Chelsea need to stop using Thomas Tuchel as a shield

Ian King
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel

Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel is angry at being repeatedly asked about his club’s ownership. Why are they subjecting him to this?

 

That Thomas Tuchel lost his cool in the press conference ahead of the FA Cup match between Luton Town and Chelsea should have surprised nobody. This was Chelsea’s second match since Russia invaded Ukraine and he, a football manager, was for the second press conference in a row being quizzed about subjects that were considerably beyond what he considers to be his remit. But the fact of the matter is that he is going to be asked these questions repeatedly because no-one else higher up the club’s chain of command seems prepared to do anything beyond releasing occasionally perplexing statements.

Tuchel has come in for criticism, and one can only wonder whether our reaction to Tuchel’s comments might be a matter of cultural wires getting crossed. He is a head coach who has spent the vast majority of his career in Germany, and things are done differently there. And to understand why this might be, we need to consider the difference between a ‘manager’ and a ‘head coach’, because they’re not the same thing, they come from different places, even though those differences might not be immediately obvious while the football calendar is trundling along as normal. The head coach is, after all, the person who picks the team and then stands on the sidelines screaming at their players for 90 minutes. The ‘manager’ is that plus being in control of transfers.

This wasn’t ever thus. In the early days of football, clubs were entirely run by committee, but as it began its long road towards becoming a professional game, this started to change. The man commonly assented to be the first ‘football manager’ was George Ramsay, who was hired by Aston Villa in June 1886. Professionalism had been permitted by the FA for the first time a year earlier, and Villa decided that they needed someone to administer the team’s affairs. Ramsay was responsible for the team, including controlling recruitment and transfers, supported by a specialist trainer, with the actual team selection continuing to be made by committee. Ramsay stayed in this position for a remarkable 42 years, during which time Aston Villa won the FA Cup and Football League six times each.

But notably, once appointed into the position, Ramsay was described as ‘secretary’ or ‘secretary-manager’. Clubs still have secretaries to this day. They handle a club’s administrative matters, ensuring that players are correctly registered, that competition rules are adhered to, and so on. Arguably the first true ‘manager’ in a truly modern sense was Herbert Chapman who, at Huddersfield Town and Arsenal in the 1920s and early 1930s, redefined what it meant to be one, taking full responsibility for team selection, working closely with his trainers, and becoming the ‘public face’ of the club.

The game evolved differently elsewhere, and the more common arrangement for how clubs in Germany operate has been for the ‘head coach’ to manage team affairs while a ‘general manager’ (or ‘director of football, or ‘sporting director’), a position with more in common with the game’s earlier days, co-ordinates everything beyond what directly happens on the pitch. It seems entirely plausible that the fuss over Tuchel’s comments are a reflection of this difference. Were he in Germany, there would be an extra layer of protection from being repeatedly asking such questions.

At Chelsea, this extra layer doesn’t seem to exist. Tuchel is a ‘manager’ rather than a ‘head coach’, but he still comes from the German system, where general managers and directors take a higher profile. This is an extremely uncertain time for Chelsea and it’s an extremely uncertain time for the world in general. A lot of people want a lot of answers to a lot of questions. But twice in just three days the club sent Tuchel out to face the press and meet a barrage of questions to which he couldn’t possibly have any answers.

Of course, the counterpoint to all of this would be to add that Tuchel accepted the position as manager (and the lavish rewards that come with it), and that this comes with subtle (but, as we’ve seen, occasionally extremely significant) differences to being a ‘head coach’, and that with these questions demanding answers and no-one more senior in the club apparently prepared to face down the extremely uncomfortable questions that come as a result of having been owned by a Russian oligarch for almost 19 years. Chelsea Football Club have reaped enormous benefits from his money over that time. Now, perhaps, it’s time for them to face up to some uncomfortable realities about the source of those benefits and answer those questions themselves rather than shoving Thomas Tuchel out to face the press like some sort of shield.

The solution to all of this, of course, is for Chelsea to be sold, and the 86-year-old Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss has already claimed that he has been offered the chance to buy the club, although he considers the reportedly £4bn price quoted as too high. But this raises questions of its own. How quickly can the multi-billion pound sale of a football club be put through? Will Abramovich lower his price? Will there be other bidders? And if Roman Abramovich is going to fall under swingeing sanctions, how on earth is a sale transaction ever supposed to actually proceed?

Thomas Tuchel’s irritation at being repeatedly asked about the Russian invasion of Ukraine is understandable. He’s a football manager. His job is to coach the team to lifting trophies, and notwithstanding the outcome of the Carabao Cup final, he’s been pretty successful on that front since arriving at Stamford Bridge. But these are not ‘ordinary’ times. Football does feel less important than usual, and this will continue until the outcome of the events in Ukraine has become clear.