To sack, or not to sack? That is the question. All over the world, at season’s end, sports organisations face self-examination: Should we have sacked the coach? Should we now sack, or retain, the coach? LaLiga is no different.
Right now, with the final weekend still to play, the Primera Division has seen nine clubs change their manager: two of them (Levante and Alaves) twice. Some of this ruthlessness has been very successful (Barcelona, Elche, Getafe); other examples are risible and the football equivalent of tying your shoelaces together, donning a blindfold and then attempting to run without falling flat on your face (Levante and Alaves).
It’s also a decent bet that by this stage next week the number of managers dismissed or released will have inflated.
Monchi, Sevilla‘s director of football, got quite miffed about suggestions that Julen Lopetegui might be shown the door marked “Salida” so that Diego Martinez could be recruited as the next boss. Nobody at San Mames would be surprised if the departure of president Aitor Elizegi, and the onset of elections in late June, might spell an undeserved end to Marcelino’s reign at Athletic Club. Valencia‘s Jose Bordalas is far from immune, and while Unai Emery should be untouchable at Villarreal, so long as he wishes to stay, the fact that he didn’t take the Yellow Submarine into either the Europa League or Champions League will have raised eyebrows among the Roig family, father and son, who are celebrating 25 years running the club. Whether it raised their ire is the key question.
OK, these numbers are a far cry from the prime madness of, say, Jesus Gil, Atletico Madrid‘s president, who oversaw 26 changes of coach in nine years (1986-1995.) Yes, soak that in. A new (or returning) “Mister” taking over every four months on average … for nearly a decade. The itinerant incumbents came from Spain, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Serbia and England. Totally different men, cultures, ideas. Same result!
If you’d like a couple of spot-checks against which to measure 2021-22, then exactly 10 years ago, eight LaLiga clubs changed their coach during the season — some more than once. Twenty years ago the number was much smaller: five clubs chose to sack their manager during the season, two of whom, Zaragoza and Mallorca, changed twice.
The disappointing, and slightly surprising, revelation is that across these three samples (which is by no means exhaustive) the pattern suggests that a midseason change of coach is largely positive. Even if that’s often only by the small margin of a place or two higher up the table.
This season, of the eight clubs who lost faith and looked for new inspiration, five are currently better off in the league table. (Let’s exclude Espanyol, who sacked Vicente Moreno only a few days ago and had secured safety long since.)
Ten years ago, of the eight clubs who passed the eject button, five worked well, two stayed the same, one was negative.
Twenty years ago, four out of the five changes improved or significantly improved the clubs (including Rayo, who replaced Andoni Goikoetxea with Gregorio Manzano and jumped from 19th to 11th) who dared to dump.
But enough with trends and stats. It’s worth looking at some of the myopic stupidity which has surrounded these decisions this season.
La Liga bottom team Alavés claim their 7th win of the season with their 2-1 win over Villarreal.
Let’s take Julio Velazquez’s newly relegated Alaves. On Sunday night their only unquestionably successful, pugnacious and leader on the pitch this season, Joselu, cried in front of the TV cameras while explaining that “we’ve not been up to this challenge all season — this wonderful city [Vitoria] and our brilliant fans deserve so much better.” Fine. Good sentiments. But back in summer 2019, when Abelardo had done a sensational job of coaching Alaves to 11th, three points off a European place and told the board he wanted a new contract, they kicked him out. Ineptitude incorporated.
Since that day, the club have been through seven managers in 33 months. A new guy, on average, every 20 weeks.
Sacking, evidently, can become fully addictive. But a bad habit. New ideas, new systems; largely the same old players. Alaves just seemed to be placing their hand into a hat, pulling out a name and saying: “Yeah! He’ll do!”
Pablo Machin, all wing backs and 3-5-2; Jose Luis Mendilibar, all high press and high, four-man, defensive line; Javier Calleja, the mini-miracle working who, somehow, saved them from the drop last season but who was sacked when the poor recruitment and squad planning, which had nothing to do with him, came home to roost.
