Why not having your manager in the dugout really can make a difference

In recent weeks a number of managers have been absent from matches owing to positive Covid tests, with Pep Guardiola and Sean Dyche the latest to leave gaping holes in the dugout. Personally I always missed my manager when they weren’t there but this isn’t the same for every player.

By this stage of the season players will know what their manager wants from them on the pitch because they are training every day to hone their craft and perfect tactics. The relentless nature of the schedule means it is pretty difficult to make major changes between games. Only minor tweaks are made to formations and styles but managers are still crucial to the squad environment.

Certain players in my experience would take liberties in training if a manager was absent, doing things they knew they would not get away with in the presence of the person in charge, but this did not seep through to matches. On the flip side, I spoke to a former Manchester United player who told me he redoubled his efforts in training if Sir Alex Ferguson was not there because he feared information getting back to the manager that he had been slacking off, fully aware that Ferguson knew everything that happened whether he was present or not.

A manager is unlikely to tell a player something they do not know on a match day but their aura is what I missed within a dressing room and on the sidelines. If you look at Jürgen Klopp, for example, he prowls the pitch before the game watching the opposition warm up and his energetic style rouses the crowd and players. Without him prowling the touchline Anfield and the team would be a very different proposition.

Within a dressing room the manager will have authority – or, at least, should – and they can utilise it to bring calmness, especially at half-time. Players come in highly emotional after the first 45 minutes whether things are going well or badly and they need that calm to bring them back down and regain focus. I played at Arsenal under Vic Akers, who worked closely with Arsène Wenger, and he had the great reassuring ability to bring players back down to an equilibrium.

Managers are often enigmatic characters – they are people you want to play for. I am sure players have signed for Liverpool because of the person Klopp is and the same with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Emma Hayes was one of the key reasons I joined Chelsea; I wanted to play for the club, but it is her dream and vision driving it. She knew me from working together at Chicago Red Stars and was clear about what role she recruited me to play. When she was not there, I might not have that connection with the assistant or other staff members.

I did not need her at the games but I did miss her when she was not there – for the assurance she offered me. I remember Emma was absent when we won the Women’s Super League at Chelsea in 2018 because of her pregnancy. We had to video call her after the match to celebrate, which is a bit different from in the traditional dressing-room celebrations.

Those left in charge on the day need to be strong characters to cope without the person they and the players might turn to when things are not going well. As a player you are only as strong as your physios, doctors, manager, coaches and even set-play specialist, because they get you wins. It is important that the assistant knows what they are doing and is strong enough to cope with the added scrutiny.

Some managers can be quite controlling and do not delegate but if they have good staff the manager should entrust them, which ought to help if they are ever absent. Any disruption in routine can cause a problem for teams and put them on the back foot before a ball is kicked, so it is key to minimise the impact on players, and a strong backroom staff can ensure that.

Thanks to technology, a manager can be in constant touch with their coaching staff throughout a match they aren’t at, which reduces the effects of their absence. By watching on TV they will have a different perspective from those on the touchline, and that can be very useful. I will notice things on TV which I would not have spotted if I was at the stadium.

Match days have changed down the years. When I was starting out the manager would give their pre-match talk in the dressing room and have long chats with players, whereas towards the end of my career this was done at the team hotel. They would go into great detail away from the ground and just save up a few words of encouragement at the stadium before we went out to play, allowing players to focus on the game. Potentially now an absent manager could still do this over a video call, even though it is not the same.

Driving, for example, is always best when you have a passenger to help get you to the right destination because going it alone makes life more difficult. You can always turn to them to give directions and a manager does that for players when they need a little guidance and support. People can underestimate what a manager can do on a match day. Without them players risk getting lost.