It is somewhat disappointing that, despite all the fine, sophisticated minds operating at the top top levels of football, nobody has yet landed on any kind of labour-saving system.
Despite all the philosophies and tactical innovation, nobody has so far devised methods that will function well at 60% or 70%. The kind of levels that would represent an outstanding day’s work for mere mortals.
Even 90% is no use to them, these great thinkers. In the never-ending auction, they all want 110%, 120%, 200%, a million percent, even a gillion percent, according to Paul Merson.
“I can forgive everything — but if they don’t run, they don’t play. You have to run in football,” Pep Guardiola says. Unai Emery’s Arsenal are running farther than anyone. While Jurgen Klopp sets running targets. “He wouldn’t guarantee anything apart from that when we reached 120km per game then it would be much harder for us to lose,” Borussia Dortmund’s Patrick Owomoyela remembered.
He actually offered us a day off when we reached that target.
Mauricio Pochettino takes it for granted, the running. “What’s difficult is what Messi does: to pick up the ball, dribble past five opponents and score a goal. But it should never be difficult to run and be aggressive.”
Not as long as you relish giving 200%. “It does feel like you need two hearts to play like that,” reflected James Ward-Prowse.
Ten years ago, when Harry Redknapp took over from Juande Ramos at Tottenham, he achieved an instant impact by persuading the players, especially Roman Pavlyuchenko, to “just fucking run around”.
Harry was sniffy enough about it later, almost as prickly as he was about the wheeler-dealer tag.
“People make out it is all down to motivation, as if all I’ve got by on throughout my life is the gift of the gab.”
But now that the world’s great coaches have settled on running as the key component of their high-tempo football, they all pride themselves on their ways of making you run.
You look into your players’ eyes and it’s a bit like looking at a lover. Either you see passion and a willingness to be seduced or you watch as the passion ebbs away,” cooes Pep.
Klopp hugs it out of them, without letting them get too cozy. “It doesn’t make it any easier to run your heart out when you’ve just woken up in a five-star hotel. Too much comfort makes you comfortable.”
Poch enters into negotiations before reminding them this is non-negotiable. “We had to win over hearts, minds and bodies so that they would keep pressing and running up and down the pitch. But I refused to entertain any doubts about this being the way forward.”
It seems Maurizio Sarri has been encountering some doubts, at Stamford Bridge, about his way forward, accusing his players of being “extremely difficult to motivate” and lacking “ferocity” in last week’s defeat by Arsenal. He then turned on Eden Hazard, who “has to do more” in his manager’s eyes.
That was a flagrant breach, by Sarri, of what is accepted to be Motivation 101, as once laid out by Alex Ferguson in an interview with theJim White.
“I will never start slagging my players off in public. When a manager makes a public criticism, he’s affecting the emotional stability of a player and that cannot be a very professional thing to do.”
In the same interview, Fergie reflected on motivation: “It’s not an exact science. Footballers are all different human beings. Some are self-motivators, they need to be left alone, some need to be... you know… (and he makes a miming action which looks alarmingly like wringing a set of testicles dry).”
Football has a long and colourful history of wringing players dry in creative ways.
“For some you need causes: your country, them and us, your religion. And those causes can be created by the manager,” Ferguson said.
Wimbledon owner Sam Hammam crept into his own team’s dressing room before games to scrawl outrageous insults about his players on the walls. Or to throw their playing kit in a freezing cold bath. But techniques have edged lately towards carrot rather than stick. Towards hugs and seduction. Though there will always be a voice in some players’ heads asking if all that running is really necessary. An Arsenal player, for instance, might wonder if they’d have suffered three season-ending knee injuries by now without all that running.
Poch encountered it with Harry Kane.
“Kane suffered a ten-game scoring drought during which his mind was awash with doubts: ‘Maybe I’m moving around too much, maybe I’m wearing myself out, maybe . . .’ He was consumed by everything the press and his camp were saying. But if Kane didn’t run his socks off, if he didn’t put himself about and instead simply waited for the ball to reach him, he wouldn’t be Kane, or wouldn’t get the best of himself. And the same applies to the others.”
Eden Hazard sounds like a guy wary of a manager’s grab for his testicles. Weary of another three-year project demanding a gillion percent.
In my career, I’ve frustrated all my coaches,” he said this week. “And with Sarri, once again, I frustrate him. I frustrated Mourinho. They think that I need to mark more, do more of this and more of that. And the next coach that I have, I’ll frustrate him as well.
He ran plenty Thursday night, so perhaps public criticism works occasionally with a player who is emotionally stable enough to handle it.
But it is at this point in negotiations that Poch is a believer in the old Howard Wilkinson maxim: ‘FIFO: Fit in or fuck off’. And perhaps Sarri is certain Hazard is about to FO to Madrid soon anyway.
Of course there’s a danger too that the top top gaffers will eventually run everyone to a standstill. “After a few years I’ll no longer know how to seduce my players and that will be the time to leave,” Pep said, at Bayern. And the true pioneer might well be out there who can offer Eden — and Harry — the opportunity to give him 50%.