Levante saw fit to sack the excellent, reliable Paco Lopez in October, after an admittedly horrendous winless sequence, when they were 18th. His main problem — as at Alaves — was immensely poor squad management (player exits and arrivals) by those above him. All out of his direct control.
Two coaches later, the club are 19th, relegated and have conceded an average of two goals per game: 74 from 37 matches. The previous two seasons, under Lopez, they’d conceded 21 and 17 fewer goals and finished comfortably away from relegation. Sacking “Super-Paco” was a complete screw-up, made still more embarrassing by the way they replaced him.
Javier Pereira looked lost during the three draws and four defeats over which he presided. Alessio Lisci was promoted from the Levante Academy to take over and everyone (including himself and the players) was told it was a “one-game only deal.” Then he was retained until the end of the season after just one result: a 0-0 draw at home to Osasuna.
During all this time there was chaos behind the scenes. It took three months after Lisci was placed in charge for the new director of football, Fernando Minambres, to be appointed. Until Minambres arrived, and publicly backed him, Lisci and his team played eight times and took four points. Half a point a game. Relegation form. Once there was a united front and the players were guided by an authority figure, Levante took 21 points from 14 matches (1.5 per match) beating Atletico, Villarreal and Real Sociedad, and very nearly defeating Barcelona.
The atrocious decision making over several months, in how to prune the squad, in appointing Pereira and then in putting Lisci in place and how it was initially handled (apparently on a whim but without reinforcing his authority in the eyes of the players) literally cost Levante their top-division status. Mind-boggling myopia.
As for two clubs who actually made change work this season, Barcelona and Getafe, their need to make drastic decisions stemmed from their own inability to see what was right in front of them.
At Getafe, choosing Michel to succeed Pepe Bordalas, effectively bringing in a consensus-driven, attack-minded, “let’s all treat each other as colleagues” guy to replace a snarling, dominating sergeant-major was always doomed to fail. The club’s apparent wish to be popular and cuddly after the gristle and grind of Bordalas’ era was going to cost them relegation. It took zero cognisance of what type of players Bordalas had left behind — and how they would still yearn to play.
For Quique Sanchez Flores to take over the bottom club, when Getafe were winless and had scored three times in eight matches, and make them safe with a match left to go is deeply impressive. But why not appoint him in the first place?
Ditto Barcelona. They were soulless, chaotic, vulnerable and ninth when Xavi took over from Ronald Koeman, and they are guaranteed second place now — a slew of huge results under their belt, renewed confidence and identity, plus immune from the financial disaster that nonqualification for the Champions League would have ensured.
In Koeman’s case, if “to sack or not to sack?” was the question, then there’s zero doubt about the answer. He has moaned about it subsequently, but it should, evidently, have happened at the end of last season. Though given that Xavi was discarded as a candidate to take over in May 2021, what does that say about the vision and logic that governed at Camp Nou back then? Precious little.
Clubs, habitually, make the mistake of thinking “new name, new luck” or “it’s not OUR fault that the team’s form stinks, it’s all down to that idiot coach” without taking personal responsibility, without self-examination and without having a clear plan. For those organisations, finding a successful replacement will be no more than a fluke, and any benefits will be temporary.
For those who are relieved of their duties, it’s embarrassing and frustrating, but not career-ending. From the top of this LaLiga downward, Carlo Ancelotti, Lopetegui, Manuel Pellegrini, Marcelino and Emery (all trophy winners across their careers) have been sacked by the likes of Real Madrid, Parma, Juventus, Chelsea, PSG, Spain, Rayo Vallecano, FC Porto, Villarreal, Spartak Moscow and Arsenal over the years.
Ancelotti, now on the verge of making Madrid the champions of both Spain and Europe, the only man to win the title in each of Europe’s top five leagues and already the winner of three Champions League finals, points out the eternal truth: “I was sacked everywhere! We just have to understand that it’s part of our job.”