What David Moyes and Sir Alex really do

Image of Simon Kuper

Sometimes as a journalist you get lucky. In March I spent a day at Everton Football Club’s training ground at Finch Farm. I didn’t meet the manager, David Moyes, but his aura hung over the place. I talked to several of his staff members, who spoke of him with awe, and on May 4 I published an article that tried to describe how Moyes works. Four days later, to my surprise, Moyes was given perhaps the biggest job in football management: successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

My day at Finch Farm helped me appreciate what Moyes will bring to United, but it also helped me understand what managers do. There is a global fascination with these men: serious media devoted more space to Ferguson’s departure than to Pakistan’s elections. However, this fascination coexists with romantic misconceptions about what exactly the manager’s job is.

I began thinking harder about football managers in 2007, when I met the sports economist Stefan Szymanski at a conference in Istanbul. Over beers in the Istanbul Hilton, and later while writing our book Soccernomics together, I realised that Stefan brought an almost unique quality to football talk: everyone had opinions but Stefan could back his up with data. He’d calculated that most managers barely mattered. Far more telling was money: typically, the more a club paid its players, the higher it finished in the league. Perhaps 90 per cent of managers added no value to the wage bill and might as well be replaced with stuffed teddy bears.

Still, a top-class, well-run club such as Manchester United recruits from the small pool of managers who do add value. When Stefan ranked hundreds of managers in England from 1974 through 2010 for their value added, Ferguson came second, and Moyes 25th. They are overachievers. The question then is: how do they add value?

In the popular British conception, the manager is a sort of Churchillian psychologist. He motivates his men, builds “team spirit”, and defeats opposing managers with “mind games”. No wonder fans and media take this view: they usually see the manager making grand statements in the quasi-Churchillian setting of the press conference.

But it’s misguided to cast the manager as psychologist. For a start, few players are gormless layabouts who need “motivating” by a manager. If you play for Manchester United, you are a first-class professional who knows perfectly well how to motivate yourself. You also know that if you don’t motivate yourself, then soon you won’t be playing for United any more.

“Team spirit” is an overrated concept too. In football talk, it’s often presumed that teams lose because their players are quarrelling. More commonly, things work the other way around: the players are quarrelling because the team is losing. A football team is less a band of brothers than an unsentimental collective of experts.

Even more overrated are managers’ verbal jousts with other managers – “mind games”, as journalists call them. Liverpool’s defender Jamie Carragher, in his astute autobiography Carra, recounts some long-forgotten “mind games” between Ferguson and Liverpool’s then manager Rafael Benitez. Carragher writes: “I read some reports suggesting Rafa’s press conference would be the moment the title was won or lost. Where does that rubbish come from? … I think the players of both clubs might have had more influence than an argument in the press between the managers. But that’s how football history gets written now.” Journalists cover “mind games” because these are almost the only managerial activities we see.

In truth, the manager is more wonk than psychologist. What matters most is the unseen detailed work he and his staff do at the training ground. This means Ferguson’s assistants teaching Cristiano Ronaldo new feints, to add to the one or two he began his career with. It means Moyes’s staff ensuring that players do a fitness test in the same footwear they wore for previous tests, so that results can be compared. It means Moyes spending long afternoons analysing videos of Everton’s next opponent. Though we rarely glimpse the training ground, it’s where players and managers spend most of their careers.

Of course, man-management is crucial too. Professional football is (as one much-travelled ex-player told me) an individual game played in a team context. Each player cares most about his own career. But here, too, the image of the domineering Churchillian manager squelching individualism is usually false. Ferguson was probably the last football manager with the status and job security to treat players as children. For all other managers, dealing with stars is a negotiation. Sven-Göran Eriksson treated players as superstars, José Mourinho treats them as his mates, and Moyes at United must find his own approach.

In short, the Churchillian figure we see at the post-match press conference isn’t the real thing. He’s just doing PR. What matters (when it matters at all) is the manager we don’t see, locked in the video room on a Monday afternoon.

simon.kuper@ft.com. Twitter @KuperSimon

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.