Star Players vs. Star Coach: Which Is More Important for Success?

Ryan Bailey@ryanjaybaileyFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2014

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 19:  Head Coach Jose Mourinho (R) of Real Madrid instructs Cristiano Ronaldo during the UEFA Champions League group G match between Real Madrid and AC Milan at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 19, 2010 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

In this life, there after only three certainties: death, taxes and managerial sackings.

After 20 months in charge at Norwich City, Chris Hughton was handed his P45 at the weekend after a streak of four defeats in six games left the Canaries dangling precariously over the Premier League relegation zone.

A reign of 20 months might seem like a pitiful amount of time to show one's effectiveness in a high-pressure job, but that counts as an exceptionally long run in the modern English top flight. Of the current set of managers, only Arsene Wenger, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce, Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert have served longer (and a couple of those are on shaky ground). According to the League Managers Association, the average tenure of a Premier League manager is 1.88 years.  

Conversely, most players tend to last at their clubs much longer than 1.88 years (well, they do unless their name is Nicolas Anelka).

By this logic, it may be argued that players are more important than managers in building success. But what about the importance of star players in comparison to star managers? Which is a more important ingredient in a winning team?

The immediate temptation is to side with the players. When one looks back at all the champions in Premier League history, it is clear that they all relied on at least one star player. Manchester United in 1994 had Eric Cantona. Blackburn had Alan Shearer. Arsenal had Dennis Bergkamp and later Thierry Henry. Without those players, silverware probably would not have been earned.

In financial terms, the star players also hold more weight. Take the example of Jose Mourinho: According to recent figures from Sporting Intelligence (via the Daily Mail), the star manager is paid £8.37 million per year, which is considerably more than most of his Premier League ilk.

That works out to around £161,000 per week. According to recent figures from TSM Plug, three players in the dressing room earn more than that (Eden Hazard, Fernando Torres and John Terry since you're asking). From a fiscal perspective, therefore, those star players are more important. One would only need to look at the chasm in salaries between Wayne Rooney and David Moyes for a more explicit example of this dynamic.

But of course, money isn't everything. Results on the field are everything. In the modern climate, the simple fact is that a team cannot win trophies without good players. A manager can have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game and world-conquering tactical nous, but if he doesn't have the players capable of following his instructions on the field, he has no value.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 05:  Neymar of FC Barcelona celebrates with his team-mate Lionel Messi (L) of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Betis Balompie at Camp Nou on April 5, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ra
David Ramos/Getty Images

One must also consider the fact that players are not just mindless drones awaiting the input of a wise man standing in a trench coat on the touchline. Some of the greatest moments in football history have been borne out of pure talent and instinct. 

Did Zinedine Zidane need a good manager to score like this in Champions League? Did Bobby Moore need extensive coaching to perform his incredible tackle on Jairzinho in 1970? Did Diego Maradona need much coaxing from Argentina manager Carlos Bilardo in 1986 when he scored one of the greatest individual goals of all time

The answer to all three is no. A manager may provide structure and team tactics but star players provide game-changing moments. Star players are the ones who actually have to take initiative to defeat the opposition.

After all, if the tactics of both managers were followed to the letter, no team would ever win a football match as they would be held in perpetual stalemate. It is the players who make the difference—and at the top level of the game, it's the star players. 

Some have even suggested that the manager has a relatively negligible contribution. In October last year, former Southampton chairman Nicola Cortese claimed the manager was "basically just a department head like the others."

The Italian explained that the Saints' move toward a continental structure—where Sporting Directors look after transfer activity and other traditional responsibilities are delegated—meant that the manager was simply a first-team coach, whose role is as generic and interchangeable as an executive.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 01:  Pep Guardiola head coach of Bayern Muenchen at the end of match during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final first leg match between Manchester United and FC Bayern Muenchen at Old Trafford on April 1, 2014 in Manchester
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Of course, it may not be fair to diminish the role of the manager in this manner. In fact, it may be argued that the turnover of coaches in the English system is so high because it is the most critical role and therefore the quickest method of instigating change. 

Star players are undoubtedly important in the quest for silverware but so are star managers. Look back at the managers who have won the Premier League and you will see that every one of them is a "star." 

In the Champions League era of the European Cup, Roberto Di Matteo and Frank Rijkaard are the only winning managers who aren't stars, with the former only in charge for a few months. 

In the FA Cup, however, the spoils have been claimed by more managers who do not enjoy "star" status: In the past 20 years, Joe Royle, Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli, Harry Redknapp, Roberto Martinez and Di Matteo have all lifted the trophy. Perhaps this is merely a reflection of the FA Cup's status among elite football competitions, rather than the importance of an overachieving coach.

Team managers were first introduced in the 19th century to pick the team and select the tactics, but their role has evolved into so much more than that in the higher echelons of the game.

Perhaps the most important role of a star manager is to squeeze an extra 10 per cent out of the best players in the world. In my previous examples of Zidane and Maradona's moments of brilliance, I flippantly suggested that a manager could not have had any influence. However, the truth is they do play a part.

The Messis and Ronaldos of this world are made better by the motivation and man management of their respective coaches. In a recent issue of The Blizzard, Guus Hiddink explained the role of a manager in getting more from the world's best players (quotes via thehindu.com):

All individuals who are gifted with a potential to do something can attain a higher level of performance, improve by 10 or 15 percent. The key is to identify what will trigger that improvement. If players understand what they have to do on a football pitch, what their mission within the team is, then you obtain a combination that works.

But how do you identify this ‘trigger’? Honestly... I don’t know. I like... I like ‘playing’ with human beings. I like human challenges. It depends on personalities, of course. You must be able to judge which type of player you’re dealing with — as a human being. There is no overriding ‘general’ approach to the work you do with a particular team.

Cristiano Ronaldo is a player at the top of his game who is extremely professional in his approach, but he is made better by those coaching him through physical and mental improvements. In the same manner that you are pushed to work harder at the gym if you are accompanied by a good personal trainer, a star manager can get the very best from a star player. It is why the Jose Mourinhos of this world take home bigger pay cheques than the Chris Hughtons. 

PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 02:  Jose Mourinho the Chelsea manager hands a water bottle to Eden Hazard of Chelsea during the UEFA Champions League quarter final, first leg match between Paris Saint Germain and Chelsea at Parc des Princes on April 2, 2014 in Par
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

It seems fair to conclude that star players and star managers share equal importance. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship: A star player cannot reach his full potential without a star manager in his corner, while the world's biggest coaches would never achieve star status without the achievements of their charges on the field.

It is like the relationship between the car and the driver in Formula One—both are extremely important and neither can reach the very top without one another.

At the elite level of the game, the law of diminishing returns comes into play. Millions can be spent trying to find that extra yard of pace up front, that improvement in creativity in the midfield or the tactical nous to outsmart an opponent. At the end of the day, reaching the highest level in this sport is about people working well with other people, without any weak links. Success has come in many different combinations but high quality management will always be regarded with equal importance to a strong squad.   

Follow me on Twitter @RyanJayBailey


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