Jürgen Klopp, Ange Postecoglou and the Premier League’s era of charisma

<span>Composite: Reuters, Getty, PA</span>
Composite: Reuters, Getty, PA

The cascade of tributes that followed Terry Venables’s death last week all circled around a single quality that made the former England, Spurs, and Barcelona boss a coach of such glinting gifts: charisma. El Tel’s legendary talent as a man manager, tactician, and crooner, and even his notorious failures as a wig salesman and publican, were all an expression of this basic trait, his barrow-boy charm and scheming wit

As a species, up-and-at-’em managers like Venables – artful dodgers reinvented as practitioners of the flexible 4-4-2 – may have gone the way of the upfield hoof, but the basic alchemy that explains their unique strength – the quality of charisma – is very much still with us.

Managerial charisma today matters more than ever in determining whether teams will succeed or fail. Money, player recruitment, squad depth, the philosophical alignment of manager and team: of course, these things also play an important part, and that’s before we even get to the messy business of tactics, the way teams are set up, their technical ability, commitment to pressing, the equilibrium they strike between protection and adventure, the ability of their defenders to self-amputate within a nanosecond to avoid giving away last-minute penalties, and so on. All these issues are the stuff of weekly debate, the storylines that arrange our understanding of failure and success.

But charisma remains football’s great imponderable, a powerful discriminator that remains curiously – though perhaps understandably – under-examined amid the sport’s great bath of money and numbers. The player as virtuoso may be a fading personality (just look at the shackling of former free spirits like Jack Grealish and Emile Smith Rowe), but we are very much in the era of the main character manager. And of all the things a top manager must come with today – a signature style, the right balance between empathy and authority, perhaps even a sideline in clumsy conjugal analogies – charisma is the most important.

When we talk of charisma, what exactly do we mean? Perhaps it’s most easily illustrated in the negative, by what it’s not. Jürgen Klinsmann, with his faux-Californian airs and empty candor, strikes me as a deeply uncharismatic leader. Roger Lemerre standing unmoved on the sidelines in Korea and Japan as defending champions France womp-womped out of the 2002 World Cup, Steve McClaren under the brolly, the paranoid and vampiric Arsenal-vintage Unai Emery: not charismatic. Even Thomas Tuchel, a man who’s no stranger to success, seems faintly lacking in this department, a handshake prank too far from real charisma. Erik ten Hag? Not a lot of swagger there: he’s the manager as gnasher, a dad going through a neverending divorce.

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To succeed at the highest levels without a charismatic manager is almost as difficult as succeeding without money. The Spanish women’s team did so in spectacular fashion at the recent World Cup, but there was a negative energy circling around the reviled Jorge Vilda that seemed to motivate the players; their victory was a potent demonstration of the manager’s smallness, his fundamental irrelevance. Massimiliano Allegri in his first stint at Juventus is perhaps the last great example of a lifeless technocrat who coached a team to serial victory, and it’s still possible for charisma-free managers to wring results out of a team when they’re inserted into an environment of moderate ambition (Nuno Espírito Santo at Wolves, Graham Potter at Brighton, Eddie Howe at Newcastle). Raymond Domenech dragged France to the final of the 2006 World Cup despite apparently having zero skill for conversing with professional footballers, but in his astrology and superstition he nevertheless exhibited a kooky kind of authority, a flair for the eccentric and unexpected that only truly charismatic personalities can pull off. (An interest in astrology would no longer mark Domenech out for special criticism, of course; today we would simply call him a millennial.)

In place of the uncharismatic manager’s deficit of cool and authenticity, the charismatic coach brings transparency, believability, a consuming sense of purpose. Xabi Alonso, a player of immaculate grace and charisma who’s now maturing into a manager of similar qualities, recently described what it takes to be a great coach: “You don’t have to be a boss. You have to try to convince the players, because once you convince them with your ideas, with your message, with how you want to play football, you can have them closer to you, next to you, so it works in a better way. When I used to play, when I believed what my manager said, I gave my best.”

Communication is important, then, as is the content of what’s being communicated, the intelligence and coherence of a manager’s vision of the sport. But they’re not enough: as his new job as a Champions League analyst for CBS makes plain, Jesse Marsch is an expert talker, but as a manager trying to cut it in the Premier League he just didn’t have that dog inside. To go from being a merely effective communicator to a truly charismatic coach requires something more: victories, of course, but also an irreducible individualism, dedication, perhaps even a hint of insanity.

