As the Premier League enters annual sacking season. Jacob Mignano rails against the departures of Steve Clarke and Andre Villas-Boas…
Another weekend of Premier League football has come and gone. And another two managers have found themselves casualties of English football’s brutal win-now-and-at-all-costs nature.
I have never been a fan of knee-jerk firings. Tottenham’s decision to part ways with one of the world’s brightest young managers, following closely behind Steve Clarke’s sacking, reek of the term.
I can’t think of a manager in the past two or three years that has been quite as unlucky as Andre Villas-Boas. He could have been the right man at Chelsea, had he been given the time. As it turned out he was the wrong appointment, as Roman Abramovich searched for a quick-fix for his multi-billion-pound vanity-project.
At Tottenham it seemed Villas-Boas had found a much better fit, but despite having his side one-point better off than they were at the same stage last season – and in the midst of a far more competitive, and unpredictable, league season – he has paid for two humiliating defeats at the hands of Manchester City and Liverpool.
First, let us not overreact to the City result. Arsenal just shipped six at the Etihad this weekend too. Manchester United lost 4-1 there, a result that arguably could have been far worse. Even Gerardo Martino is probably quaking in his boots a little given yesterday’s Champions League last 16 draw, all the while thanking his lucky stars that Barcelona tend to value managerial stability a little more highly than Spurs.
The Liverpool result was horrific. The high-line that Villas-Boas insisted on playing with was torn apart time and time again. A 5-0 home defeat is a bitter pill to swallow; but it hardly warranted sacking the manager.
Tottenham’s problem this season has been their inability to score goals and their difficulty in getting their new signings to bed into the side. Soldado, a £26m buy, has struggled to score from open play, while record-signing Erik Lamela – the club’s third record signing of a carousel summer – can’t even break into the side. But what Levy has failed to realise, just as Abramovich did before him, is that such things take time. And patience. And a touch of managerial stability. Particularly when your best player was shipped to Real Madrid in the summer, and the summer before that too.
Whoever the board appoint now will be tasked with turning things around in a hurry, with a group of players who he has not signed, in the world’s most competitive division. And who’s going to take over anyway? It’s not like quality managers are just sitting around, waiting for a call in December. I’ve heard Fabio Capello linked with the job, but why would he want to take it?
With the World Cup round the corner, and a very manageable group to negotiate, I can’t see the Russia coach wanting to give that up to take over a high-pressure Spurs job. Particularly as his reputation in England isn’t exactly sky-high in the first place; even with his limited English he’d be able to say “thanks, but no thanks”.
It’s a very different scenario over at the Hawthorns. While Villas-Boas was sacked for failing to reach the Champions League last season, and struggling so far in this campaign, Clarke has been dismissed for arguably doing too well last time out. An eighth-place finish in his first season as manager was an outstanding achievement, and it was always going to be tough to replicate it without Romelu Lukaku.
The mystifying signing of Victor Anichebe on transfer deadline day hasn’t helped matters – £6m for a striker who has never proved himself as a Premier League starter, let alone a goal scorer, always looked like a bit of a desperate move.
But the real desperation move is the sacking of Clarke. West Brom are struggling right now, but they have had some good results this season, including beating Manchester United at Old Trafford and coming mightily close to doing the same to Chelsea. Making change for change’s sake is the way to go; Steve Clarke should have been given a chance to turn it round.
Changes like this are almost always usually made to try and spark a change in fortune, in the vain hope that by a new manager coming in and lighting a fire under the players they will have just enough to stay in the league.
It’s worked in the past, but is it always a viable, long-term solution? Look at Paulo Di Canio at Sunderland. He came in for O’Neill, delivered them to safety (not that impressively, I hasten to add), but only lasted five games this season before falling to a fate everyone could see coming from a mile off.
Perhaps Sunderland would have been better off sticking with O’Neill and being relegated last year. At least then they would have had the players and manager in place to bring them straight back up. If they are relegated this year, they will go down with an expensive wage bill and a group of players who were brought in to play for Di Canio. Are they really going to want to stick around for a season in the Championship?
As a side who successfully switched managers in the middle of a Premier League season, Southampton are the blueprint. The sacking of Nigel Adkins and appointment of Mauricio Pochettino was widely decried in the media, but it has proven to be a shrewd decision. Adkins, having achieved back-to-back promotions, was clearly hard done by, and with the Saints three points clear of the relegation zone, arguably could have kept them up.
But the board knew that even if he did, keeping them in the Premier League was as good as it was ever likely to get, and decided the time was ripe for them to make a change and show Southampton to be a team of greater ambition. The Saints under Pochettino have been a revelation, and a place in Europe in only their second year back in the league does not take too much of a leap of the imagination.
It can work, but history says a mid-season managerial change rarely pans out in the long-run. When Southampton did it, they had a clear plan. It didn’t strike me as a spontaneous decision. If West Brom and Tottenham have proven replacements lined up then they may still have a chance at a successful season. If, however, these are merely knee-jerk reactions, then this year’s difficult season could easily extend into next year and beyond.