How Spains players respond to a shock change of manager less than 72 hours before their World Cup opener today against Portugal will not just reveal the folly or otherwise of the decision but may also illuminate the extent to which managers even matter at international tournaments.
The diminishing status of the national team coach was a point of discussion that — before he was sensationally dismissed on Wednesday and replaced with technical director Fernando Hierro — had lingered over much of Julen Lopeteguis two years in charge of Spain.
For a team that had dominated and revolutionised world football over the previous decade, the appointment of Lopetegui in 2016 felt somewhat underwhelming. Spain was and still is about as prestigious a job in international football as it is possible to find, and yet they had appointed a manager who was sacked after one-and-a-half trophyless seasons at Porto, his most significant club role. Before getting the call from Spain, he had been close to joining Wolves in the Championship.
Yet Lopetegui would have been far from an anomaly at this World Cup. Englands Gareth Southgate followed a similar trajectory, having been elevated less due to any notable achievements as a club manager but more because of his work with age-group teams. Of Germanys Joachim Low, Frances Didier Deschamps, Belgiums Roberto Martinez, Brazils Tite and Argentinas Jorge Sampaoli, only Deschamps has ever won one of Europes top five leagues as a manager — with Marseille in 2010. This year marks the first World Cup since 1958 without a manager who has won a league title in Spain, Germany, Italy or England and the first since 1970 without one who has won the European Cup.
The elite cadre of todays managers — for instance Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Max Allegri — have largely avoided national team roles.
Of course, that is largely a symptom of the growth in European footballs financial clout following the emergence of the Premier League and Champions League and their exposure to international TV markets. Clubs can afford to pay their managers the biggest salaries and stuff their teams with the best talent.
Yet it also points to diminished expectations of what a manager can really influence when it comes to a national teams fortunes. Even more so than his appointment, Lopeteguis sacking in such extraordinary circumstances suggests that Spain believe he is not essential to their chances in Russia.
The role of manager for the top nations increasingly seems to be that of facilitator — someone who can keep the camp in harmony and instil a playing style that mirrors what players are comfortable with at club level. World Cups were once won by tactical innovations — Brazil triumphed in 1962 after inventing the back four. Yet the best managers now bemoan the lack of preparation time at international level and so tactical trends emerge in domestic football before being reflected at international tournaments. Lopetegui himself admitted he had “very little time to have an impact” with Spain, and so his role would be instead to give a “little pill” to his players rather than a whole new playbook.
Lows Germany side have reached five consecutive semi-finals at major tournaments playing technical, passing football. But in many respects that has been less a result of a manager stamping his identity on a team and more about him responding to a generation of talented footballers that emerged following the countrys youth development revolution at the turn of the century. Spains success has similar roots. England and others have taken note and ditched star managers on huge salaries for investments in coaching, pitches and classrooms.
With national associations looking to lay the groundwork for success years ahead of the tournament, managers should in theory be less important. Spains campaign in Russia will now put that to the test. Meanwhile Lopeteguis replacement for the World Cup, Fernando Hierro, knows what his role is: “The key will be to change as little as possible.”