‘Results > performances’ is the common early season mantra of many a manager, but does it ring true throughout the season? Van Gaal and Mourinho are winners, not artists.
It wasn’t an original thing for Louis Van Gaal to say that no-one should be expecting Manchester United to be any good so early in the season. It’s often said by managers and commentators that for the first 10 games, performances don’t actually matter, it’s all about getting results. Sides need time to settle in, get used to each other, get match fit – whatever match fit actually means. Before you know it, a third of the season has gone, it’s the end of October and performances still don’t really matter.
This situation is echoed in the last 10 games of the season when sides in contention for the title don’t care at all about performances. By then it’s all about picking up the points by any means possible.
That just leaves us with about 18 games where performances surely must matter. Yeah, but y’see, there’s the intensive Christmas period to get through, where, due to stresses and strains on the squad, you just have to dig out results. So that’s another four or five games when it’s not about performances, either.
So, by this logic, as far as I can see, there are only about 12 league games where performances might actually matter. Except, of course, four of those are probably against league rivals where it’s all about winning at all costs, or at least, not losing. The result is everything in those games. So that leaves about eight games against lowly opposition. Surely those are the games where you can really put in a good performance and be judged against it?
Well, yeah, but in those games the manager will field a weakened team to keep the best players for big games. So, in those games, the performance isn’t even typical of the side, be it good or bad.
So forgive me, but when does the performance ever really matter? The answer is, of course, never. Only the result matters. Ask Chelsea this morning.
The quality of the performances, especially of a side looking to challenge for honours, never really matters. The mark of a great side is little to do with playing wonderful football on anything more than an occasional basis and everything to do with just winning a lot. It’s not a beauty contest – there are no points for style. Fans fool themselves. Manchester City’s win over Chelsea, achieved with no little aplomb, still only gets them three points and the one with the most points wins: End of story.
More profoundly, it’s almost always how badly you sometimes play that affects your season, rather than how well. Arsenal have shown us this season after season. These aesthetic idealists who think the side which plays the best football should be the ones to win the league must be very disappointed by football, and by life in general. That’s not the rules and that’s not how it works.
Of course, this applies in just the same way at the other end of the league. To those clubs struggling, performances never matter, only points do. If football wasn’t competitive and you couldn’t win anything or get relegated, only then would performances actually matter. Interestingly, this is an argument made in America where relegation from MLS doesn’t exist. By taking away that threat you increase more expansive, risky play.
Managers often feel obliged to suggest that better performances will somehow inevitably gel after a few weeks, or that one good game means they will inevitably be great from now onwards: That things have magically clicked into place, but no-one should be fooled. ‘Win now’ is the only mantra any of them really follow. Everything is secondary to that. People like Van Gaal or Mourinho are not really interested in creating a beautiful product, only a successful one.