Do managers really know?

A couple of seasons ago even Jose Mourinho, who has had such success with both Porto and Chelsea, virtually made a present to Liverpool of a FA Cup semi-final, bizarrely deciding to play his Portuguese international right-back Ferreira on the left of a midfield diamond formation; it never began to work and Liverpool cruised home.

When Arsenal, admittedly diminished by the loss of several key players, recently went to Porto for their last, crucial, qualifier in the European Champions Cup, they fielded just one man up front. No, it wasn't Thierry Henry, who had been obliged to rest after trouble with a sciatic nerve. It was just the young Togo striker, Emmanuel Adebayor. Yet, only a few days earlier, at their own Emirates Stadium, they had outplayed their eternal North London rivals Spurs in the derby match, winning 3-0, with an upfront couple of Adebayor and the lively, incisive, left-footed Dutchman, Robin van Persie.

A draw and a point were all that both Arsenal and Porto needed to come through, but in fielding just one striker it surely seemed that Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, was dicing with death, offering hostages to fortune by conceding the initiative to Porto. And so in the first half it would prove, since Postiga, the Portuguese international striker, himself once unhappily with Spurs, struck the post not once, but twice. While in the latter stages, when Van Persie did belatedly come on, it was not to flank Adebayor, but to replace him! True the game thereafter petered out, each team satisfied.

But my mind went back to a couple of FA Cup Finals ago in Cardiff when Wenger really did seem to throw in the sponge and was incredibly lucky to get away with his ultra caution. Against a Manchester United team he plainly considered to be vastly superior to his own, he played, again, with one striker up. Yet, inexplicably and even irrationally, that striker was Dennis Bergkamp, the veteran Dutch international. Still, indubitably, a major force when used as he had surely to be, operating just behind the front line. Yet, with the years, his pace had inevitably gone and he was just as inevitably wasted. In the event, the Gunners held on grimly into extra time, which seemed the dismal plan, and prevailed on penalties. The last thing you could call it was a famous victory. But take the tactics of a rival manager, Rafael Benitez of Liverpool when he brought his team to Highbury this season for a Premiership game. What possessed him, you wondered, even when his usual, forceful, midfielder, Sissoko, was injured and out, to keep the dynamic Steven Gerrard, wasted on the right wing, filling the central midfield role with, of all things, the Dutch international winger, Zenden. Which inevitably didn't remotely work; the Gunners won in a canter.

Shades plainly of the European Champions Final in Istanbul a couple of seasons ago when Benitez was astonishingly lucky to get away with his tactical absurdities in the first half. There was no one in midfield to stop the surging runs of Kaka, the Brazilian mid-fielder of Milan, and at half-time Liverpool found themselves 3-0 down.

Come the second half, however, light dawned on Benitez. He put a now inspired Gerrard in the middle on Kaka, Liverpool took up the running, wiped out all three goals and won on penalties in extra time.

So the question you have to keep asking yourself, however impertinent it may seem, is, `Do managers understand football?' A couple of seasons ago even Jose Mourinho, who has had such success with both Porto and Chelsea, virtually made a present to Liverpool of a FA Cup semi-final, bizarrely deciding to play his Portuguese international right-back Ferreira on the left of a midfield diamond formation; it never began to work and Liverpool cruised home. Even more recently, it was hard to comprehend why Mourinho, at home to a weakened and defensive Arsenal team, should choose to play more than half the game without wingers and thus without width, playing into the Gunners' hands. Only when he brought in two real wingers in Shaun Wright Phillips and Holland's Arjen Robben did the sparks begin to fly. Arsenal, it is true, took the lead, but Robben ran them ragged on their left flank, Chelsea equalised and should really, with all their ultimate pressure, have won the game.

At present, I'm involved in writing a history of England's team managers and am finding one strangely crass, self-defeating, decision after another. Alf Ramsey, supposedly the arch-strategist, in my view, and I was there, threw away the quarter-final of the 1970 World Cup in hot and high Leon, Mexico, when he kept Terry Cooper and Keith Newton, his overlapping full-backs on the field, when each was so plainly exhausted. Germany, 2-0 down, won 3-2 and while the blame has largely been put on the reserve goalkeeper, Peter Bonetti, I still think England could have won that game if the backs had not been sacrificed to wingers they couldn't control. Notably the Germans' fresh substitute right-winger, Jurgen Grabowski.

Not to mention the almost traditional snubbing by England's various managers, down the decades, of the country's most-gifted mavericks: from Len Shackleton in the immediate post-War teams, through Glenn Hoddle to Paul Gascoigne, each of whom suffered under managers — Walter Winterbottom, Alf Ramsey, Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor — seemingly fearful of their unorthodoxy. And when Roberto Baggio was substituted in the Giants Stadium by Arrigo Sacchi in Italy's World Cup 1986 match against Norway, he came off mouthing the words, "That man is mad." His goals would later take Italy all the way to the Final but he'd already suffered under the previous manager, Azeglio Vicini, who kept him out during the 1990 World Cup in Italy when he and his skills were so badly needed. So alas, it goes on, and no doubt will do.