Are We Seeing the Rebirth of the Player Manager?

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The illustrious career of Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool Football Club has seen his name emblazoned on the terraces at Anfield and sung throughout the Kop with endless fervour. His record of 172 goals for the Reds in 515 appearances led to Liverpool being crowned the champions of England on 8 occasions and of Europe on three.

Perhaps only Steven Gerrard can be compared to King Kenny as the greatest player to don the famous red shirt, but even the hometown hero from Whiston was not bestowed with the responsibility of a now extinct position: Player-Manager. In the 1985/86 season, his first in charge, the Glaswegian led Liverpool to their first ever League and cup double, scoring 5 goals in the league himself in 21 appearances. In hindsight, this is outrageous.

Fast forward 33 years and we can see why the role is now defunct. Technological advancements and heavy fixture lists in conjunction with the evolution of the monster that is football tactics, make the feats of Dalglish nigh on impossible in the modern game.

There is, however, a slight caveat to this thought. Due to the ocean of knowledge now available to players in the information age of the internet, a select few have been able to transcend their position as water carriers of their manager’s instructions, to filling the bottles themselves.

In the blue half of Manchester, the ‘free 8s’ in the form of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva transmit Pep Guardiola’s thoughts to their colleagues almost as if they had radio transmitters implanted in their heads – the latter of which took to replicating his manager’s persona to such an extent he even mirrored his hairstyle.

Chelsea’s hiring of Maurizio Sarri and the subsequent purchase of Jorginho indicate how a single player can represent a manager’s philosophy. Constantly asking for the ball in tight spaces and then playing first-time into space, the Brazilian born Italian, seen constantly barking positional instructions to his teammates whilst off the ball in Chelsea’s 3-2 victory over Arsenal on Saturday, translates the ethos of press resistance and verticality. A style displayed by a Napoli side which Guardiola crowned “Maybe the best time I’ve ever faced” after Manchester City’s triumph over the little donkeys last season.

His opposite number came in the unexpected form of 19-year-old Matteo Guendouzi, purchased from Lorient in the Ligue 2. The Frenchman was the standout performer for an Arsenal side in transition from stale methodologies, as he constantly challenged for the ball in midfield winning 82% of his duels and at times led the press.

His passion for the game culminated in the visible frustration shown when beating the turf with his fists after Pierre Emerick Aubameyang missed Hector Bellerin’s cutback from the 10 yards out. A move Guendouzi himself had started with an exquisite ball through the half space. The Spanish tactician in the dugout was itching to do the same.

Conversely to this, at Manchester United, the man who would most likely be tasked with this role, Paul Pogba, is seemingly uneasy with what is being asked by his manager and thus an air of uncertainty is ushered through the United ranks, demonstrated in their 3-2 defeat at the hands of Brighton on Sunday. Conceivably a genuine belief in the philosophy is what separates Privates from Generals.

Jurgen Klopp’s patience in identifying his targets is undeniable. The German is at ease in selecting the right man for the job even if that requires waiting a year for them to arrive. This patience has paid dividends as Liverpool now have the strongest squad since the days of Messrs Alonso and Torres, with a spine of Alisson, Virgil Van Dijk, Naby Keita and Roberto Firmino leading the charge for a first league title in 29 years.

The decision-making ability of these ‘player-managers’ act as a catalyst for the reactionary movement of the others in each of their respective zones, producing the rock and roll football on show at Anfield.

Van Dijk strikes a picture of poise and like Jorginho is constantly gesturing where the ball should be played and organising the defence. Keita’s boundless energy spreads the message throughout the team that the intensity is a constant, whilst his ability to carry the ball forward is something which has been missing in Merseyside for almost a decade.

And finally, with Bobby – although Mohamed Salah may get most of the plaudits for the attacking verve of the Reds – endless column inches rave about how Firmino is the Arch Bishop in the church of Klopp, with the gaffer even stating the Brazilian is “world class, pretty much every day”. The word of Klopp consistent throughout the pitch.

Although the player-manager has not been seen in the 21st century, perhaps never to be seen again, should the setting ever be fitting, there is a new breed of player ready to take up the mantle.

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