Power struggles

wsc300 When team selections are made by senior players rather than managers things can only end badly, writes Mark Brophy

To an outsider, it seems mad that a club that has been in the top four of the Premier League pretty much all season should be rumoured to be in turmoil and on the verge of dismissing their manager. Yet that is exactly the situation Chelsea and Andre Villas-Boas have found themselves in at various points, usually coinciding with a marginal dip in performance level or results. These are not the chief reasons for the speculation, however. Constantly looming in the background is the over-confident shadow of player power.

The core of the team has remained constant and has brought success after success since Roman Abramovich took over. Managers have reportedly been hired and fired only after consultation with these omnipotent key players over this period. Now Villas-Boas has committed the sin of dropping Frank Lampard to the bench more regularly than not, challenging the previously unassailable influence of those senior players.

The players are undoubtedly upset, John Terry et al seeing in Lampard’s demotion a signal of their own mortality approaching unpalatably. Chelsea have an ageing side that will need to be rejuvenated. The new manager’s preferred use of tactics such as the high defensive line unsuited to players in the twilight of their career and possibly struggling for pace, also hints at a possible wish to replace them. Surprisingly then, the story reported in the press has been the insecurity of Villas-Boas’s position.

The point has been made that a new manager would not be appointed without discussing his plans with the owner, that the owner must have known and approved of the intention to replace ageing stars in the short term. This isn’t necessarily true. The scenario assumes there has been no change of plan since Villas-Boas was appointed. After a few weeks observing the players, he might have decided he needed to bring forward their inevitable replacement. Only club insiders know for sure. It is immaterial one way or the other. The bottom line is that the manager has to be able to make difficult decisions regarding the squad. If he is not granted this, he is not a manager at all, just a fall-guy.

It is a rare player who can gauge his waning powers honestly. Even those who can acknowledge a dip in their performances will assume the problem can be fixed, just as they have always been able to do in the past. Of course, when the problems are the effects of age, and wear and tear, there is no coming back. This is why player power must always be a mistake. Allowing a player, or more often a group of players, to determine which other players will be selected causes all kinds of problems. You can’t run a club where some players can’t be dropped – especially if players decide who will always play. The effect on team spirit cannot be good for one thing. But more importantly, if objectivity in selection is compromised, every managerial decision is by association.

Instances of player power are not particularly rare. Following Newcastle’s recent relegation, Chris Hughton allowed a committee to be formed from senior players such as Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton. They were permitted to discipline the dressing room, supposedly without allowing influence on selection. While the squad pulled together to gain immediate promotion, Alan Pardew was less comfortable with their influence and most committee members were rapidly shipped out.

France’s 2010 World Cup campaign was marred by a player strike in response to manager Raymond Domenech’s expulsion of Nicolas Anelka from the squad. The subsequent disintegration of France’s tournament suggests the folly of such actions, even taking account of the well-documented failings of Domenech as a leader. At the same World Cup, John Terry announced he would be seeking a meeting with Fabio Capello to push the claim for selection of his friend Joe Cole, only to swiftly back down when the meeting didn’t take place.

Where Chelsea are concerned, Villas-Boas is helped by the indisputable fact that several of his key players are growing old together. This has allowed him to begin the break-up of Chelsea’s great team of the past decade. Even if they were not ageing, however, the manager would still need to face down dissent from within the ranks to do his job properly. Anything else would be a disservice to a club that has to hope it is bigger than any group of players.

From WSC 300 February 2012