Argentina · Europe · Managers · Premier League · Transfer Market · World Cup 2010

Ten ways your brain is sabotaging your football team

Diego Maradona: the art of lowered expectationsRecently I was reading an article in, “Top 10 Ways Your Brain Is Sabotaging You (and How to Beat It)” — you know, a little light reading before bed and all that — when I was struck by the similarities between the “10 ways” and the way that managers handle their transfer dealings.

I suppose that should come as no surprise. Managers are, after all, human beings like you and me, subject to the same biases, prejudices, desires and emotions that you or I; except for Vicente del Bosque, who is a Vulcan and cannot show emotion.

10. Knowing You Can Get Smarter Makes You … Smarter

More than a self-fulfilling prophecy, this refers to staying open to the possibility of improvement and not limiting yourself. The Premier League may say that you’re limited to a senior squad of 25 players, including 7 “home-grown” footballers, but are you really going to let that stop you from acquiring more than that? Of course not! Not if you’re Manchester City! I’m a bit shocked that they’ve left it so long to offload players such as Craig Bellamy, Roque Santa Cruz, or one of the 147 central midfielders they have and don’t need. But that would be defeatist thinking! Buy now, sell sometime! Remember, Signore Mancini, no one can beat you if you’ve bought up all the good players.

9. Your Eyes Skip Over Good, Cheap Menu Items and Fall for Menu Tricks

Marketing is everywhere. The art of the sale consists not in assigning a proper value for each thing, but rather in increasing it’s value as much as possible while leaving that thing untouched. The old joke about Argentines (repeated probably for many other countries with a penchant for large egos) is that the greatest business anywhere is to buy an Argentine for what he’s actually worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth. So a Copa Libertadores winning striker like Mauro Boselli looks like a no-brainer for Plucky Little Wigan Athletic. “32-goals in 57 matches!” screams Boselli’s brochure. “Only £6.5 million! A bargain for a 25-year-starting forward with international experience! Capped in the national team by Diego Maradona!”

Yes, it’s all true, and yet, a closer look reveals a player who is not particularly good on the ball and scores mostly poacher’s efforts, which will be hard to find for a forward just shy of 6 ft. in The Best League in The World™. And let’s face it, Maradona capped just about every player in Argentina during his tenure as manager of the national team including the corpse formerly known as defender Rolando Schiavi.

8. Your Brain Can’t Stop Spinning, Even When You’re Asleep

Overthinking has always been a major problem in football, particularly for many footballers for whom thought in general has been a challenge. Some players perform at their best when they are told what to do and react appropriately. Nothing can screw up a footballing career like a player who suddenly starts to think for himself.

Then again, it’s a problem for many managers as well, and not just the dim ones. Even self-appointed super-geniuses (link to Wile E. Coyote) such as Rafa Benítez spend far too much time think about every minutiae of a match in order to control every aspect of it. And it only leads to endless roster tinkering and senseless ranting again the Dark Lord Alex Ferguson in meaningless press conferences. Jonathan Swift implied, in his Tale of a Tub, that there are too kinds of people in this world: knaves and fools. The knave knows the true nature of the world and is thus suffering and unhappy, whereas the fool in unaware of the truth and so spends his days in contentment. Rafa is too much a knave I fear, and not enough the fool. Though I think some Scousers may disagree with me on that point.

7. Online Stores are Just as Tricky as Retail

In a world where You Tube videos can often be a source of information on a player, it’s hard to accept the point-of-view that the world is nearly “over-scouted” for football players. Is there a nation on this planet that has not exported footballers elsewhere? And still, the same biases apply. Brazilians are all creative but can’t defend, Eastern Europeans are all highly “technical” (whatever that means). African footballers are physically gifted but lack discipline (a racist point-of-view if I’ve ever heard one). None of these are true, and yet, teams approach their buying in much the same manner. Need a creative midfielder? Check South American, or Spain. A defensive stopper? You could do a lot worse than an Italian or a Serbian. A defensive midfielder who will run for 90 minutes and be as fresh as in the first? Check in Ghana, I understand they speak English there. These points-of-view are exacerbated by previous purchases, like Antonio Valencia (Manchester United), Nemanja Vidic (also Man U) and Michael Essien (Chelsea).

