The management question: Do head coaches earn their reputation or is their success a product of their environment?

(Image courtesy of Michael Regan/Getty Images)

There is a perceived difference in standard between the top coaches and the very elite. But, in an alternate reality, what would happen if the best coaches didn’t always take charge of the best teams?

In a recent interview, Pep Guardiola openly admitted what many football fans have dared to temper his undoubted managerial greatness with: that he has only been successful because of the elite-level teams he has managed. In light of Pep’s comments and given how the Spaniard has suffered during this league campaign (relative to his side’s recent domination), the question must be asked once more: do the best coaches in the world earn their reputation and possess superior skills, or is the success of a manager a result of their surroundings and the level of challenge they are provided with? Is it truly a combination of both?

Speaking to Sky Sports (video below), interviewer Bianca Westwood responded to the Spaniard’s claim that he would love to win the Champions League every year but that he is “not good enough” by claiming “but you’re the best coach in the world!” Guardiola’s failure to do so during his time on Manchester has been the biggest criticism of his tenure, but his answer was honest, intriguing and insightful in equal measure; sparking debate once more about the merit of a coach’s success and career path.

“I was [the best],” he said, before continuing:

“Listen, what is the best coach in the world? I never felt I was the best, never in my life. 

“When I won six titles in a row at Barcelona, and won trebles, I never felt that. I won because I had extraordinary players in the big clubs. 

“There are incredible managers, they don’t have these players, they don’t have these big clubs. Give me a team that is not like Manchester City, I am not going to win.”

So, is Pep simply being honest and humble, or does he have a point? Having made the move from Barcelona B to the Catalan giants’ first team in 2008, he has since managed Bayern Munich in Germany and currently Manchester City in England. Now, he has been heavily linked with Italian football’s powerhouse Juventus come the end of the season, as a result of his current employers’ ongoing struggle with UEFA. Evidently, Guardiola’s roles have been limited to the wealthiest clubs in each country he has ventured to – those with the highest chance of succeeding.

However, success is relative and isn’t necessarily defined by trophies and points accumulation. When we collectively evaluate the success of coaches, it is our duty to consider factors such as the available financial budget, working conditions and the overall stature of the club they are at in relation to their ability to be successful.

This is the case this season more than ever, and as Guardiola himself alluded to, there are managers in the Premier League who are achieving extraordinary things, considering the above factors. Chris Wilder of Sheffield United is rightly held-up for his ability to overachieve and managing above expectations. Wilder has guided Sheffield United to the verge of European qualification; they currently sit in seventh place just one point behind Manchester United in fifth. Wilder himself has risen from English football’s non-league and managerial jobs at Bury, Oxford United and Northampton Town to get to his well-deserved Premier League standing. It has even been suggested that Wilder could be a future candidate for for the England national team job, indicating his remarkable achievements up to now.

For too long fans, analysts and journalists have often over-simplistically defined a manager’s “success” without seeing the bigger picture. While there may be improvement in this aspect given the successes of less-fashionable managers of smaller teams such as Wilder, Pep’s comments and the overachievement of teams of a perceived lower level, historic standing and generally disadvantaged base could mark a line in the sand in one of football’s more prevalent contemporary talking points.

All things considered, we will likely never know what would happen if the best coaches didn’t always take charge of the best teams. For a manager like Guardiola, the money, politics and potential for compromising his reputation and legacy would all likely dissuade him from ever taking charge of a team like, for example, Bournemouth. Eddie Howe has had incredible relative achievement prior to this season in keeping the Cherries up every year, finishing in the Premier League’s top half in 2016-2017 and remaining comfortably clear of relegation each season since the club’s promotion in 2015.

My hunch is that Guardiola wouldn’t be as successful as Wilder if they were in the reverse positions, and Pep is likely aware of that. Despite this, other elite managers such as Jürgen Klopp have proved that they can be successful having “earned” their standing as one of the game’s very best, from a lower level progressing with each new job. This may be the next step for someone like Wilder, if and when he decides to leave his beloved Blades.

There is, of course, an important defence of Guardiola to be made. He wasn’t simply gifted a career start at one of the best teams in world football, this opportunity came because of his playing career, an altogether different argument. While it is not always the case, often those in some of the game’s biggest jobs are gifted a chance at a higher level in management because of their playing career, see Messrs. Zidane and Lampard. Pep was in the vicinity, working for Barcelona, but not initially for the first team. So his incredible start to management and the success he went on to have rightly paved the way for him to get the opportunity at the biggest jobs elsewhere.

“What is the best coach? I never felt like the best, give me a team that isn’t like Manchester City and I’m not going to win.”

Pep GUARDIOLA

Until now, Guardiola has never spoken so openly about what rival fans and skepticists pose as the pinch of salt that must be taken with his admittedly stellar managerial career. Perhaps he feels obliged to given the humbling nature of this season unfolding as it is (with his City side sitting 22 points behind Liverpool in the league and considering the magnificent work of his German rival)? He has the opportunity to dispel a lot of his critics if he is able to win the Champions League this season, having overcome relative adversity.

In his interview with Sky Sports, Guardiola also warned of the “bad message” that is sent out regarding manager’s and judgement of their success:

“We give out a bad, bad message for the new generation, for our kids, to just count the winner, the trophies to win. You say the season is a disaster but if you win the Champions League it will be exceptional. Why? It is difficult to win it,” Guardiola said.

“If you don’t, we can say in more than 100 years of history [there] were 100 failure seasons for Manchester City. That is not true.”

Managers are often blamed for failure rather than players. Yet in other cases some managers are given free passes – never shouldering the blame for their own actions. Some work under lesser conditions and provide extraordinary comparable results in less glamorous, star-studded circumstances. This in no way discredits their achievement; it all comes back to relative judgement. Ultimately, the merit of a manager is a result of how successfully they are able to accept, manipulate and play the hand they are originally dealt with.

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