The Antidote to Ambition

We’ve reached that time of the season again. Silly season. November and December see clubs panicking and sacking managers everywhere as their seasons don’t pan out quite how they had hoped. But what is perhaps most fascinating about the managerial merry-go-round at this time of the season is just how far clubs will reject the high-minded ideals they prepared for in the summer, in order to stay in the land of milk and honey.

West Ham spent the best part of £50m in the summer. Not a huge amount, in the scheme of things at this moment in time, but not pennies either. It also doesn’t take into account the free transfer of Pablo Zabaleta and the loan of Joe Hart from Manchester City. Chicharito is a cultured centre-forward, if prone to goal-droughts (he didn’t score between February and the end of last season) and Marko Arnautovic, the biggest signing of the summer, has the ability to create from nothing, alongside the kind of physical game only developed in the potteries. The Hammers may have lost Dmitri Payet last season, but clearly Slaven Bilic wanted the kind of technical side that Payet thrives in.

Everton, in the meantime, spent £150m on new players, bringing in the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Davy Klaasen and a returning Wayne Rooney. Sure, they lost Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United, and haven’t adequately replaced him, but given the football that Ronald Koeman played, and that which he had successfully implemented at Southampton, it is pretty clear where he wanted to take the team. The criticism that he was waiting for the Barcelona job is another clue to the style he wanted – Guardiola is the measure by which all managers of the passing game are judged. Few stand up well to that kind of scrutiny, and Koeman, like Bilic, has now paid the price.

Both sides are undeniably having bad seasons. Everton’s win over West Ham might give the them some hope, but the London side are in all kinds of trouble. So both have turned to firefighters – “traditional British managers” if you will – who will insist on a determination from their team to beat the drop that, the prevailing wisdom seems the be, cultured European managers are less interested in. This seems an obvious decision, because who wants to be relegated, but at what cost?

Chris Anderson and David Sally argue in The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong that changing a manager has little effect on a team – it is at their lowest point that a manager is sacked, and they would usually have seen an upturn in their fortunes anyway. Any long-time readers will know that I don’t necessarily agree with their statistical approach but on this, who knows? Everybody agrees that most managers are sacked too soon, and that more time should be given. Perhaps they could turn it around, or perhaps they couldn’t. But perhaps they should be allowed to underachieve, even fail, once in a while. When Slaven Bilic and Ronald Koeman (and Roberto Martinez, for that matter) were appointed, it was to great fanfare and expectation. They brought with them a new, progressive style that fans and boards hoped would take them into Europe, possibly even a challenge to Champions League places.

Slaven Bilic was a world away from Sam Allardyce, the man he replaced, and Big Sam was removed because he didn’t play the passing style of football West Ham believe they promote. Everton have demonstrated even longer term commitment to their project, with Martinez beginning a process and being replaced by a similar manager in Koeman. David Moyes organisational principles were sacrificed for free-flowing, exciting, attacking football. Not necessarily wrongly, but perhaps over-enthusiastically, both sides sought pretty football. With a couple of superstars (Payet and Lukaku, respectively), they saw some success. And now, they have both thrown it away.

It is one of the ironies of the football world that there are only a few acceptable managers for getting sides out of trouble, so West Ham have appointed former Everton man Moyes, and Everton have appointed former West Ham man Allardyce. But the result for both will be the same – organised, defensive football. It might keep them in the Premier League. It might not. But given both sets of fans’ fondness for a more attractive style, sure neither can last long. Karren Brady argued in the past that Moyes was taking Everton for a ride having never won a trophy. Well he now has a couple of sackings and a relegation to his name as well, so he’s probably ripping her off too. He’s only got a contract until the end of the season, so maybe the Hammers will reassess and get back on track with another new manager in the summer, but the damage will be done. Two and a half years ago organised, efficient football wasn’t good enough, and they began a project to build a football club into something else. It was a worthy ambition. In six months, they will have to start again.

Everton, also, will be taken back to the kind of football they haven’t seen for a number of years. Sam Allardyce is a perfectly good manager, but is he the right man to take them toward the Champions League (whatever their obstacles, in the last couple of seasons the Toffees have been the closest side to turning the top 6 into the top 7)? They clearly thought Ronald Koeman was that man, and while the lack of centre-forward seems an easy diagnosis for their problems, they have had more trouble than just a lack of goals. However, in four years since Roberto Martinez took charge at Goodison, they have had real progression in their playing style, and a single bad season (or two, if we include the one that saw Martinez removed) has derailed the entire direction of the club. Allardyce had 18 months, which means three transfer windows – more than enough time to shape the club in his own image. He might be successful (as might Moyes) and see Everton back into Europe, but how long will fans enjoy his direct style, having been so enamoured with their passing football?

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  • Perhaps I’m being harsh. Falling from the Premier League is a huge step, and the financial implications (especially for these two, who have spent freely) could be disastrous. Of course, Allardyce has been revered in the north west before, and Moyes’ Everton, at the end of his reign, were also a pretty exciting side. But neither side have appointed a manager for his progressive approach. They have appointed people who they hope will organise the defence, stop conceding goals, and win at all costs. Its not necessarily a bad thing to want – Jose Mourinho is one of the most sought-after managers in world football for a similar approach – but it is clear that the ambition to emulate that Barcelona style (lets be honest, its what most clubs are trying to do) has been lost, dashed on the rocks of a relegation fight. What could those clubs have become if Koeman and Bilic were given the time to turn it around? Or even the opportunity to be relegated and come back with a newly confident side? West Ham had a few good seasons when they returned from the Championship five years ago.

    But it is probably too much to hope that a club will take those steps to build a club that plays good, attacking football and isn’t so terrified of losing that they show the ambition to entertain. The perils of relegation for everybody are too great. West Ham and Everton aren’t the only culprits. Swansea and Southampton are the favourites to lose their manager next. Both of them have invested for many years in a progressive, ‘continental’ style. What chances one of them turns to Tony Pulis before Christmas? We all like the Welshman, but his appointment, like those of Allardyce and Moyes, are an antidote to this ambition. None of them fit their clubs.

    Instead, maybe they should take a leaf out of Burnley’s book. Sure, Sean Dyche is much more in the Sam Allardyce than the Pep Guardiola mould, but he was allowed to be relegated and survive, he was allowed to fight against relegation last season and survive, and now he is the most sought-after manager in the Premier League. At the very least, there are managers out there who would continue the project. Nobody thought to give Thomas Tuchel a call? Walter Mazzarri? How about Koeman or Bilic swapping clubs?

    In the Premier League, when something isn’t working, you make a change. Trouble is, this kind of change is a backward step. And a backward step can never be on the way to a brighter future. It’s not just about the players you sign, the money you spend, the manager you appoint. Sometimes, ambition is the time you give to a project. It is lacking in football today.

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