Teams are trying to find the same again and go “shopping” in the same places, rather than looking at the aspects f the footballer and building profiles that they can take around the world, or better yet, reinvest at home. So before you go out and start adding players to your online shopping cart, have a look at that fullback around the corner in your youth facility, with a bit of training he just may be what you need and come cheaper as well.

6. You Give Priority to Experiences that Prove You’re Right

In a business (and can football truly be described otherwise these days) which prizes winning so strongly, is there anything more important to a manager’s reputation than being “right”? After all, only one can actually win, but if you spend a couple million pounds and find the next Cristiano Ronaldo then you can be a genius without winning a championship. Well Alex Ferguson has done both and keeps coming back to the same idea. Are Nani, Anderson, Antonio Valencia and Bebe really anything more than looking for another Ronaldo? And this is a man who has won before with Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in midfield, even though they are closer to their pension than their academy days. But you’ll have to beat him before he’ll acknowledge that he can’t keep going the way he is, and even then he’ll argue that his team is better. After all, this is a man who has purported to be a socialist yet is a key cog in one of the most recklessly capitalistic teams in the most recklessly capitalistic league in the world. “De-nial” ain’t just a river in Manchester, Sir Alex …

5. You Grow Attached to Items the More You Touch Them

Aaahhh, loyalty. Remember when we had that in football? What? We never did? It was all just an illusion, you say? Perhaps. Certainly since professionalism came to the sport, the concept of loyalty has been balanced with other concepts such as “title expectations” and “the bottom line”. But it’s nice to know that some people still adhere to the principle. Like good ol’ Mark Hughes. Done well for him at Blackburn? Great! He’d love to have you at Manchester City, Mr. Santa Cruz and Mr. Bellamy. Oh, but wait, Hughesy’s been let go for an Italian in a big coat and scarf! But wait! Here comes Fulham with a job offer. Time to start a new project in London with the Europe League finalists. Who should we start with? Why, Mr. Santa Cruz and Mr. Bellamy, of course!

Then again, when your best option is England Striker Bobby Zamora (remember, Marketing!) then maybe loyalty does pay off.

4. You’ve Got a Finite Amount of Habit-Changing Willpower

Winning is a habit, they say in sports circles. And by extension, so is losing. Changing from one to the other is an effort that many, many managers fail at, possibly because going from a losing team to a winning one requires a significant amount of changes. Yet, some managers have a knack for it. Managers that can get players playing with a different attitude, who get the most out of their charges regardless of limitations, such as Roy Hodgson and Harry Redknapp: two men with sharply contrasting personalities who nevertheless have become the epitome of the savvy English football manager. They have presided over two fantastic turnarounds with Fulham and Tottenham and led them to unprecedented success in this century. Now Roy is trying to do the same for Liverpool and Harry is getting his excuses ready for an early Champions League exit to be followed by another strong Premier League season. Much the same is expected from the England national team and their savvy English manager Fabio Cap ….. oh, that’s right. Well, you can’t change a habit of losing in the quarterfinals of the World Cup overnight can you? Just ask Mexico.

3. Your Deeper Desires Go Shopping With You

At Barcelona, football is played like it’s a political convention. In the convention floor (Camp Nou), there is an overwhelming feeling world-changing power, each party member convince of the righteousness of their cause. Outside the venue, however, are the forces of Franco-inspired evil, the naysayers and the pundits constantly poking holes in the perfect philosophy. If it fits the perfect philosophy, then it must be right. And sometimes that means spending a fortune on another central midfield playmaker like Cesc Fabregas, a native son of the club, and letting go of a pivotal role-player like Ya-Ya Toure, who’s not really the kind of beautiful-football-playing stalwart that is worth of carrying the torch for the Culés. Time, and Jose Mourinho, may prove that philosophy wrong, especially since Cesc didn’t leave London after all.

