When a team’s confidence begins to erode, restoring belief is one of the toughest jobs in football. Arresting any slide quickly is vital and the best managers have the ability to change their methods to find a way of rebuilding players’ conviction.
How difficult is it to stop a team’s losing momentum? Ask Alan Pardew, whose Crystal Palace side entered 2016 fifth in the Premier League with outside ambitions of Champions League qualification. By the time Pardew was sacked earlier this month, Palace had only won six of 36 league games since January and were one point above the relegation zone.
A blip can spin out of control quickly. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City had a mini crisis at the beginning of December when they were beaten 3-1 at home by Chelsea, drew 1-1 with Celtic at the Etihad in the Champions League and were then blown away 4-2 at Leicester. Guardiola’s response got City back on track quickly and they are in ebullient mod as they go into Saturday’s crucial clash with Liverpool at Anfield.
The 45-year-old knows that management is not a one-man job. When things are going wrong, sometimes it needs a different voice to rouse a nervous dressing room. Guardiola understood that he was not getting through to his squad so he stepped back and let his staff do the talking for him.
Four days after the Leicester defeat, City got back to winning ways with a 2-0 home victory against Watford but the real test of their mettle came with the subsequent visit of Arsenal. For that match, Guardiola co-opted Mikel Arteta, one of his assistant coaches, to inspire the team.
Arteta is a former Arsenal player and so was able to give a sense of what the mood would be like in the away dressing room. He suggested that Arsene Wenger’s men would be considerably more apprehensive at the prospect of facing City than vice-versa and pointed out the opposition’s weaknesses. The message was effective: City fell behind early but bounced back to win 2-1.
After the match, Guardiola asked one of his senior players how much time off the team should be allowed in the eight days before the Boxing Day trip to Hull. The player chanced his arm, suggesting two more days than normal. The manager turned the request down but gladly offered one extra day to the delighted squad.
Confidence in the City dressing room was back on a high, with Guardiola’s authority as strong as ever and the team’s mentality, going into the final days of December, considerably more firm than it was entering the month.
The game is full of sacked managers, whose methods were successful initially but wore thin in the long term.
Slaven Bilic, for example, is struggling to adjust his approach at West Ham United. Last season his techniques worked superbly but this campaign he has been unable to elicit the same response from his players. There are myriad problems at the club but Bilic’s one-dimensional style has not helped matters.
The default reaction of many managers to a crisis is to shout at their squad but there is a point when that type of criticism becomes counterproductive and washes over players. Sometime subtlety and silence are more effective, as Guardiola continues to prove.
He is not the only one showing such qualities; other top Premier League managers have similar ability. Antonio Conte came out of Chelsea’s poor September by rebuilding his team tactically and mentally, while Jurgen Klopp has reimagined Liverpool in his own image. Both men have surprised both players and critics with their ability to make positive changes to the mood at their clubs.
At Anfield on Saturday, it will be business as usual for Guardiola. City’s blip has been negotiated and forward motion restored. The delicate psychological balance that brings success is back in place. Whatever the result against Liverpool, they will enter 2017 in good heart and in good hands. They can be confident about that.