This past week saw another disappointing night for Arsenal. Once again, we lost to a team that we reasonably expected to beat – Olympiakos had never won on English soil, and we have beaten them a few times before. Despite scoring twice, we still managed to lose the match after conceding within 60 seconds of our second equaliser.
The big talking point was David Ospina’s unfortunate blunder that gifted the Greek champions their second goal, a mistake that subsequently placed the spotlight on his selection ahead of Petr Cech. (As a side note, isn’t it baffling how the biggest, richest, most prestigious club competition in the world still does not employ goal line technology? Anyway…) Arsène Wenger is known to never throw his players under the bus and, true to form, he called the blaming of Ospina for the loss a farce, correctly citing the “quality in our defensive concentration.”
Wenger was visibly annoyed at losing the match, so when he was pressed on his decision to play Ospina instead of Cech – Arsenal’s obvious first choice in goal – who sat on the bench, the manager responded in a manner uncharacteristic of his usual calmness and composure:
“I do not have to sit here and give you any explanation about every decision I make… You are capable to judge what I do and I leave you to that.
I make the selections for the team and I am responsible for them. And I know many things that you don’t know. Or that you ignore. We cannot select the team by making a poll before the game and getting everybody’s opinion.”
This seems to have been the prelude to Friday’s equally testy press conference ahead of the weekend’s home match against “Louis van Gaal’s red army.”
It started well enough with a few questions about his 19th year anniversary at Arsenal, and the standard injury updates. Then Sky’s Andy Burton came in to stir the hornet’s nest. For the benefit of those who may not have seen/heard/read it, here’s an extract from that exchange (the first bit is for context, the latter part is the crux of what this post is going to unpack).
Arsène, regarding some of the fallout over what happened in mid-week. In the press conference after the game, you said, when we asked about team selection, that there were things that we didn’t know and things that we chose to ignore. What do we not know about what happened in mid-week with your selection and what did we choose to ignore?
Look, I do not want to come back on that. I think all has been said after in the press conference and I don’t change a word of what I said. Looking at Ospina and Petr Cech, I think I have two World Class goalkeepers and it’s the easiest choice I have to make because I can pick any of the two and I’m very comfortable. It’s most difficult as well because the two of them are World Class players and always you have to leave one out.
You said we ignored things, what did we ignore?
I do not know anything that you do in your job. And so you make decisions because you have more information than I have and that’s exactly the same in my job.
(Talking over Wenger) That’s not ignoring stuff, though, is it? If we don’t have the information, we can’t ignore it.
That you don’t know, yes. But, look, you come to the game, you judge the game and you assess was I right or was I wrong. I never criticize that. I accept your judgement of how the team played and what is your assessment but I do not have to give you all of the information that I have to make my decisions.
That’s fair enough. Do you accept that when you look at your squad in the summer and you think that “we only need to strengthen in one area,” which is the goalkeeper, that when it comes to a competition in the Champions League that you want to improve upon, when you don’t use the guy that you think improves your squad in that the fans will be frustrated and angry? Do you understand that?
No. Not at all.
Because I make the decision that I think is right on the day. (pause)
You said after the game – you sort of inferred – that you aren’t accountable to people for your selection. Do you think you should be accountable? Is it healthy that you’re not?
I’m accountable on the results of my team and the way we play football.
Do you think you should be more accountable for the fans on selection issues? Or you don’t see that as a valid argument?
I just gave you the answer.
If you’re not accountable in that way, does that not make José Mourinho right when he says that there’s only one manager that’s under pressure? That there’s only one manager that’s not under pressure?
Look. Stop that story or we stop the press conference.
The latter part of this extract is what got me thinking about football managers and accountability. What does accountability mean in the context of football managers? Who are they accountable to? Management? Fans? Media? When can they be said to lack or show accountability?
First things first. A simple Google search of the word accountable brings up this meaning from the Oxford dictionary:
Required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.“Ministers are accountable to Parliament”
Synonyms: responsible, liable, answerable, chargeable
So, who are football managers accountable to?
