Since Tottenham Hotspur launched to the top of the Premier League table (have we mentioned that fact lately?), there has been a sizable increase in the number of articles from football journalists about the club, and head coach Ange Postecoglou.
It makes sense, of course. An ascendent Tottenham is novel and different. Anyone can write a glowing piece about Pep Guardiola, and the media was agog over Mikel Arteta’s ability to sketch pictures on whiteboards for the whole of last season. So now that Spurs — Spurs, for God’s sake! — are at the top of the mountain, unbeaten in their opening ten matches and on a record-setting run for new manager in the Premier League, it feels like every single football writer on the planet is churning out articles trying to figure out why.
It’s certainly a welcome change from the doom-fest that were the Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho eras (ignoring the eminently forgettable Nuno Interregnum). Spurs’ resurgence is notable not just because they’re playing a style that’s almost completely different to last season’s tactics, but because of the refreshing personality of its new head coach.
And these pieces! They almost vibrate with astonishment about how Big Ange has turned around a club mired in the tar pits of bad karma so quickly. Look at how he imposed an entirely new team leadership, gushes Dan Kilpatrick of the Evening Standard. He knows everyone’s name at the club, even the staff, says David Hytner in The Guardian. He lets his assistants actually lead training? He’s respectful and open? Surely he throws at least one person under the bus. You mean there aren’t any lemons?
If it seems like I’m gently ribbing Kilpatrick and Hytner, it’s because I am. In truth, both of the pieces linked above are excellent, full of insight into the inner workings of Postecoglou’s methodology at the club. Hytner attempts to sum up Postecoglou’s methods as rooted in “normality and authenticity.” And it’s notable that these breathlessly positive pieces are coming from journalists who seem completely taken aback by Ange’s gentle transparency and loquaciousness. It’s hardly their fault. They no doubt have plenty of experience dealing with, uh, some strong personalities in the course of their jobs.
To put a fine point on it, football managers in England (but also pretty much everywhere) are almost universally a bunch of excessively driven insane people. It makes sense — the pressure to succeed is everywhere in professional football, and the people who ascend to football management at the highest levels of the sport are outliers, attuned to perfection, to micromanagement, to squeezing every drop of juice out of that (cough) lemon because the margins between success and failure are extremely thin. That’s how you get managers who are slavish to a particular methodology, or who ban ketchup, or who believe in energia universal and keep bowls of fruit in their offices to “absorb bad energy.” To be successful in this field, you’ve gotta be at least a little bit nuts, right?
But that’s not Big Ange at all. Shockingly, in this industry at least, he lets his people be people, trusts that they will voluntarily buy into what he’s selling and will also make good decisions along the way. Some of the ways this manifests are small — staying out of the changing room because that’s the players’ area and not the manager’s, allowing players to establish a healthy work-life balance, talking openly about challenges and making sure his players have all the support they need in every aspect of their life, allowing his players to make and learn from mistakes without fear of punishment.
It’s not that he’s perfect. He’s distant from his players, both physically and emotionally, in ways that feel a tad odd. He’s a little bit prickly, though never to the point of being mean or cruel. He’s perhaps a touch too slavish to his personal methodology of the game, even though it has yet to fail him in his career. But he’s managed to find ways to acknowledge and overcome even minor deficiencies in his personality and character, and works around them to make the best possible circumstances for his players and staff. Because nobody’s perfect.
In short, Postecoglou feels normal. Completely, refreshingly, and almost unbelievingly normal, in ways that feel abnormal to anyone who’s paid attention to English football for more than a year or so. Amusingly and anecdotally, Hytner refers to Ange letting his assistants take the lead in training sessions (Ryan Mason is reportedly the chief executor of Postecoglou’s offensive tactics in training) as “NFL-style coaching,” which to this blogger steeped in a lifetime’s worth of American sports culture, feels BONKERS. But in a game that’s dominated by egotistical, manipulative, often megalomaniacal personalties, is it any wonder why Ange comes across like a breath of fresh air? Counterfactually, being a relatively normal guy is exactly what makes Ange something of a weirdo in the modern game.
It’s not a requirement to like your football manager. Spurs fans should know this more than most. But it’s notable that Tottenham are finding success, at least in the near term, thanks to someone who doesn’t rage or bluster or impose unreasonable expectations. Big Ange is (mostly) free from all of that, plus most of the other eccentricities inherent to other to-flight managers. He might make an inspirational speech, but even if he could draw a sketch of a heart and a brain holding hands, you’ll never see one of them on a whiteboard in Tottenham’s changing room. He’s demanding and distant, but he’s fair, respectful, and accommodating. And get this — he even wins!
Football players are weird. Football managers are even weirder. How odd is it then to have someone so abnormally normal in charge of Tottenham Hotspur? A person could get used to this.