At the start of the month, Gerard Houllier, Roy Hodgson, Carlo Ancelotti and Avram Grant all appeared to be staring down the barrel of the proverbial gun as their teams turned in insipid performances. With Hodgson now gone at Liverpool, it is Grant’s position which is most at risk as West Ham’s board increasingly search for an excuse to part ways with the Israeli; though club co-chairman David Gold is doing his best to keep David Sullivan’s fingers off the trigger.
It is worth taking some time to consider the reasons for the increased pressure on managers in the Premier League since the turn of the year, particularly as the first half of the season was notably quiet. The first casualty was Newcastle’s Chris Hughton, followed by Blackburn’s Sam Allardyce. The first was widely seen as a particularly harsh decision, whilst Allardyce was doing a good job of keeping Blackburn’s necks above water in the great Premiership relegation fight. That said, at least the club’s new owners could point to the dull and cumbersome football being played as a legitimate reason to fire the former Bolton manager.
But Hodgson, Grant, Houllier and Ancelotti all have one thing in common, other than fearing for their jobs in the last month. They have been brought into clubs who, for varying reasons, are attempting to rebuild. Chelsea have an ageing squad and unsustainable wage bill that forced them to offload a number of players this summer. Liverpool sacked Rafael Benitez and are still recovering from the carnage of the Tom Hicks/George Gillet rein, combined with the failure to qualify for the Champions League last year.
Aston Villa lost Martin O’Neill, who left the club with a huge wage bill as a result of several average players, such as Luke Young, Nigel Reo Coker and Steve Sidwell, bought for excessive prices due to the Irishman’s fondness for British players. As a result, this was a club with an average squad, a financial mess and having lost a manager who had the team playing considerably above their default capabilities. West Ham are still recovering from their own reckless finances, imposed on them by the Icelandic regime who brought them Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano and…err, Lucas Neill.
It is both obvious and pressing that players need to take more responsibility for the problems at these clubs. They have been signed for huge sums and some are not just poor players, but they are incapable of motivating themselves, or summoning the required determination to help improve their club’s position. It is understandable that teams will panic, particularly when threatened with relegation, but the reaction is always to remove the manager; a less expensive option than replacing poor players. West Ham may rid themselves of Grant, but what is anyone to do with players such as Luis Boa Morte and Julian Faubert?
What makes poor players play even worse, is when someone else takes the blame for their poor performances. This is precisely what happens when a Premier League team changes managers too often (Liverpool and West Ham take note). If a player knows that his poor form is likely to see someone else face the consequences, then they are going to feel naturally less inclined to improve their own performances. It is a curious tendency of fans and media alike to blame managers whilst detaching blame from players who are usually the close friends of those in the media shielding them from criticism. England are the prime example of this; Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello have both been labelled useless in the eyes of the English for failing to get the best out of a group of players deemed to be world class. It has not occurred to anyone that the players may be at fault; and thus the cycle of failure is reinforced by the refusal to acknowledge this situation.
There are other factors as well. The modern media, with its focus on the immediate results of teams and the magnifying of small cracks to make those appear like huge cazzums, is guilty. It places disproportionate and incorrect significance on individual results, and often individual errors. The key to success will come from a focus on the longer term, rather than looking narrowly at the results of today.
All of which begs the question, are owners merely opting for long term misery to stave off short term pain? By taking a punt on managers who will deliver a better today, owners seem to be falling into the trap of failing to consider the longer term. How will a manager bring sustained success to a team, without being given the time to devise a plan, sow its seeds and nurture the team? West Ham are falling into this trap now. They may remove Grant, who may take them into the Championship, and replace him with someone like Allardyce, and he may keep them in the Premiership. For the next year, the situation will be better for them, but they will never achieve the kind of success they hope for if they opt for average coaches like Allardyce without giving good managers like Grant the time to implement their ideas.
The sad truth though, is that teams are forever preoccupied with results, and in a league becoming more competitive with the margins between success and failure narrowing, the temptation to change will naturally increase. And with it, the number of managers losing their jobs will also spiral beyond all control.