When Felix Magath goes up against Pepe Mel this afternoon, it will not just be one of the spring’s first and fiercest relegation six-pointers, as West Bromwich Albion, out of the bottom three only on goal difference, entertain Fulham, still stuck to the bottom. It is also a test for a new concept in the game, a feature of recent years: the foreign manager as firefighter.
Both Magath and Mel have been thrown in, with much of the season already gone, tasked with rescuing their teams and keeping them in the top flight. The presumption in English football has traditionally been that while foreign managers can build for the long term, for instant impact in hard times you need someone who knows the league, like Roy Hodgson at West Brom, Harry Redknapp or Mark Hughes at Queen’s Park Rangers, Martin O’Neill at Sunderland or Sam Allardyce at Blackburn Rovers.
But there is a new feeling now in the game that intimate knowledge of the league might not always be needed, that managers can produce the short-term upturn required without having worked in the Premier League before. It certainly takes hard work. A new approach to training tends to be the definitive characteristic of such a change. Even if there is not always enough time to teach the players a new way of playing, you may just be able to spark a reaction from them.
One of Magath’s first acts as Fulham head coach – even before he released Ray Wilkins and Alan Curbishley from their roles – was to cancel a scheduled day off last Sunday. “The most important thing for me is to get the players together and to work as fast as we can,” Magath said as he was unveiled at Craven Cottage on Thursday. “The players have to know me and they have to try to understand what I want. I have to understand the players and I have to think about what I can ask for.”
Time is the most important resource for new managers. The best recent example of a mid-season imported manager is Mauricio Pochettino, who controversially replaced Nigel Adkins last January, but guided Southampton to comfortable Premier League safety with wins over Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. This season Pochettino took Saints into the European positions, and they now look set for a top-half finish.
Southampton sacked Adkins after an admirable 2-2 draw at Chelsea, but part of the thinking behind the dismissal was that Saints had a nine-day break after their next game, free time in which Pochettino could work with the players. He took them to Barcelona for a warm-weather mini pre-season, working on the principles of fitness and pressing that won them the games that kept them up. The players still find his intense training very difficult, but it is working. Magath and Mel must hope that they have a similar impact.
Increasing the level of training is the most common way of kick-starting something. Magath insisted on Thursday that no one had died in any of his fierce physical boot camps, as if anything short of that was acceptable. When Roberto Mancini arrived at Manchester City, in December 2009, he instituted new double sessions, working the players far harder than Hughes had done. It did not go down particularly well with all the players.
Craig Bellamy described in his recent autobiography just how hard Mancini drove the players, even though Bellamy had other plans owing to a long-term knee injury. “He said I had to train every day. I told him I couldn’t because of my injury history. He said I had to do double sessions – morning and afternoon – and I told him I couldn’t.”
Mancini made some impact with City in his first season. They were sixth when he took over and finished fifth, but did win the FA Cup in 2011 and Premier League in 2012. With any mid-season addition, there are short-term and long-term targets and one does not always imply the other.
There are times when the short-term impact can backfire. Paolo Di Canio was not quite as new to English football as Magath, Mel or Pochettino, arriving from the lower leagues, and after having played very successfully in England for much of his career. But he tried to manage by radical culture change, and while Sunderland found the two wins they needed in April last year to keep them up, it was never going to last. Di Canio lost his job early this season.
Nevertheless Sunderland are better off for being in the Premier League than the Championship. The issue is how much short-termism is too much, and whether instant upswings can be made permanent. Juande Ramos arrived at Tottenham Hotspur in October 2007, taking over a team that had rather lost its way under Martin Jol, taking seven points from their first 11 games. He immediately found an environment he did not like.
“It was like a wedding buffet, cakes, pastries, sauces – and that was what they ate regularly,” Ramos remembered in a recent interview. “Honestly, there were players who were fat.” Ramos improved results, guiding them back up the table and winning the 2008 League Cup. But his changes soon became too restrictive and Ramos was replaced by Redknapp, a more conventional impact manager, the following year.
Rafael Benitez’s time in charge of Liverpool, starting in the summer of 2004, was a longer-term success, as he won an FA Cup and Champions League and built a team which finished second in the Premier League in 2008-09. But that needed a short-term cultural change too.
Benitez introduced more Mediterranean ingredients into the cooking at Melwood, removing the frozen food lunches and beans before kick-off. Benitez, in that field, followed Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, the paradigm example of cultural shift improving results, in the short and long term.
Language, though, is the last great hurdle, the problem that will always afflict foreign managers, even the very best. Benitez’s English was good when he arrived, as is Magath’s and Mel’s now, but even then it can be hard to convey messages perfectly. Early on in his reign, Benitez was taking a session in a heavy gale, which was disrupting Steven Gerrard’s crosses to Peter Crouch.
“Stevie,” Benitez said, “be careful with the wine.” Some players laughed but few understood. Benitez soon realised that he meant wind.