference

March 7, 2007

200px-jose_mourinho-07.jpgChelsea football club won a vital cup-game after a poor first-half performance. Much of the change in performance was attributed to the influence exerted by charismatic coach Jose Mourinho through his half-time exhortation. This appears to be a case example of a leader’s inspiring influence. But is it as simple as all that? Are there lessons others can learn and imitate successfully?

For forty-five minutes, the current champions of the English Premiership played like the underdogs (which they weren’t) and almost like the away team (which they also weren’t). The visitors, Porto, cashed in on their superiority through a well-taken goal after fifteen minutes, a lead they held until the half-time.

Coach Jose Mourinho had been captured by TV cameras grimly heading for the changing rooms, a few minutes before the half-time interval. The ITV commentator suggested that the result would depend on what the gifted coach could do to change the performance of the ailing team.

From the start of second half, Chelsea upped their game. Within a few minutes their increased pressure was followed by a goal. If there is such a thing as momentum within a sporting contest, Chelsea had achieved it and was benefiting from it. A goal for either side would win the two-leg tie, and the team would advance into the quarter-finals of the European Cup. The well-worked goal from Captain Michael Ballack was the inevitable winner.

Victory had been billed as a critical factor for the team to achieve its lofty aspirations, following the three years of bank-rolling by billionaire owner Roman Abramovitch. Speculation had been growing that Mourinho’s future at the club was in doubt regardless of the result, although failure would have reduced his chances even more.

The inspirational speech

Mourinho was happy to explain subsequently what happened at half-time. His team appeared to need a jolt to help them out of a psychologically bad place.

“I asked the players to enjoy the situation,” Mourinho said of his half-time team talk. “We had 45 minutes to change things, and I asked them ‘are you scared of it or are you going to enjoy it?’… Psychologically, I just made the players think a little bit.”

The Charismatic explanation

How might we explain the change in the team’s performance? One explanation fits with the charismatic model of leadership. The great leader inspires his followers through his own personality and stirring performance. The overall impact extends far beyond the words, to the instantaneous impression created by the leader.

According to this sort of model, the result of the leader’s ‘speech act’ was to trigger an immediate change in behavior in the players. Through his shrewd psychological insight, and ‘giving them something to think about’ the players responded.

There are other factors to consider

If we look a little more carefully, we may feel there are other factors to consider. Both Mourinho and opposing coach Jesualdo Ferreira felt that another change had also been important. At half-time, Jon Obi Michel was introduced, giving Chelsea the lacking dynamism from mid-field.

Both and … not Either or

The situation is complex and unclear, suggesting that it is some combination of the substitution of Michel, and the half-time leadership intervention which taken together achieved the desired change. The evidence seems to support Mourinho’s self-assessment as a Special One.

Some leaders may have hit on a tactical shift to help put things right at half-time. Other leaders might have well-developed psychological sensitivity (emotional intelligence?). I suggest that the combination of tactical astuteness and psychological astuteness is particularly rare.

So, yes, I’d say that the overall impact Mourinho had on the result was in this instance significant, and also one likely to have been matched by a minority of coaches at any level of the game.

What might we learn from Jose?

This is an important question for those wannabe leaders in football and beyond. Mourinho acknowledges how much he learned strategically and tactically from his mentor, the former England coach Bobby Robson. (At, among other clubs Porto). The half-time team-talk has a ring to it that sounds equally authentic if we imagine it had been delivered by Sir Bobby.

This is evidence which suggests that leadership performance (at least, on the Football field) can be learned and developed, even by a special one such as Jose Mourinho. What of the rest of us? Among the less gifted, those who believe they can learn such things from their role models are probably right. Those who believe they can’t … well they are also probably right as well.


I don’t know if Jose’s the greatest football manager ever, but I know how to find out

February 24, 2007

Jose and Arsene (BBC image)So the Special one’s been at it again. In his own words, he’s up there in a group of no less than eight and no more than fourteen. He may be talking of today’s managers. Or he may be talking about where he is in the all-time great rankings. In either case, it would be nice to have some rules for working out whether Jose Mourinho has got it right. Here are a few suggestions.

This is not going to be very exciting. On the other hand, you might find it useful if you ever find yourself in a fighting talk situation. Otherwise you may want to save it for after the end of the season. Which, according to some Watford fans, has already arrived. Anyway, yerwego. Letsby Avenue.

