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armchair centre back :: things i learned about employment by watching the premier league

van gaal and his best "fuck you" smile
my primary motivation in watching soccer is that i like the sport. it's simple, but at the same time involves a range of skills [although each player has a position, everyone is expected to attack and defend], exceptional communication and trust between teammates, and endurance [most players average 8-10km per game, running the whole time]. the saying is true, that sport is a crucible in which we can see the many aspects of life: it's thrilling highs, crushing lows, grotesque unfairness when mike dean is in charge... but lately, i've also realised that there are more specific life lessons one can draw from the beautiful game. specifically, there are lessons to be learned for both employers and employees. to whit:

promote from within :: swansea city aren't going to make it into the top three teams anytime soon, but last season was record-breaking for them. they won beat both their previous points total and their previous finishing position in the table, and they did it with a 36 year old manager who'd never coached a game in his life. when he took over as manager [still less than two years ago], garry monk was still technically registered as a player. since his promotion, he's locked down players like team captain ashley williams and midfielder ki-sung yueng [who later said that he would have left had the previous manager continued], who have made a huge difference. he brought back gylfi sigurdsson, who had had a great year on loan at swansea two seasons previously. he signed arsenal goalkeeper lukas fabianski, bafétimbi gomis and andre ayew for a grand total of nothing. most interestingly, in three matches against manchester united's all-star dutch import louis van gaal, his side has won all three. swansea's chairman huw jenkins looks like a goddamned genius for putting his faith in his team's former midfielder and, despite a patch of "meh" in september, the team seems to have come together like something out of the movies. comparing the team budget to those that finished above them last season, they've been a frigging miracle. don't assume that your best option is to capture a high profile person from somewhere else. a deserving face from inside the organisation can do wonders and already knows the lay of the land.

i'm still in the premier league and a bird shat on my head...
believe in yourself, but remember that your powers aren't infinite :: there are precisely no people who guessed that, nearly a quarter of the way into the 2015/6 season, chelsea would be languishing in sixteenth place. after they galloped across finish line and claimed first place with a few weeks to spare last season, most people figured that they'd be one of the teams to beat this year. they didn't spend a lot in the off season, but given their phenomenal form last year, it didn't really look like they had to. i'm not going to say "i told you so", because i never did, but i did get an inkling that all would not go smoothly when chelsea manager and erstwhile antichrist jose mourinho signed radamel falcao after he'd proven to be such a turd during his season on loan for manchester united. reputedly one of the best forwards in the world, none of his colombian teammates seemed to miss him during their incredible run at the 2014 world cup and his exceptional form in france's ligue 1 has evaporated in the much tougher english premier league. however, jose decided that manchester united [and his mentor, louis van gaal] just hadn't made the best of him and that he would show the world the real falcao. nearly two months in, it looks like we all got to see the real falcao last year. despite a spiffy new haircut that alerted many to the fact that he's a damn fine looking man, falcao has had zero impact and has looked exactly like the player he was last year. i once had a human resources person tell me that a manager who could make a bad employee into a good employee was incredibly rare and that they could rarely achieve the feat with more than one person. if someone isn't cut out for the job, don't assume you can fix them through the power of your awesomeness. you're not that special, jose.

i am a beeeegg fish right now
consider the advantages of the small pond :: when people achieve a high profile in a smaller arena, we're tempted to dismiss their inflated sense of importance by calling them a big fish in a small pond. and while i'm not in favour of getting a swollen head because you happen to be the world's foremost expert on the measuring of striations in middle neolithic granite structures, i do think it's worth considering that being part of a smaller team has some advantages. consider the case of wilfried bony. last year- actually earlier this year- manchester city spent thirty million pounds to buy him from swansea city. while he has had some occasional game time [including scoring a goal against his former club last spring], his role at manchester city has basically been to keep the benches warm while he waits for sergio aguëro to get injured. with swansea, he was the top scoring player for the entire league in 2014. he was a demigod among the fans. since his departure, bafé gomis- who chafed at the reins when he was considered the secondary striker- has come into his own, not only scoring goals, but becoming a lynchpin for the team. his impact at man city has been nearly nothing, and swansea didn't seem to miss him for long. another example would be dutch striker robin van persie, who left arsenal [not exactly the smallest pond] for manchester united in 2013 because he wanted to win trophies and didn't think arsenal had it in them. indeed, he did get to be part of a premier league winning team that first year, but the team went nowhere in the champions league, didn't even qualify for the europa league the next season, finished seventh overall and in the early part of the 2014-5 season, his former team arsenal had one two league trophies before manchester united had won a single game. van persie was sold off this season to turkish side fenerbahçe, where his team sits in third place and he's mostly been sitting on the bench.