My immediate thought would be that, like anyone in employment, strictly speaking they are accountable only to their employers – in this case, the football club’s chairperson/board/bosses etc. Club management sets the manager’s objectives, appraises his performance and pays his salary. I know we as football fans often believe that the manager is accountable to us and we can demand answers from him, but he doesn’t actually have to please us. The job is given to him by the club, and as long as they are satisfied with his work (for whatever reason), he is fulfilling what’s expected of him.
It goes further. We football fans, unless significant shareholders or serving on the board, do not have much say in how the football clubs we support are run. It’s unfortunate, a shame, but that’s the reality. Our only real say is through bums on seats, or the withholding thereof, as our purchases of matchday tickets and club merchandise contribute to revenue. Yet, even that does not give us any rights; it doesn’t make the manager answerable to us. Paying for a movie ticket doesn’t allow you to decide what the film’s storyline should be……ah, you get the picture.
Clubs often have AGMs and supporters’ days where they allow shareholders and fans to pose questions to the manager and/or club management. This is obviously part of building and maintaining the relationship with the club’s supporters, and it allows us to have a limited but direct communication channel to the club’s hierarchy. Managers try to handle these meetings with as much honesty and openness as possible, but as we have seen, they seldom fully provide the answers that fans are demanding. That’s as far as it goes.
Don’t get me wrong, pleasing the fans is an important part of a manager’s role. But I believe this is more a case of the fans and bosses sharing a common interest and essentially desiring the same thing: success on the football pitch. And that is exactly what club managers want as well, what they do for a living, so generally speaking, pleasing their employers will typically translate to pleasing the fans if it involves winning football matches (we may need to add a few caveats on this when it comes to Arsenal fans though).
This was the primary reason for writing this article. Football managers are not accountable to the media. If anything, the press are the last people the club and manager are accountable to. Perhaps what journalists need to remember is that while press conferences may be held in accordance with FA/Premier League regulations, speaking to a club manager is a courtesy extended to the media, and sometimes a chore that managers dread. A club manager could easily sit in front of a room full of reporters and simply give absolutely rubbish answers to every question posed to him. The best example I’ve seen: Brendan Venter, coach of Saracens rugby team in 2010, in a post-match interview after losing to Racing Metro. Just look at the man’s face…and hear the interviewer’s frustration.
Of course the FA may eventually take action if they believe things are going too far, but in principle, the manager is not obliged to give the media any answers he doesn’t want to give, and the media is not entitled to any information that the manager is privy to. This is naturally all in theory. In the real world, managers try to have an amiable relationship with the media, and Arsène Wenger is generally good with this – most journalists who have reported on the Premier League and Arsenal for some time will tell you as much.
When a journalist like Burton sits in Arsenal’s media room and presses Wenger, or any other manager at any other press room, on issues of accountability, he enters a battle he’s always certain to lose. When you read the transcript, his line of questioning seems to be premised on the belief that Wenger must account to the media despite him accepting that he takes responsibility for the team selection and subsequent performance.
Some may say it’s not the press he’s accounting to when he answers their questions, but rather the fans. Well, firstly the mainstream media is not the designated mouthpiece of football fans, it’s a business existing to generate revenue. Secondly, as already mentioned, even if newspapers spoke for the fans, managers are under no real obligation to answer to us anyway.
In any case, Burton and other journalists are paid to write stories that help sell papers. The pseudo accountability angle may be packaged as a search for the truth, but we should all know it’s a search for an eye-catching headline. Ironically, Wenger’s threat to stop the press conference, as far as I’ve seen, is being attributed to his dissatisfaction about critique of his team. Readers are being misled because the threat came only once the journalist decided to peddle Mourinho’s rubbish, which was irrelevant to the purpose of the press conference, and Wenger has clearly had enough of the little games.
Now, this was not written to criticise football fans or Gooners in particular. It is primarily about the media’s misguided belief that they are the stewards of football manager accountability. Meanwhile all they do is manipulate fans’ emotions to promote narratives that help to sell newspapers. However, the fan discussion also needs to be had because we also have the incorrect view that managers should answer to us when they aren’t actually under our employ. We invest financially and emotionally into the clubs we support, so I can understand why we might feel that way. But the truth of the matter is that football managers are only accountable to those who have appointed them. It’s their prerogative to share any more than they need to, and the best thing is to accept it in order to save ourselves further frustration.