Jürgen Klopp is the archetype of modern football’s charismatic leader, a status he wins and wins again every time he launches that supersonic laugh around a press room, kangaroos across the turf in his puffy jacket punching the air, puts a consoling arm around a failing player, or squares up to a stein of beer bigger than his torso. But not every charismatic manager needs to project Klopp’s sunniness, his intoxicating vision of pressing and hope; to reach the zenith of managerial charisma it’s not compulsory to have a smile like an advancing glacier. Sometimes a snarl will do just as well.

What makes charisma interesting as a criterion of managerial quality is its plasticity, the fact that it can come in forms both dark and light, turbulent and unperturbed. José Mourinho’s charisma comes almost entirely from his sense of humour, his gift for mock outrage and the cutting putdown: has there ever been a deeper burn than his description of Arsène Wenger as a “specialist in failure”? These forces feed on a basic cynicism about the sport and suspicion of its officials; they make Mourinho something like the Trump to Klopp’s Obama.

Pep Guardiola commands respect almost exclusively via the melting power of his brain rather than any superior charm or wit or taste in music. (It’s certainly not his wit; Guardiola has what could be very charitably described as a dentist’s sense of humour.) Mikel Arteta has some of the same tunneling obsessiveness about him but in mannerisms and speech – not to mention the playing style he imprints on his teams – he’s a little too similar to the former master to be considered truly charismatic. Charisma doesn’t come from passion, a seal clap, and a dynamic 4-3-3 alone, from mere rage or serotonin or confidence. There needs to be something unique about a manager – an originality, a signature on par with Fergie pointing at his watch or the rumpled Wenger smirk – before they can claim the mantle.

For every unexpected failure of managerial charisma – a Chelsea-era Maurizio Sarri here, a Thierry Henry wherever he’s coached there – there’s the small miracle of the unlikely charismatic success, a Claudio Ranieri who’s flapped and stumbled his way to the Premier League title through regular pizza parties, big grins, a nice pair of glasses, and low expectations. And though originality is one of charisma’s axiomatic properties, managerial history is now so deep that it’s possible to identify certain natural groupings, to draw out the genealogy of the Vicente del Bosque-Carlo Ancelotti line, say, or the Rafa Benítez-Guus Hiddink-Mauricio Pochettino axis.

The great exponents of managerial charisma often position themselves in opposition to some malevolent external force: for Wenger, the zipper on his jacket, for Guardiola, the 115 financial charges leveled at Manchester City.

Ange Postecoglou, the most effortlessly charismatic of the Premier League’s recent managerial arrivals, has amassed a committed fanbase in just a few months at Tottenham despite being the most thirsty-sounding man in modern football. I don’t mean this figuratively – there’s no doubt he’s thirsty for success – but literally: the man speaks as if he’s perpetually in need of a glass of water, as if confronting some vast internal desertification. Along with the other defining elements of the Postecoglou aesthetic – the dadbod, the church clothes, the heavy seasoning of mates, dead sets and jeezes that salt his speech, the chin plumped permanently in that left hand as he gravels his way through another appointment with the press, the porcupine hair and the outstretched arms – that sense of incurable dehydration is all part of his parched charm, the things that make Ange inimitably himself. It is, in other words, inseparable from his charisma.

Charisma defines a style, and by style I mean a set of preferences – aesthetic, footballing, interpersonal – that makes a manager unique. The Carlo Ancelotti charisma is inseparable from a style of management that is utterly his own: patrician, owlish, best deployed among a squad filled with proven stars, and articulated as much by the power of gestural suggestion – the arched eyebrow, the hand in the pocket, the wasting stare – as the spoken word.

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Remove Ancelotti from his optimal setup and the charisma doesn’t spark. This is why he failed at Everton, a reconstruction project best suited to an early-career Arteta-style firebreather or a young De Zerbiesque cosmopolite, but succeeded so spectacularly at Chelsea, Milan, and Madrid. Emery’s charisma vanished at Arsenal but at clubs like Sevilla and Aston Villa, his current home, the man is reborn, a bat taking flight.

This is what makes charisma such a mesmerizing factor in football today: it’s both powerful and fragile. It can only emerge in the right conditions but even then its performance can’t be engineered or contractually locked in: charisma is the one thing in football today that money can’t guarantee, since it’s a depreciating asset that’s always liable to environmental obliteration. To mangle the famous line from Heraclitus, no club ever steps in the same Jürgen Klopp twice: the man we see today – all barking jollity and Antarctic teeth – might be a shell of his former self once he moves on to his next job, a Juande Ramos in waiting.

In the era of expected goals, take-ons, and data-driven everything, in which the football field is sliced into unyielding zones and channels, position trumps imagination, and players are coached less to express themselves than conform to a system, managerial charisma might be soccer’s last great sink of individuality, a volatile and ineffable force thrumming away at the sport’s unprogrammatic center. It won’t always make you king, but you can’t take the crown without it.