James Lawton: Teams thrive when managers can shape them on own terms

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The Independent Football

Looking for the flash of a football ideal at high noon today in east Manchester might seem like the last word in optimism.

In fact, amid all the random wealth that has flooded into Chelsea and Manchester City in recent years, a classic point of fundamental value may well leap out.

It is one that all indicators insist has been grasped finally by Roman Abramovich.

The oligarch, through some bitter failure in his highest ambition to win the Champions League stylishly, appears to understand now that it is not enough to pour a chunk of the profits from a large slice of Russia's mineral wealth into the club of his choice, put some glorified sports-shirt salesman in charge of the empire so that he can publicly advise a professional football man, in this case Claudio Ranieri, that the idea is to score spectacular long-range goals, win most games by a margin of around five goals, and then find other ways of his own to undermine systematically the man you have appointed manager.

Most shockingly, Abramovich did this when he inflicted his social acquaintance and basically played-out superstar Andrei Shevchenko on Jose Mourinho four years ago and in one whimsical moment sabotaged a system which, rightly or wrongly, the "Special One" had decided worked best, with the immensely strong Didier Drogba covering the ground which his new Ukrainian team-mate was suddenly sharing to no great effect.

There were other basic football illiteracies inflicted on Mourinho as his power was steadily eroded, not least by the injection of the advice of another Abramovich crony, Avram Grant.

However, with these lessons learnt, Chelsea, despite the grumblings of the old warrior Sir Alex Ferguson that it seems to him that they were able to draw up their own fixture list for 2010-11, are today poised to confirm something that, despite the weakness of the early opposition, has been irresistibly evident to many. It is that they are now a cut above the rest of Premier League with hardly a month of the new season played.

If, as expected, Chelsea indeed look like a team at least several miles further down the road of achievement, indeed if not entirely out of sight, than their moneybags opponents at the City of Manchester Stadium today, they will be saying they have become something more than English football's ultimate flat-track bullies. They will be underlining that the Russian owner has indeed got it perfectly right, as Manchester United did at the start of Ferguson's regime.

He has recognised that in Carlo Ancelotti he has a football man of superb achievement and the independence of mind and action to shape a team on his own terms. It is the key to everything and anyone who has spent even the briefest of time around this amiable but tough-minded Italian professional can see that the freedom of Chelsea's play this season, the hunger of individual players to express themselves in the context of a team, is a natural extension of his personality.

Will City at some point begin to show more evidence of this unity of purpose under Ancelotti's compatriot Roberto Mancini? Maybe they will in time to save the neck of a man of undoubted charm and winning experience but the current evidence is less than overwhelming. It was certainly significant, in a rather sombre way, this week when he spoke of players whose biggest yearning is for their day off. City have performers of talent, but is there any sense of a team making any early points on behalf of the theory that it is possible to go out and buy a ready-made team of serious championship possibilities? For the moment, at least, the opposite is true.

The fundamental requirement in any club will always be the ability of a manager to take over a club and operate according to his own priorities, not the clamour of an owner or a chief executive for moves that will titillate the public. There simply isn't any other way of doing it. Look at a football force in any age of the game and the first thing you see is clear evidence of a manager of strength and character who has been allowed the scope to inflict his experience, his knowledge, and, above all, his instinct.

There are supreme examples, Busby and Ferguson at United, Chapman and Wenger at Arsenal, Clough at Nottingham Forest, Shankly and Paisley at Liverpool, Revie at Leeds, Mercer and Allison at Manchester City, Stein at Celtic, Mourinho (until he was invaded by meddling, lesser football men) and now Ancelotti at Chelsea. They are names linked in power and knowledge and, most crucially, the ability to impose their competitive character.

Martin O'Neill, Clough's apprentice, always looked like a man shaped by such factors and this is why his disappearance from Villa Park is such a crushing blow to hopes that English football's elite might see a new member. His successor Gérard Houllier benefits from a carefully cultivated personal prestige, but there is not much encouragement for Villa fans in his overall record at Liverpool, with its pattern of decline and a series of bizarrely inadequate signings.

We are constantly told that football has changed profoundly from the days of Busby, Shankly and Stein, that the complexities of dealing with multimillionaire players, agents allowed to play all sides against the middle, and foreign owners would have radically reduced their chances of glory. It is a lame argument. The basics of success are written in stone. They are about an ability to communicate a certain will and vision and the unchallenged freedom to do so.

It means that a Chelsea triumph today will indeed demonstrate something more than the accumulation of the power provided by wealth. It will show that the role of empowered manager, as represented by Carlo Ancelotti, is still the most decisive factor of all.

England should expect Pietersen to match Ashes feats from 2006

inevitably, kevin pietersen has been brought back for the Ashes challenge. It would have been demonstrably absurd had he not been.

However, it would be good to believe that he returns as a better, somewhat more sophisticated man, certainly one less prone to representing himself as an overindulged adolescent.

His response to being removed from the one-day team – after achieving a golden duck with possibly the most ill-considered shot ever played by a front-line Test batsman of great achievement – was some angry Tweeting. This compounded the fear that all his talk of having matured under the weight, and satisfaction, of becoming a family man was only a figment of his own imagination.

Pietersen's dropping was plainly an attempted wake-up call, and one thoroughly warranted. Pietersen is simply too good a batsman to be allowed to drift off into his own version of what passes for the commitment required of a leading sportsman.

The hope must be that Pietersen has grown stronger at the broken place in his ego. He was head and shoulders above his team-mates in the fiasco of England's whitewash the last time they were in Australia. His 158 in the second Test at Adelaide should have been the point where England launched serious resistance to the likes of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.

It was a beautiful innings, assured and filled with some of his most imperious stroke- making. He finished the series as England's top batsman, with an average of 54.66. With proper application, there is no reason why he should not be ready to reproduce such a performance when the first Test opens in Brisbane in two months' time.

England, reasonably, expects. So should Pietersen.

Beware view from on high, Arsène

Arsene Wenger is surely wise and reflective enough to permit himself a rueful smile at one cynical reaction to his flirtation with the idea of removing himself permanently to the stands.

It is that while the Arsenal manager clearly recognises certain advantages, including an escape from the ever-increasing scrutiny of his touchline emotions, he may have overlooked one serious downside.

This is the fact that at a higher elevation he will get a much clearer view of every incident, including ones in which his own players might just be as blameworthy as their opponents.