Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Premier League Sack Race

As you probably know, I am a Norwich City supporter - so the current Premier League season has so far provided me with relatively few good times.  Yesterday's game away at West Ham, however, was a particularly low point...

Despite playing well, creating lots of chances, and seeming to dominate play for prolonged periods, Norwich failed to score, and ended up paying the price for that wastefulness in front of goal as West Ham scored twice late on to take all the points - leaving the Canaries travelling home to Norfolk empty-handed.

This is not the first time this season that we have found ourselves in the situation of being easily the better team on the pitch, and still coming away with no points to show for it (Manchester United at home and Cardiff away are both prime examples of this).  But the loss to West Ham last night - coming at a time when the team and supporters were full of confidence following a well-deserved and highly creditable draw with Manchester City just a few days before, and when all the teams in the lower regions of the League table are bunching up close together on points - is the one which has stung the most.

Predictably, Norwich fans were queueing up on social media to stick the knife into the club's management hierarchy - with first team manager Chris Hughton unsurprisingly coming in for the majority of the flack.  Despite being the usual illiterate, ad hominem rubbish which usually makes me embarrassed to call myself a football fan, these supporters do have a point; their anger and their frustrations are completely understandable.  Clearly, something needs to change.  The question now is: what?

As I pointed out in a similar post back in November, sacking the manager never has been (and never will be!) a 'silver bullet' to end footballing woes.  No matter how much the fans are baying for blood, it is always a much more complex issue than that.

Some City supporters are pointing out the upswing in Sunderland's fortunes since they changed their manager earlier in the season; I think it is short-sighted and foolish to compare our situation with Sunderland's.  But that does raise an interesting point; of the seven Premier League sides to part company with their bosses so far this season, how many have benefitted?  Let's take a look...

Paolo Di Canio - Sunderland AFC (sacked: 22nd September 2013)

Since jettisoning Di Canio, Sunderland have brought in ex-Brighton & Hove Albion manager Gus Poyet, who has done a fantastic job of lifting the Black Cats (formerly tipped as almost certain relegation candidates) out of the Bottom Three and towards the middle of the table.  Poyet seems to have restored harmony to a dressing room left divided and dispirited by the controversial and unpopular Di Canio, as well as bring back into the fold various players who found themselves marginalised under the previous regime and galvanising the spirit of the team as a whole.

Has it worked?  Overall, a great success, and with Poyet at the helm, Sunderland have at least given themselves a fighting chance of surviving the drop.

Ian Holloway - Crystal Palace (sacked: 23rd October 2013)

Despite being a fun, likeable figure in football, it quickly became clear to Palace that Holloway was somewhat out of his depth in the top flight, and the decision was taken to bring in former Stoke City boss Tony Pulis - a manager not without his critics, but with plenty of Premier League experience, and the distinction of never having been relegated English football's elite division.

Has it worked?  As with Sunderland before them, Crystal Palace have benefitted hugely from their managerial change - previously everybody's favourites to go straight back down to the Championship, under Pulis they now look like a team capable of holding their own in the Premier League.

Martin Jol - Fulham FC (sacked: 1st December 2013)

A run of abject results which saw Fulham propping up the Premier League in 20th place, coupled with the marked improvement in close relegation rivals Crystal Palace and Sunderland following managerial changes, did for Dutchman Jol.  Instead of bringing in a new manager from outside the club, Fulham promoted René Meulensteen to the hot seat from within their existing coaching structure.

Has it worked?  No.  Despite a few glimmers of hope (such as the nail-biting draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford last weekend, and the capture of highly-rated German midfielder Lewis Holtby on load from Tottenham in the January Transfer Window), the Cottagers are still in the Drop Zone, fighting a fierce relegation fight - and their fortunes are, for the most part, no better than they were under Jol.

Steve Clarke - West Bromwich Albion (sacked: 14th December 2013)

Following a brilliant debut season as a manager last year, Steve Clarke's sacking in the middle of December was one of the more unexpected moves of the current Premier League season.  Whilst not exactly matching the success and glory of their 2012-13 campaign, Albion were not in an especially bad position when Clarke went, and had achieved some decent results to boot (beating Manchester United at Old Trafford in wonderful style, in particular).  A few weeks later, the Baggies brought in Pepe Mel as Clarke's replacement.

Has it worked?  No.  West Brom find themselves one place (and one point) above the Relegation Zone, and despite holding Chelsea to a 1-1 draw yesterday, it is difficult to see at this stage why those in authority at The Hawthorns think Mel is particularly an improvement on Clarke.  West Brom's slump in form from last season to this seems to be much more closely linked to losing key attacking talent from the 2012-13 season (most notably Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku, who spent last season on loan at The Hawthorns from parent club Chelsea) than any managerial deficiencies.

André Villas-Boas - Tottenham Hotspur (sacked: 16th December 2013)

As pressure mounted on Villas-Boas to improve results after spending so much money on so many new (and mostly highly-regarded) players over the summer, the Portuguese began to run out of excuses - and, as tensions flared within the club in the weeks preceding his exit, it became clear to us all that the writing was on the wall as far as his future at Spurs was concerned.  Like Fulham, Tottenham chose to promote an existing member of their coaching setup - Tim Sherwood - rather than bring in somebody new from outside the club in their quest for that ever elusive Top Four spot and the Champions League place that would come with it.

