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Crisis managers Wenger and Rodgers face the 'If' test

Simon BarnesNovember 25, 2014
Arsene Wenger and Brendan Rodgers are both facing tense times at Arsenal and Liverpool © Getty Images
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Crisis. That's the difference between a football club manager and a man who once managed a football club. We could all have managed Manchester United at their soaring best: pick Giggsy and Keano and Becks and Scholesie and tell them to score more goals than the opposition.

The time when a manager earns his money is crisis. Now I'm not talking about crisis as in the ecological nightmare or the war against terror or the collapse of the banking system. I'm talking about crisis in a rather specialised sense: crisis as in losing three or four games of football in a row.

Trivial enough, but no fun when your job and your reputation are at stake: and these are the times when a manager is judged. He must stop his team losing and start them winning, all by sheer force of personality - though it helps if the striker comes back from injury and the team you play next is having an even worse crisis.

But you can't rely on such things. Your task is to change the flow of sporting events, in the knowledge that you won't necessarily be praised if you succeed, but you will certainly be blamed if you fail. Which brings us to Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, and to Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers.

Kipling didn't just require a man to keep his head when all around were losing theirs. He also added the line "and blaming it on you"

Arsenal are in their worst start to the season since 1982-83: only four wins. They lost to a pretty dreadful Manchester United last weekend and they're falling into self-caricature: several million shots and passes, very few goals. Arsenal have a visit from Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League on Wednesday. They seriously need to win and they're in poor shape. Even a hint of crisis.

Liverpool are even worse off. They're now 12th in the Premier League: the idea that they almost won it last season seems absurd. Brendan Rodgers has spent the season unsuccessfully fighting the notion that without Luis Suarez, he's an ordinary manager. Liverpool play Ludogorets Razgrad of Bulgaria on Wednesday in the Champions League: the potential for embarrassment here is obvious enough.

Arsenal lost their last two matches in the Premier League, Liverpool their last three. Both are performing below their supporters' and their owners' expectations. Both need Champions League football - preferably the knockout phase this season and, certainly, qualification for next.

Their shared problem is that football sees every short statistical run as a near-unstoppable trend. You can call heads and see the coin land tails six times in a row without getting a statistician excited. Lose two or three football matches and people believe you'll never win another.

That, by the way, explains why the Manager of the Month award is considered a curse: you put a three or four good results together - call heads correctly - and you're a genius. Then, with statistical inevitability, you get a few tails and you're a disaster waiting to be sacked.

So once again it's crisis time for Wenger, who's seen it all before, and for Rodgers, who's fighting to save his reputation as an upcoming talent. Both face the 'If' test. Kipling was a more subtle writer than he's usually given credit for: in his poem If he didn't just require a man to keep his head when all around were losing theirs. He also added the line "and blaming it on you".

The prevailing mood in football is always of head-loss - and the one certainty in football is that they always blame the manager. In football it's remarkable when anyone keeps his head, even for a minute. It's all panic, over-reaction, emotional response, do what the fans want, do what the players want. Football believes that panic can only be reversed by an equal and opposite tidal surge of compensating panic.

The manager's near-impossible task is to remain immune from all this - knowing that people are preparing not only to blame him but to fire him. Wenger has been there a hundred times before: his policy of moderation, financial continence and quiet competence doesn't excite the passions in everyone.

Rodgers' Liverpool lost their fourth game in a row at Crystal Palace © Getty Images
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The fact that you've been through bad stuff before doesn't make bad stuff any fun, or any easier to deal with. But if you lack that experience, it can be hard to believe that you're really the person you want to be. That's why keeping your head is so important. Even if it doesn't actually save you.

Newcastle United went through the crisis procedure earlier in the season: heads were lost, everyone blamed it on Alan Pardew and it was assumed that his sacking was inevitable. Somehow, the crisis misfired: Pardew stayed in his job, they're now fifth in the table and have a winning run of five matches, better than Chelsea.

The problem with the small-sample panic is that everyone in football believes what it appears to indicate: that the manager has lost either his grip or the dressing-room or both, that the players aren't good enough, that further defeats are inevitable. Everyone - supporters, journos, shareholders, directors, owners - and even and sometimes especially his own players.

If you're the beleaguered manager you need above all to trust yourself when all men doubt you; that's Kipling again. You must address footballing reality rather than football's chronic taste for self-dramatisation and over-reaction. And that's the hardest thing to do in a game as emotional as football.

Those that manage to do so are the ones that survive. Sir Alex Ferguson was close to the sack after an early crisis at Manchester United: it's said that he was saved by a single match, a single result. Would he have been a bad manager had he lost that match to a dodgy penalty and an injury to his best player? Because that's how he would have been remembered.

Wenger and Rodgers go into their Champions League matches striving to make good, strong, clear decisions - and hoping for the tiniest sliver of luck. So often, that's what changes the momentum of a match, sometimes of a season, and sometimes of an entire career.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for ESPN.co.uk, as well as ESPNFC.com and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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