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4 February 2016

Gary Neville’s Spanish struggles highlight the problems of restricted football strategy

Gary Neville’s Valencia failure would make fools of us all.

By Cameron Sharpe

Gary Neville is starting to feel the pinch in Spain as he awaits his first league win as Valencia manager. Two months on from swapping a comfortable punditry position at Sky Sports with the cauldron of impatient expectation at the Mestalla Stadium, his side were booed off after suffering an unexpected home defeat to lowly Sporting Gijon on Sunday. 

Last night’s 7-0 Copa del Rey humiliation at the hands of league leaders Barcelona has placed the 40-year-old’s position at the club under serious scrutiny for the first time, as complaints over Neville’s faulty grasp on the Spanish language have, inevitably, begun to flow through an unforgiving press. 

There is no doubt, in the UK at least, that the former England international has proven himself an impressive broadcaster and personality. The esteem in which he is held after an impeccable three years of programming at Sky is the polar opposite to his reputation as a player – a mouthy gunslinger with a constant axe to grind.  

But his relative failure across the opening weeks of his tenure at Valencia begs a bigger question: just how much of an impact does a manager have on the success of his players?

The evolution of the sport – thanks, in part, to the Moneyball led infusion of more granular statistical analysis of the finer parts of the game – have made pundits like Neville as soothsayers of a modern truth and prophets of an accidental but very football-specific snobbishness.

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The guffaws of laughter that could be heard around the press room at Ewood Park when Sam Allardyce claimed during a 2010 interview that he could manage Real Madrid with equal success to then incumbent Jose Mourinho were a representation of the philosophical elitism that has spread across the sport over the last decade. The Allardyce model of results-centered pragmatism has become so unfashionable that those adopting it are decried as football charlatans.

Adorned in the uniform of the modern coach – complete with a jumper-tie combination, sharp haircut and willingness to use the phrase ‘ football philosophy’ wherever short of a proper answer  the new brand of manager works on the basis that his own understanding of the sport can be worked into his players by osmosis. I’ve lost count of the amount of press voices acclaiming how a manager “plays good football” as if overlooking the fact that his job is in instructing eleven twentysomethings on the finer points of strategy, discipline and diet. Marginal gains – no question.

Yet, it becomes increasingly apparent with each passing season that there are only two ways of playing football. The “right” way – a variation on the ‘total football’ or ‘tiki-taka’ formula of possession retention and utilisation, and the “wrong” way – a  method of playing to the strength of his resources, often as a direct result of a limited budget or players with a very specific set of skills. At best, the latter is treated as a necessary evil to help bridge the gap between sides of different abilities – acceptable, perhaps, on the first weekend of January during the third round of the FA Cup, but something inherently ‘anti-football’ when travelling to play Barcelona in the semi-finals of the Champions League.  

But there is any number of issues in being so married to these broad distinctions of right and wrong. Neville’s former club Manchester United have enjoyed an extraordinary amount of possession this season- a prerequisite for classic tiki-taka – but have been unable to do anything with it – having had the least shots on goal of all 20 Premier League clubs and leaving the Old Trafford faithful baying for the blood of manager Louis van Gaal. Conversely, Leicester City – three points clear at the top of the division – have recorded only one victory this season where they’ve had more possession than their opponents.    

This is not to criticise Neville’s own philosophy – he has never been one to routinely condemn those sides who refuse to go toe-to-toe with technically superior opponents – but it should hammer home the point that effective resources are more important than an arbitrary interpretation of how to use them. 

Indeed, it would be foolish to write Neville’s spell in Spain as a failure after less than a dozen games – serious change to any sporting setup takes many months – perhaps a transfer window or two – but the initial evidence acts a timely reminder that effective management and tactical intelligence are two distinctly different games.

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