Has it worked?  Sort-of.  But not really.  Like Poyet at Sunderland, Sherwood has brought players who were passed over by Villas-Boas back in from the cold - especially striker Emmanuel Adebayor, who has since repaid his new manager's faith in him by becoming Spurs' top scorer in the post-AVB era.  As a result of the change of style, Spurs are a noticeably better team now - but in League table terms they are no closer to their goal of a Top Four finishing position now than in December (Spurs are 3pts off 4th place, as things stand - the same points margin as at the end of December 2013), and I can see them missing out again this season.

Malky Mackay - Cardiff City (sacked: 27th December 2013)

Another sacking which came as no surprise to those who had followed the unhappy saga of Cardiff's first season back in the top flight, Mackay was finally given his marching orders after weeks of agonising at the end of December.  Unlike Malaysian owner Vincent Tan - whose decision it was to remove him - Mackay was popular with the fans and the players, and the sympathies of the football world were entirely on his side when Tan inevitably showed him the door.  Former Manchester United star Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was brought in shortly afterwards.

Has it worked?  No.  Cardiff remain bottom of the table, looking likely to be relegated.  Whether the situation would be any better had Mackay remained in charge in uncertain, but that things have not improved at Cardiff since the change is self-evident.

Michael Laudrup - Swansea City (sacked: 4th February 2014)

This decision has caused considerable consternation within the footballing world.  Just as at West Brom, the consensus seems to be that a very capable manager was just unable quite to live up to his triumphant debut season, and has since paid the price.  Central defender Garry Monk, who has been at the club as a player since 2004, was elevated to 'Player-Manager' status for the remainder of the season.

Has it worked?  Rather too early to say - but Monk has been a Swansea man for ten years, and the Swans aren't going to be relegated this season, so it may prove a success in the long run.  That's not to say Swansea wouldn't have been just as successful had they stuck with Laudrup, though...

Of those seven managerial changes, only two (or possibly three, if you include Spurs) have demonstrably been changes for the better.  In those cases, too, there have been clear indications as to what the issues are that need addressing - at Sunderland (and, to a slightly lesser extent, at Spurs), issues with performances were mainly due to unrest off the pitch, and under a new manager those wounds have been allowed to heal, and previously ostracised players have been brought back into the fold, bringing unity and focus back to the club.

At Norwich, we don't have that situation.  The players are not angry.  There is no unrest in the dressing room (so far as we, as outsiders, can tell, anyway).  Some supporters may claim that Hughton is out of his depth in the Premier League, as Ian Holloway was at Crystal Palace - but Holloway didn't record victories over Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal in his first season in the top division.

The trouble I see with sacking Hughton is that it is risky.  It is a huge gamble to take - especially at this stage in the season.  We could be another Sunderland or Crystal Palace, yes - but we could just as easily end up another Fulham, Cardiff or West Brom.  In my opinion, Hughton should go only when it is certain we would be able to replace him with somebody better - not somebody as good, but somebody better.

The usual brigade of "act-first-think-later" fans on the Norwich City Facebook page are full of suggestions as to suitable replacements for Hughton.  At various points throughout this season, Malky Mackay, Gianfranco Zola, Neil Lennon, Roberto Di Matteo, Martin O'Neill and Micky Phelan have all been touted as potential new Canaries bosses.

Mackay is a Norwich City legend as a former player, and a very likeable and popular figure, but I don't believe he is objectively any better as a manager than Hughton.

Zola is unproven in the Premier League, and was sacked by Watford this season being unlikely to scale the play-off heights of last year.

Lennon would never want to leave Celtic for Norwich.

Di Matteo is a good manager, but again I struggle to see why he would want to come to Norwich after winning the Champions' League in his last managerial post.

O'Neill is managing the Irish national team now.  Once again - why would he want to come to Norwich now?!

Phelan could be a good option - although technically unproven as a manager, he does have significant experience of coaching in the top flight, and of working alongside the most successful manager of the Premier League.

One option which hasn't (yet) been put forward, though, is Michael Laudrup.  Recently out-of-work, and someone who is (in my opinion, at least) certainly a step up from Hughton, I think it would definitely be worth the club's while to approach Laudrup and see if they can get him in.

The trouble with sacking the manager is not sacking the manager - it's what you do after you've sacked him.  The fans whose apoplectic comments are blowing up the Norwich City Facebook page don't seem to realise this; they are angry (and with good cause), and they want to see someone suffer as a result - they want their pound of flesh.  What they don't have is any meaningful solutions to the challenges facing the football club, beyond simple revenge upon those they perceive to have wronged them.

At this juncture, I would not be averse to a managerial change at all - providing it is a rational, well-thought-out decision made in the hard light of day, not a knee-jerk reaction driven by emotion and rage.  And, unless we can be sure of bringing in a new manager who will be a distinct improvement on the last - well, at this stage of the season, it's better the devil you know.

1 comment:

Rhys Benjamin said...

Found this months on. As a Fulham fan, I think René Meulensteen was FAR better than Jol and Magath - it did work had it not been for our ridiculous schedule under Meulensteen! In a lot of Meulensteen's game we deserved something from the game but came away empty-handed (I count five matches in that scenario plus a draw at Old Trafford when we should have won - and we won three others, only four out of 13 did we deserve to lose): against Tottenham, we only lost thanks to two wonderstrikes; against Everton, we should have drawn that match but lost it; we deserved a point against Man City with the game at 2-2 with 20 minutes remaining; we were denied two clear penalties at the Emirates and lost 2-0; we should have got something out of the Liverpool match but for a last minute penalty. Meulensteen was fantastic for us. That decision to sack him in Feb was awful.

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