Date: 7th August 2018 at 10:53am
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In their quest for fans’ adulation, Football managers employ any number of techniques and strategies to gain the upper hand over their bitterest rivals, much like the many tactics a poker player might utilise at the table when the stakes are high. While the modern-day football manager is meant to be consistently evolving tactics and updating strategy, it makes you wonder what the elite coaches in the English game would be like in another game based on strategies, poker. Although they may not look alike, they do have a great deal in common at first glance and are decidedly similar. Millions are won and lost as strategies collide, which is why it is critical to know when to be aggressive or not.

On the one hand, look at Jose ‘The Money’ Mourinho, currently unhappily leading Manchester United and prone to tilt. Jose is the archetypal passive aggressive, money-is-no-object high roller. Angry and always on the attack, he only ever plays aggressively. As Jose takes his seat at the table, the unease among the others is tangible. That’s partly because everyone here has already had some bad beef with him in the past and his mere presence at the table is enough to raise the stakes considerably.

Sitting at the table with the deepest stack of chips, continually raising the stakes and watching the others sweat, he grins smugly while playing with an unlimited bankroll. Or at least he used to. Now, even he seems bored of his antics. It’s this arrogance that perhaps offers hope to the others at the table. The mischief in him can’t resist winding up his competitors, and before long, chips are flying, and competitors are brawling. As the melee continues, Jose lights up a cigarette, flips up his hoody, puts on his sunglasses, collects his chips and cashes out before coolly strolling away from the carnage taking place behind him where only moments earlier stood a table of cards. Outside, a parked bus is waiting.

In the past, this method yielded rewards and financial gain yet is increasingly looking outdated as cooler, fresher talent meets at the felt. One of these is Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, who is defiantly someone who should give card games a miss. For sure, he has the strategical and tactical nous, but his face is a dead giveaway. Klopp’s poker face is so poor that his opponents always know what is going on inside. From beaming toothy smiles that stretch from ear to ear to pure rage and anger as a decision goes against him or one of his players fails to do as ordered. As such, everyone knows what the German is holding, and Klopp is the first to go bust. As they say in both poker and football, nice guys finish last.

Another of the new breed is Pep Guardiola, who makes it a matter of professional pride to revolutionise the games he plays. As such, winning a hand at poker is no longer enough. No, now only a royal flush delivered in a stylish flourish will suffice; otherwise, what’s the point? Sadly, for Pep, good hands in poker are hard to find and waiting for the perfect hand is costly. It’s a game where making the bad hands count, wins.

Which is why the winner is a manager with a weaker hand that is read through Klopp’s misguided poker face, called when Pep was busy collecting and used against Mourinho’s aggression. Ladies and gentlemen, our winner is Rafael Benitez. Despite having little support from his stakers, Newcastle United and their owner Mike Ashley, Rafa has consistently made money over his career. From taking Liverpool to European champions in 2005 to twice winning La Liga with the underdogs Valencia before that, he thrives best under the pressure of a weaker hand. Even now, given little to no bankroll from his owners, he still achieved excellent results with Newcastle last season and might do so again this year. Of course, providing he is given the money for the buy-in that is.