the current leading scorer in the premier league is leicester's jamie vardy and with all due respect to that young man, he wouldn't get a look-in at either manchester club. but now anyone following the league knows who he is and he gets a lot of the credit for the fact that his team are currently sitting fourth, despite having allowed more goals than any other team. if they can maintain anything like the form they've shown thus far, vardy will likely be playing in europe next year and he will have done it with a team where he can feel like his contributions are of the utmost importance.

the moral of the story is this: don't assume that bigger is better. if you have a good thing going with a company that maybe isn't the biggest and richest and most successful, consider the possibility that that means that your efforts get noticed more and that you might be appreciated more.

this meme is several years old. he now has 200 million.
know when you need help :: this one's for all the arsenal fans out there, all those poor people who have gone prematurely bald from ripping out their hair in the weeks before the close of the transfer window as they watched their manager to very little to shore up resources. in the last few years, the premier league's longest-serving and most frustrating manager has finally started to add some world-class talent. mesut özil and alexis sanchez are huge additions. the thing is, they are additions that have been needed for some time. arsenal have also needed a top class keeper for years; that's not to say that they didn't have good options, but every year the team that wins the premier league does so with a keeper who's among the top in the world and neither david ospina nor wojciech szczesny were at that level. chelsea's petr cech is at that level and so many fans breathed a huge sigh of relief when arsenal signed him this season. [the fact that it apparently happened in the teeth of jose mourinho's opposition and that the loss just about broke his heart can be considered a happy side effect.] but then, things came a little off the rails. or rather, they came to a screeching halt, because arsenal signed no one else before the close of the transfer window in september. immediately, every fan shifted uncomfortably with a profound sense of déjà vu.

the problem is that arsène wenger runs his teams much like a lot of start-up owners run their companies: by adding talent in the right places at least a year after everyone else in the organisation has realised it was necessary. fans have been screaming for both a defensive midfielder and a striker for years and wenger's response has been to play musical chairs with what he has. i love a boss who's willing to stick with his employees and who believes that his team is capable of amazing things, but at a certain point dedicated starts to become delusional. i'm still not entirely convinced that the gunners need to splash mad money on a striker, because i like the wenger way of creating a team where everyone scores some goals, but you're not reliant on one person to score lots of goals. but even i can see that he needs to sign one or two people who are capable of scoring more goals on a regular basis. wenger has the promoting from within thing down [ask francis coquelin], but sometimes you just need a new sort of employee to move things forward.

never underestimate the power of a great boss :: a very smart friend once said something that's stuck with me lo these many years: in every workplace, you're going to reach a point where employees have no motivation beyond the inspiration they get from their manager. there will come a time when things get so tough that the rewards of salary, greater bonuses or commissions, the sense of accomplishment at solving a problem, all those things that normally get people to work harder, are not going to be enough and when that happens, you have to be confident that those employees will still keep working because the person in charge is that strong a leader. and it does happen, although not very often.

i'd argue that it happens in sport more often than in other businesses, but the lesson is still applicable. if you want to be a boss, you need to think about ways in which you can lead so that people feel good just because they work for you. if you're an employee, think about your boss and whether or not you could feel that way about them. if you can't imagine it, that's a bad sign.

last year, manchester united set a record with the signing of angel di maria from real madrid. after a few impressive games, di maria collapsed like a dying star, reaching the apex of fail when he received two yellow cards in thirty seconds, the first for diving and the second for giving referee michael oliver a shake in protest of the first.



di maria's meltdown was popularly credited to either not being able to cut it in the english league [if you're a united fan] or the fact that manager louis van gaal is impossible to work for [if you're anyone other than a united fan]. radamel falcao was apparently reduced to tears at times because he hated the united experience so much. robin van persie, who worked with van gaal as part of the dutch national team as well as for a year at united, has been loud and clear through his silence on the subject, even when he rattled off an encyclopedia of thanks to everyone who had supported him in england. the list included arsenal fans, who had booed him without mercy for three years since his departure, but didn't include van gaal.

on the other end of the scale, you have someone like yohan cabaye, who's proving to be an excellent addition to crystal palace this year. he had been in england before, at newcastle under manager alan pardew and while higher profile clubs [like arsenal] had been interested in his services, he ultimately decided to leave a comfy position on the bench at perennial french champions paris st. germain to play for a team that's come close to relegation two years running. lots of people hate pardew, but i'm not one of them. because when it comes down to it, when he needs his players to really step up, they do. they did it after an atrocious start at newcastle in 2014. they did it when he moved to crystal palace at the beginning of 2015.

there's talk about him taking over as england manager after roy hodgson and i personally would love to see if he can translate his skills to a national team that isn't playing together as much or as regularly as a professional team. [i'd also like to see him headbutt cristiano ronaldo at an international game, but that's probably asking too much.]

i could go on, but i've already gone on a lot and so i'll wind up with this: there is something to the metaphor of sport being like life, condensed, and while it can be exhilarating just to watch, you can also find some surprisingly useful tidbits of information inside the condensed world. 

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