According to an excellent Arsenal website, Jose Mourhino has been winding up the opposition prior to the Carling Cup final. The BBC also picked up, and provided the excellent image above of Jose and Arsene both looking suitably wise. On reflection, Jose wound me up, prompting this post.

How to decide the greatest anything: The rule of last one standing

You can decide the greatest anything – once you know what the rules of the game are. The greatest is the one left, when you have shown all the others are not so great. Take the London Marathon. The winner is the runner who is not finishing behind anyone else. Or in the long jump, he or she is the one whose longer jump is longer than everyone else’s. And so on. Apply the rule and spot the champion.

But it’s not as simple as that is it?

No, sorry, it’s not. For example, today we heard that this year at Wimbledon, the best female tennis player of the tournament this year will get the same prize money as the best male tennis player. I’ve listened to lots of people say that’s right, and lots saying that’s wrong. The rule of last one standing (or actually the last flopping down on the hallowed grass in a practiced victory routine) sorts out the best in each of the competitions. But who deserves the most money? The last bloke standing (or flopping?), simply because the blokes play more sets than the women? Or Roger Federer, because he’s likely to be said bloke, and because he plays fewer sets than any other bloke? Or because he would get ten out of ten for artistic merit for more sets than anyone else.

See where I’m coming from? We can’t decide if we can’t even agree what are the rules of the game to arrive at the greatest. The more events and the wider the timeframes, the harder it gets.

You mean like picking the greatest footballers of all time?

Exactly. I mean like picking the greatest players of all time. And even if we agreed on the rules of the game, we run into the complications of judges interpreting rules. It’s bad enough in Football with one referee having to interpret the rules (with assistance). But what about that Olympic favourite, high diving? The judges practice as hard as the divers, but they still can’t agree all that closely.

So picking the best players over time is tricky. You can’t even compare statistics. Some clever maths show that sports become more competitive over time, with less of a spread between best and worse teams playing each regularly. (It may not seem so in the Premier league, but it’s probably the same there as has been shown in other studies).

Some ways to decide how to decide

In each case, a general principle can be proposed. Find some way of establishing the what rules are to be used to arrive at the last manager standing. Notice, the problem now shifts from finding the winning manager, to finding the winning rules. See what can be learned from the rules applied to obtain the winner in other situations.

Gonks, anoracks, accountants, and attourneys (sorry, members of the legal profession) like rules that involve counting and measuring. The greatest golfer is said to be the one who earns the most dollars in a year. That’s more or less accepted in a year. It doesn’t work over time however. Note, it’s not the golfer who gets the lowest hole average in a year, a method which wouldn’t always get the same result. Note also, it’s not the football team winning the most games that necessarily wins the league or even the World Cup, or the tennis player who wins the most games in a match, tournament or a year.

Hm… Boring, isn’t it. There’s no one answer. But we can fix it to get different ‘right answers’ according to different rules. Or how about this approach? You ask the best managers to vote on the very bestest one of all?

I think you can see the snag there. How do we pick the best manager. Hm. Or maybe we ask everyone in the world interesting in soccer to send in their votes. Hm, again, lot’s of scope for cheating, and how much do most of those ********’s **** s know about anything anyway?

How to see how right Jose is on this one?

OK. That’s what you’ve been waiting for. You deserve a serious no messing answer. How can we Jose compare with today’s managers; and how to compare him against the all-time greats?

This is what I’d do. I’d carry out what’s called a meta-analysis (phew). I’d have two sets of people. One group would be the rule-setters, and the other the rule testers. Each would have fans, players, coaches, pundits, even referees and other officials. Then I’d lock the rule-testers up until they agreed on the rules for picking the bestest manager. They would then be let out.

Next, the rule-testers would be locked up to reach the answer as dictated by the rules. Again they could come out when they have reported. Their job is to have a league table of the current day managers. We can then see where Jose fits on that list.

This gives us the answer to the first, and simpler question. For the other question, I’m inclined to go for a different approach. I’d get all those game players to play out footie games with teams and managers from all time periods. Using some of the rules already established you could then see who wins out.

Oh, yes, if that fails, I’d be inclined to ask Jose what he thinks about it all… Or maybe Arsene.


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