Professional footballers (and indeed sportsmen and women) are not ‘normal’ people. To be sifted through the Serengeti of youth football, from playground cradle to academy, in an ultra-competitive, highly charged environment, one has to be incredibly single minded. At youth level this is especially true, where one has to strike the balance between being enough of a team player to impress coaches and scouts, but ruthlessly self-determined enough to compete against your teammates.
What really separates footballers is just how early in their lives they are capable of demonstrating this kind of dedication. In the vast majority of cases, your prospects for a career are decided before you have officially reached adulthood. To flourish against this backdrop during adolescence is remarkable when you think about it. Not least because of the distractions and pressures presented to your unformed mind during that period of your life.
To fall into that 1% of jumpers for goalposts footballers that become professional makes you a unique character. To further split this atom, the 1% of professional footballers that make it to the elite level are carved from an even rarer slate of mental marble. The people management side of football coaching at this level must be a fucking nightmare, frankly. That’s why so few people are capable of doing it and why the ones that can are paid so much.
Football managers themselves are also not normal, reasonable people. No matter the reward, putting oneself under this sort of duress is not the sort of decision your average person makes. In this excellent piece about Barcelona, Jonathan Liew observes that since World War 2, only two Barca managers have survived for longer than 4 years. “Luis Enrique does Ironman triathlons in his spare time, but it has taken just three seasons for the Barcelona job to exhaust him,” Liew remarks.
Football managers at the elite level are comfortably wealthy enough to retire. Many of us feel pretty strongly about football. Some of us invest thousands of pounds and travel thousands of miles to watch it. But ultimately, we get to walk away with only our thoughts and internet ramblings for company. Players and managers put their health on the line. Conte, Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Zidane- these guys played at the highest level and now manage in that same unforgiving terrain too.
Top level football is so demanding on a player’s body that they have to retire less than half way through their life. The human body just isn’t designed to withstand that kind of strain; it literally begins to reject its host before middle age. To retire from playing and become a manager is to trade intense physical punishment for excessive psychological pressure. Football players and football managers are not rational people. They are motivated by some animal urge alien to swathes of the population.
It is no wonder that Michael Calvin entitled his ode to Premier League management ‘Living on the Volcano.’ It’s difficult to think of a more combustible environment. A group of unique, highly charged men managed by another unique, highly charged man. Now imagine managing a character like Alexis Sanchez who, even by the exalted standards of elite soccer, is considered something of a lunatic in terms of desire and physical exertion.
Now team him up with Arsene Wenger, who has managed an elite level football club for over 20 years. The pair of them, by the standards of average janes and joes like us, are unrelatably mad. So it stands to reason that they might clash. Alexis, like Diego Costa or Roy Keane, must be an absolute nightmare to manage- it would probably be easier if all of them weren’t so damn good and important to their teams. Indeed, part of what makes them difficult constitutes a big part of what makes them great.
Stories circulated this week of a training ground contretemps involving Alexis, for which he was disciplined by Arsene Wenger. The trouble is that the articles were light on precise detail. Much is left to the imagination and given the tension in the Arsenal fan base at the moment, imaginations make for very fertile ground. When we are forced to read between the lines, our inherent biases crack their knuckles, take a deep breath and start to fill in the gaps for us.
It is difficult to say with any certainty because I am not at London Colney every day. Or indeed any day. But I have formed the impression that Arsenal has become a bit of a creche. My entirely uninformed read on it is that, around 8-9 years ago, Arsene had constructed a squad absolutely brimming with bastards. Go and look at the squad list from 2008-09. Gallas, Song, Nasri, Adebayor, van Persie, Bendtner- all notoriously difficult to manage in their own way.
This made for poor squad harmony, with a number of high profile fallouts. Arsene’s early squads had a fair few rapscallions, but most of them trained their steely eyed focus on the opposition. This Arsenal squad became a complex web of internal wrangles. The politics became too combustible and since then, I think, squad harmony has moved closer to the top of Arsene’s agenda. Jens Lehmann and Sol Campbell were drafted in on short term loans and I think it may have been partially to bring the group into line. As a result, the current squad, though gifted, is comprised of nice boys.
They don’t surround referees, they don’t argue with one another and they do not engage in any nastiness with opponents. Alexis is clearly an anathema to this convivial atmosphere. That Wenger signed Xhaka and tried to sign Jamie Vardy was perhaps a move to redress that balance a little. However, we do not have enough information about the training ground fallout to conclude that Alexis was cast asunder because Arsene did not want to expose his delicate children to any coarseness.
For all we know, Sanchez could have been totally, unspeakably out of order. With all of the gory details at hand, many of us might be inclined to agree that he crossed the line. But the fact remains that most Arsenal fans want Alexis to stay at the club and for Arsene to leave, so it stands to reason that many have drawn the conclusion that the Chilean is in the right and Wenger in the wrong. The same is true in reverse, many of Arsene’s greatest acolytes will have decided that Sanchez was a spoiled brat in need of a slipper across the buttocks.
Yet if Arsene has lost the spin war on this occasion, he has to take a lot of the responsibility. The punishment he doled out was half-hearted. Leaving Sanchez on the bench at Anfield only to return on bended knee at half-time will have strengthened the player’s resolve. Alexis saw first hand how the team fared without him and if he has been guilty of a little bit of ‘tude at London Colney, this is unlikely to have sapped the sass from his ass.
Likewise, the mealy mouthed reason that Wenger gave for leaving his star turn out did little to convince. When faced with a similar situation with Diego Costa in January, Antonio Conte at least had the sense to pretend Costa was injured. Max Allegri made it clear he was dropping Leonardo Bonucci for a key Champions League tie for disciplinary reasons. Dortmund’s Thomas Tuchel did much the same with Pierre Aubameyang in November.
Anybody that has managed people in any professional sphere will tell you how difficult it is. To manage elite sportsmen must be close to impossible. Managing Alexis Sanchez must be like trying to nail a flea to the wall. Yet Arsene’s correctional halfway house will probably achieve the exact opposite of what he intended. It has certainly lost him the propaganda war.