What exactly does a club’s 'DNA' mean – and do managers really need it?

Frank Lampard Chelsea flag

​There’s a trend for Premier League sides hiring managers with links to the club. But weirdly, it was ‘anti-DNA’ managers who kicked it all off

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“Freddie has Arsenal DNA,” said Josh Kroenke. So interim manager Freddie Ljungberg does, along with his temporary assistant Per Mertesacker, Under-23 coach Steve Bould, Robert Pires, who is being tipped to join Ljungberg’s backroom staff, and possible long-term choices such as Mikel Arteta and Patrick Vieira. Meanwhile, Frank Lampard, Jody Morris, Ashley Cole, Petr Cech and Eddie Newton have Chelsea DNA. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Mike Phelan and Michael Carrick have Manchester United DNA. Brian Kidd has Manchester City’s, though he had United’s when he coached there. Jurgen Klopp thinks Steven Gerrard, who has Liverpool DNA, should succeed him. Steve Bruce, Dean Smith, Eddie Howe and Chris Wilder already manage clubs whose DNA they share.

Welcome to the age of DNA. It has entered the footballing vocabulary to such an extent that the Premier League seems to discuss it more than the average scientist. It is tempting to wonder if the recent emphasis on DNA, on the magical, mystical qualities involved in ‘knowing the club’ has gone too far and that being part of the Class of ’92 does not actually qualify Robbie Savage to manage United.

Many of the managers who forged that DNA, either by tapping into a club’s traditions or by reinventing it in their own vision – Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough, Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino – had no prior connection with it. An inspired outsider tends to trump an underqualified insider. The talent pool of potential coaches is rather bigger when the criteria do not include playing for or supporting the club in question.

But the recent focus on DNA can be explained in part by the failings of the anti-DNA managers. It is a reaction to the struggles of the men who did not understand the clubs they managed, the fans or the identity; who, in some cases, seemed to go out of their way to misunderstand the institution they were charged with cherishing.

It is that group, rather the distinguished band of Herbert Chapman, George Graham and Wenger, that Unai Emery joined. Not deliberately, given the dignity of his statement when he was sacked, but Emery only embodied Arsenal in the sense that he became a target for dissent and he represented the confused thinking at the club. That apart, Emery did not ultimately stand for anything.

Whereas Maurizio Sarri was another type of anti-DNA manager, a manager with a stubborn sense of superiority, a no-compromise approach that sent the Chelsea fanbase into rebellion. Sarri and Chelsea never really knew each other; in the Italian’s case, he did not seem to try to. Much like Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas, damningly given the latter’s time on Jose Mourinho’s coaching staff, he failed to grasp Chelsea’s modern-day identity.  

It is worth stressing that anti-DNA is not simply a synonym for foreign. They can be – Walter Mazzarri at Watford, Paolo di Canio – largely for political reasons – at Sunderland, Claude Puel anywhere and everywhere – but the ultimate anti-DNA manager is almost a caricature of Englishness. Maybe if Sam Allardyce had changed his name to Allardici, he would have been just as miscast as a manager of the three biggest clubs to appoint him, but he failed to understand each. Allardyce played defensive, dull football at Newcastle, scoffed at the concept of ‘the West Ham Way’ and implied Everton should be grateful to have him. No wonder, perhaps, that both Newcastle and West Ham replaced him with popular former players, in Kevin Keegan and Slaven Bilic.

And no manager in the last six decades has displayed as little understanding of Liverpool as Roy Hodgson, with his downplaying of expectations, his fondness for limited players and his reluctance to stand to up to Ferguson. Gerard Houllier, Rafa Benitez and Klopp came from further afield as strangers to a division and had a better idea of what Liverpool was, what it could be and what should be.

To a certain extent, each of United’s first three post-Ferguson appointments became an anti-DNA manager. David Moyes helped define Everton, and not merely by branding it “the people’s club”, but he was intimidated by United’s size and, in a recurring theme, incapable of imagining the right style of football. Mourinho helped shape the 21st-century Chelsea but seemed to dislike everything about United. Louis van Gaal was a philosopher who did not attract believers: some United fans liked his personality, sometimes in a quasi-ironic way, but not his football. Each, in his own way, contributed to a situation where Solskjaer, with his instant connection to the past and the supporters and his love of all things United, became the answer, just as perhaps Lampard would not have become Chelsea manager without Sarri laying the groundwork by being the opposite of him.

If each managerial appointment is an antidote to the last unsuccessful one, the men whose rhetoric is laced with nostalgia and namedropping owe their opportunity to those coaches who fail to recognise that each club, in its history and identity, has something special and distinctive and that it helps to channel it, rather than ignoring it, who neglect to buy into something and who never forge bonds. The anti-DNA managers were both the anti-Lampard and the anti-Solskjaer and the men who helped create them.

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