2. You Value New Numbers Based on Other, Unimportant Numbers

High expectations can be a real bitch, that’s why lowering them is a key technique for most football managers. It’s easier to be deemed a genius if you lose your first few matches, such as, let’s say drop a qualifying match to Bolivia 1-6, and then go on to a quarter final appearance in the FIFA World Cup. All of a sudden, people are happy just to qualify, whereas when the qualifiers started – under different management – nothing less than a third World Cup title would do.

More examples of lowered expectations: what if your team were to hire a manager whose previous career record is 3 wins, 8 draws and 12 in 23 matches? Then let’s say he proceeds (after that aforementioned 1-6 loss) to win 14 of 19 matches. All of a sudden, you feel as if things have gone really well, even if you’ve won nothing.

That’s the beauty of the Diego Maradona-Julio Grondona partnership. There’s no love lost between the Argentine football-god/manager and the head of the Argentine FA, but halfway through the qualifiers with Alfio Basile recently “encouraged to leave” his managerial post, it seemed as if nothing short of a miracle could lighten the hearts of Argentine football fans. Enter Diego, followed by immediately lowered expectations, especially after the loss to Bolivia; a “miracle” victory from San (Martín) Palermo in the rain against Peru and a skin-of-your-teeth qualification and suddenly everybody’s feeling great again; unless you’ve just been asked by Diego to “keep sucking” as the Argentine football press were. But it’s all part of the circus with Diego. Distract them with words and numbers, so they don’t focus too much on the details of a team that was never at the level their country’s football history demands.

1. You Let Negative Feelings About Putting Off Tasks Prevent Actual Work

Political splits over expenditures and player transfers are nothing new. And in Argentina, there are few teams for whom club politics are more volatile than Boca Juniors. Their extended summer transfer saga split the club along support lines for current president Jorge Amor Ameal and former president (and Chief of Government — essentially the mayor — of the City of Buenos Aires) Mauricio Macri. The twist is that it wasn’t a sale or new acquisition, this was contract renewal for their star player Juan Roman Riquelme. Now Riquelme has never been the easiest person to deal with, either in negotiations or at the training pitch (just ask Manuel Pellegrini from his experience with Villareal, or the directors at Barcelona during Roman’s tenure there), but this latest saga just adds more proof that no matter how talented, some players are just not worth the trouble.

Riquelme has signed for Boca, a four-year contract worth US$5 million which, most importantly will have its tax paid partially (50%) by the club. In an era where fiscal conservatism should be a goal, the deal seems somewhat reckless, especially for a player who is now 32. Then again, Boca can only blame themselves, having left no other option than to sign Riquelme by not bringing in any ready replacements for the playmaker. Former Velez midfielder Damián Escudero and academy player Marcelo Cañete are currently deputising for Riquelme, but neither is really yet at the level required by the club if they hope to challenge for a title.

Worst of all, the acrimonious negotiations have not only left negative feelings among the club’s directors, players and new manager Claudio “Bichi” Borghi can only feel they’ve been held hostage a bit by the veteran Number 10. They’ve all made the right noises about welcoming him back and being a better team with him in it, but we’ve yet to see whether they truly are happy to run all their plays through him. “Riquelme-dependencia” (Riquelme-dependence) is a term which was coined years ago for the Argentina team during the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, but applies just as well now to Boca.


So there you have it. Psychologists could have a neat little business going if they convinced a football manager or two to get on the couch. I’m certainly no expert, nor even anything approaching an amateur psychologist. But I do enjoy seeing people in power squirm a little bit, especially the ones who take themselves very seriously. That’s why, this season, I’m going to cheer for Blackpool, because if you’ve never heard or read about an Ian Holloway press conference, then you’ve never truly revelled in the mad genius of a true football mind. Or, as he describes the job: “I’d rather do that than build chicken sheds no-one wanted.”


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