How responsible are managers for their players?

Early last season, Fulham captain Danny Murphy became engaged in a war of words with the Wolverhampton Wanderers manager over the role of the manager in getting players overly excited during games. Murphy’s comments were in response to the challenge by Wolves midfielder Karl Henry that left Fulham striker Bobby Zamora with a broken leg. Henry was later punished after another dangerous tackle on Wigan’s Jordi Gomez.

While Murphy raised the issue that some managers are known for a more physical type of soccer, it has not been addressed. Last season had some particularly bad tackles: Zamora’s broken leg, Nigel De Jong’s season ending challenge on Hatem Ben Arfa, Paul Robinson’s tackle on Abou Diaby. This season has seen a few bad challenges already. But what is more interesting is whether the managers should be considered responsible for how their players act on the pitch.

A great example of how a manager can often put players in unnecessary stress about a game is José Mourinho’s handling of the recent batch of Classicos. The now infamous incident of the hand stamping by Pepe and the late dismissal of Sergio Ramos in the second leg point to the problem that Real Madrid became much too worked up against Barcelona. Real Madrid received 11 yellow cards and one red across two games while Barcelona received only four yellows in the same period. The difference is huge and one major reason for it is in the way that Mourinho and Josep Guardiola prepare their players for the matches.

While Guardiola is a calming presence that prepares all his players psychologically for the task ahead, Mourinho is almost a polar opposite. The recent criticisms leveled at the Madrid manager have caused him to become quite rattled over the last week. First he was booed during Madrid’s 4-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao at the Bernabéu, followed by the supposed bust-up within the dressing room and on the training field between him and Real Madrid talismans Ramos and Iker Casillas. This leads me back to my main point: should Mourinho be held partially responsible for unrest from within the club spilling out onto the field? In the case of Pepe, this has all happened before. Pepe was given a 10 match ban in 2009 for twice kicking Getafe’s Javier Casquero, followed by a stamp to the body, whom he had just brought down in the area.

Ramos is no saint either, having been sent off in a 2010 Classico for bringing down Lionel Messi from behind and then getting into a brawl with Carles Puyol. Both of these players have a history of making bad decisions in high-pressure matches against Barcelona and the pressure put on the coach beforehand would only have made their situation more desperate as they would no longer have the typical calm of Mourinho to look to.

You can’t completely blame Mourinho for his team’s lack of discipline but he does not help them with his antics, both on and off the field. He cannot help but get into a media war with Barcelona and the press before every match, most recently staying silent during a press conference, leading to members of the local press storming out.

In the Spanish Super Cup at the beginning of the season, he tried to stick his finger into Barcelona assistant manager Tito Vilanova’s eye during a brawl on the sideline. Mourinho has never been a perfect example for his players and can create more problems than he solves. Mourinho, the “Special One,” is anything but a regular manager, though. And so maybe these antics can be attributed as a cause for the discipline problems that beset Real Madrid during high pressure matches such as the Classico. But Mourinho cannot be held fully responsible for his players being sent off because a manager never wants to play a game with only 10 men on the field. Real Madrid’s best defensive players have to look in the mirror and see that despite all the hype of the Classico, it is up to them to not get carried away if they want to win. The last time Real Madrid beat Barcelona (2011 Copa Del Rey) they lasted until the 120th minute before losing Angél di María.

The English equivalent to the Classico, the North West Derby, was, in contrast, a well-mannered affair for the first time in years. The previous match between Manchester United and Liverpool had been overshadowed by the racism scandal between Luis Suárez and Patrice Evra but this match was played with minimal fuss and resulted in only one card for a professional, but not malicious, foul by United’s right back Rafael on Stuart Downing. Because the tackles and fan hooliganism typically overshadow this game, it was refreshing to see the game finish with no controversy.

The biggest reasons for this well-ehaved display, in my opinion, were the continued attempts by both managers to get their teams to play respectfully. For the two weeks leading up to the game both Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson gave interviews where they stressed the importance of playing within the rules and of the players and fans behaving themselves. The managers helped to make the game cordial and clean unlike the Classico.

Both of these games are the top derbies in their respective countries, but the approaches were completely different. I don’t think this is down to the football culture, since the British fans are typically the worst in terms of behavior (Glasgow derby) and exerting their will upon the clubs’ policy (Blackburn). This was down to the way that the managers prepared their teams for the game and they presented the game as an athletic contest, and not a chance for revenge or humiliation.

Mourinho seemed to have lost some control of his team and the team consequently acted with ill discipline. Ferguson and Dalglish made sure they had control of their dressing rooms and produced a fine display of football that contained only one bad tackle throughout.

The first example I used in this column was of Danny Murphy accusing Karl Henry over his horror challenges and Wolves manager Mick McCarthy of exciting his players too much. These were problems in mid-table premier league matches between two teams that had little history of playing each other. Henry is a perfect example of a player that needs a manager that can calm him down as his dismissal for kicking Mark Albrighton two weeks ago showed. Some players — like Karl Henry, Sergio Ramos, and Pepe, for example — need a manager not to psych them up for the game but to calm them down.

While a manager obviously wants his team to play the best that it can against the opposition, he has a responsibility to his players, the opposition, and the game to prevent players he knows to be rash from making such bad tackles and possibly ending someone’s career. This isn’t always possible, but the game should never be raised to the intensity that a person may have a career ending injury.

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