It is repugnant to bet on people losing their jobs, but that does not stop the bookmakers setting odds on which Premier League manager will be the first to leave his post. Barely a month into the campaign the 20-strong field already appears reduced to three: Brendan Rodgers, Steve McClaren and Dick Advocaat.
This is unsurprising. Liverpool are performing way below expectations while Newcastle and Sunderland prop up the Premier League. The three clubs have managed five wins in 24 matches between them, three against League Two opposition, with Liverpool requiring penalties to beat Carlisle in midweek. As is the way in football, the men at the top are taking the blame. But is it really their fault?
Rodgers is most vulnerable as after three years and three months at Anfield he has had long enough to put his stamp on the squad and playing philosophy. Advocaat arrived at Sunderland just six months ago and spent the back end of last season firefighting in a successful attempt to keep Sunderland up. McClaren only came to Tyneside in June.
Yet all three suffer from the same problem: they are working with players who are not necessarily their choice. The first thing any coach learns, from under-eights upwards, is that the game really is about players. If you have good players you have the makings of a good team. If you have bad players the best you can hope for, however good the organisation and coaching, is a competent team.
Managers in England traditionally recruit their own players, using the transfer market to fill gaps in their inheritance and upgrade standards. In recent years, however, an increasing number of clubs have moved towards a Continental model in which transfers are either taken out of the manager’s hands, or conducted in tandem with an executive who answers to the owner. The logic is obvious. With managers rarely surviving longer than two years, but players’ contracts usually lasting three to five, clubs increasingly found themselves paying large wages to players signed by the previous manager but not rated by the incumbent.
The new approach can work, but it requires very good relationships between those involved. Imagine a club needs a left-back. Ideally the manager tells the director of football, or head of recruitment, the type of left-back he wants. This might be someone who overlaps well, or is defensively strong to complement a left-winger who does not track back, or is good on his right foot so he can cover an ageing left-sided central defender, and so on. The director of football, working within the owner’s budget, then presents him with such a player, or maybe a choice of two or three.
When it goes wrong, however, a manager might feel like Rafael Benitez, who famously said regarding a transfer when he was coaching Valencia: “I asked for a table and they bought me a lampshade.”
Liverpool’s recruitment is now in the hands of a transfer committee, having initially been run by a director of football. Rodgers has input but the acquisitions since Luis Suarez left suggest a warehouse of unwanted furniture has been left outside his office. Rodgers now has a £32m record signing centre-forward in Christian Benteke who thrives on service from wide areas, but no real wingers, just several players who can play wide but prefer to cut inside. Rodgers is understood to have wanted Benteke; whether Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi were his choices is less clear.
It is the same in the North-east. Sunderland have a sporting director, Lee Congerton; Newcastle’s recruitment is led by chief scout Graham Carr. In both cases the manager has a voice, but not a loud one.
Newcastle openly focus on buying young players, usually foreign, with re-sale potential. The problem with this is that they lack experience, particularly in the Premier League, and it has shown this autumn.
If Sunderland have a purchasing policy it is not immediately obvious what it is. The only thing that links Younes Kaboul, Adam Matthews, Jeremain Lens and Ola Toivonen appears to be that they were available.
Nonetheless, even allowing that the managers are not working with squads of their own choosing, these teams are under-performing.
Rodgers and McClaren, in particular, have reputations as hands-on coaches who are happiest on the training ground. They should be capable of moulding their squads into better teams. Yet the treadmill of fixtures militates against this – it is no coincidence that Rodgers’ best season at Liverpool came when he did not have any European fixtures to deal with and went out early in the cups.
It takes time to re-shape a team tactically, especially when a manager tinkers the way Rodgers has been doing. The endangered three need a quicker fix.
The most immediate need is to lift players mentally. In the wake of Liverpool being frustrated by Carlisle, the club’s former defender John Scales tweeted: “I’ve experienced fear of playing, I’ve played in teams with fear. It’s crippling and only the boldest survive. Time to show who’s brave. A manager can’t make someone brave but he can make them feel 10 feet tall and a team play boldly.”
There is hope for Rodgers in the opposing dugout. Tim Sherwood’s sack race odds lengthened sharply after Aston Villa defeated Birmingham in midweek. Sometimes one big result is all it takes to revive a team’s confidence. That could be winning a derby – the Merseyside version is in a fortnight, Tyne-Wear in a month – or unexpectedly. Newcastle host Chelsea, Sunderland are at Manchester United. Neither is expected to win, which may be just what they need. With no expectation of victory the players can play without fear.
A revival, however, may not be sustained. There are deep-seated structural problems at each these clubs, all of which appear to be run at arms’ length by their owners. Until these are resolved it does not matter who the manager is, they will continue to under-achieve.
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