What Can New Chelsea Boss Maurizio Sarri Learn From Other Overseas Managers In Their Debut Premier League Season?
Maurizio Sarri didn’t get where he is today by taking too much counsel and he certainly didn’t reach the top of the coaching tree through compromise.
The chain-smoking Neapolitan first prowled professional touchlines at the age of 40 after famously working in the banking industry and by progressing through 11 clubs he honed his methods and philosophy to the point of becoming one of the most highly respected coaches in world football. That is not achieved without singular vision and a trenchant trust in your beliefs.
Even so, the new Chelsea boss would be wise to acknowledge that he is now in the Premier League, which is not to say that the English top flight is any better than its Italian counterpart but unquestionably it is different enough to necessitate adaptation. When not in Rome and all that.
For failing to do so can be costly for any manger attempting to acclimatise to a new country with its new and unique demands as has been proven many times over from the seventy previous foreign coaches who have plied their trade in England. For every Wenger who changed us there has been a Christian Gross or Bob Bradley who left never quite the same again and what is interesting to note is that so rarely have their shortcomings been directly due to performances on the pitch. Rather it is their interactions with the players that first counted against them, or a failure to form any sort of meaningful relationship with the media. On a broader level it was a refusal to accept that English football has a distinct culture still at its core and that culture must at least be respected.
Falling short in any one of these aspects often means that the press begin to undermine reputation while the players are much less receptive to new ideas. That’s when results suffer. And that’s when the exit door looms large.
Take Jozef Venglos as a case in point. The amiable Czech was the first foreign coach to these shores in 1990 when Aston Villa looked to the continent to replace the departing Graham Taylor and though it would be a stretch to claim the 54-year-old was a prestigious appointment he did boast an impressive C.V. Yet that immediately was eroded to nothing when a club official bizarrely decided to ask the press core on his unveiling who present had heard of him. Not a single journalist raised their hand.
If Venglos was blameless there as newspapers set about portraying him as a mysterious oddity he then went on to commit the cardinal sin for any incoming boss from overseas, endeavouring to change everything all at once. Under Taylor, Villa were a direct and physical side who played what could then be construed as traditional English fare but Venglos sought to change that approach from the off, introducing an emphasis on possession while instructing his players to alter their pre-match routines and diet. Unsurprisingly, given the era, the players viewed all this as being alien and strange and positively rebelled at the sight of pasta. The Czech’s fate was sealed.
If this seems like a quirk from a bygone age it’s worth remembering that a watered down version of this played out at Selhurst Park just last year. In came Frank De Boer with his Dutch ideals. Out he went ten weeks later having utterly bemused his players with an insistence on an instant reappraisal of their methods.
Then there’s the language barrier to consider, so often a key factor in determining whether a foreign coach settles and establishes himself or remains aloof and ‘other’.
Juande Ramos’ single year in charge at Tottenham cannot be judged as a failure because he brought home a trophy in the form of a League Cup and frankly that’s one more piece of silverware than Mauricio Pochettino has managed. Yet who knows what heights the Spaniard might have reached had he learned to speak English during his tenure, a limitation compounded by the fact that every member of his backroom staff also predominantly spoke Spanish.
It is pertinent that Sarri went to great lengths in his opening press conference this week to stress that he intends to learn the language as soon as possible with the need for a translator becoming less so in the weeks to come. This bodes well for Sarri and it follows, for Chelsea too.
Having said that, even the ability to speak only basic English can be detrimental at times as illustrated by Roberto Mancini’s first few months at Manchester City. On quickly realising that the Italian was determined to eschew a translator but knew only a limited number of words the north-west press pack disgracefully got into the habit of asking misleading questions designed to trip up the ‘Scarfed One’ for the purposes of better headlines. The distrust and antagonism this generated ultimately led to discord with a frosty relationship that hardly helped Mancini’s cause.
Even fluent English can be problematic incidentally but here we stray over to a cultural barrier rather than language. Did anyone really believe that Bob Bradley would be given a fair crack of the whip at Swansea when he referred to aways as ‘road games’ and penalties as ‘PKs’?
And that really is what it all comes down to in the end – to be given a fair chance; to be given sufficient time to impose yourself in new surroundings before being caricatured.
It is highly unlikely of course that Sarri will encounter such a problem. After all, he is Chelsea’s fifteenth consecutive foreign coach and with three quarters of this season’s Premier League bossed by men born and raised overseas foreignness is far less of an issue all told these days.
Still, it is never a mistake to learn from the lessons of your predecessors; the trailblazers who found things out the hard way. Namely that is sometimes as important what you keep the same as what you change. And learn to say ‘I cannot criticise the ref because I’ll be fined but you’ve all seen the incident’ without the need of an interpreter.