Risky business as clubs want more than just stability

When Southampton’s then-chief executive Nicola Cortese sacked Nigel Adkins in January 2013, it was described as a brutal and bizarre betrayal.

Risky business as clubs want more than just stability

Adkins had won back-to-back promotions to reach the Premier League, Southampton were unbeaten in five matches and had just drawn against Chelsea. But Cortese wanted to see progression not stasis, and so he appointed Mauricio Pochettino.

Since then, Southampton has established itself as a top-flight side and become a model club in many ways: in recruitment, they buy low and sell high (usually to Liverpool) and in player development, there is a regular talent-train getting opportunities in the first team. Other clubs aspire to this model. Southampton’s approach to coaches is also proving an inspiration.

This summer, three Premier League sides changed manager after a season of success. Watford, Leicester and West Ham can all look back on last season with a degree of satisfaction and yet for Slavisa Jokanovic, Nigel Pearson and Sam Allardyce, respectively, it was not enough. Each club now wants the ‘Saints bounce’. The problem with over-reaching, though, is that there are always risks attached.

Watford took the bravest decision of all, sacking a coach who won them promotion and replacing him with a Premier League newcomer, Quique Sanchez Flores. No-one can doubt the Spaniard’s pedigree: he cut his teeth at Getafe in 2005, finished third and fourth with Valencia in 2006 and 2007, and with Atletico Madrid, won the 2010 Europa League and European SuperCup before a surprise three-year sojourn in the UAE. And there is some logic to their argument: every coach has a different profile and those who are expert at winning promotion may not be expert at staving off relegation.

Sanchez Flores is more used to battling at the top end of the table but you can at least credit Watford for looking long-term. They have bought 10 new signings to the club – using the famed Pozzo family model that also works at Udinese and Granada — and so you cannot say that this is now Jokanovic’s team. It already belongs to Sanchez Flores.

In Spain, there is great interest to see how he gets on; not least because his long-term assistant coach, Fran Escriba, is making it on his own, first at Elche (with whom he won promotion and then stayed in La Liga for two seasons) and now at Getafe, where the pair first came to prominence 10 years ago.

Spanish paper La Paradinha repeats local rumours that Sanchez Flores was head coach because of his brilliant front-of-house demeanour and ease with the media, but behind the scenes, Escriba was the tactical genius. Sources at Watford may beg to differ, with Sanchez Flores impressing so far with talk of different tactical systems, and developing “three or four aspects that will identify our play”.

Of the non-promoted sides in the Premier League, the favourite for the drop is Leicester City, whose stunning run of seven wins in its last nine games was not enough to stop Pearson being shown the door. Whether his off-field persona had anything to do with the decision is a moot point, but few have given the Foxes much chance after appointing Claudio Ranieri as his replacement. Ranieri is charismatic and canny, and while his reign as Greece coach was as disastrous as the country’s finances, the Italian has had successful spells at Roma and Monaco since his last spell in England.

The sporting director who appointed him at Monaco, Tor-Kristian Karlsen, recently gave a fascinating insight into why Ranieri won him over. “At that time we had nearly 20 different nationalities in the squad, many of them new arrivals from outside French football, and French was not the main language spoken. It was thus vitally important that our new coach had a track record of working in a multi-cultural environment, was comfortable and confident in such a situation and had the cultural understanding and experience to make such a diverse squad pull in the same direction,” he wrote in The Global Player magazine.

“I wanted a strong, experienced leader who was capable working efficiently during a (sometimes) challenging rebuilding phase. I also felt that someone who had previously worked for big clubs would be preferable to help raise the standard of professionalism at the club.” Karlsen met Ranieri for dinner in Rome and was impressed with his research on the Monaco side and his plans for how the team would line up the next season. “I was also infected by his enthusiasm; he’s a very charismatic man who radiates positivity in a way that’s hard to resist,” he added.

“Straight away, Ranieri and his staff brought an attention to detail that I would imagine was practically unheard of in French football, with a way of preparing the team that was quite revolutionary. Our desire to raise professional standards was met from the off. And as is quite typical of Italian coaches, Ranieri is very practical and pragmatic, keen to study his opponents and the league, adapting where necessary to deliver solutions and, ultimately, delivering the objective of promotion as champions.”

Ranieri has only been relegated once in his career and has laughed off his Tinkerman reputation by claiming, quite rightly, that he was in fact a pioneer because now everyone else rotates their squad. His media image belies a sharp operator who, despite the absence of Esteban Cambiasso, gives Leicester a great chance of avoiding the drop.

That is the minimum requirement for another new coach: Slaven Bilic. The Croatian was not first choice for West Ham’s owners David Gold and David Sullivan, who had approached Rafa Benitez and Unai Emery, despite always saying they wanted a coach with Premier League experience. That seemed a confusing message, especially as they settled on a Premier League rookie, albeit one who used to play for them (but has far from the cult-hero status of Paolo di Canio or Tomas Repka).

Bilic had highs and lows as Croatia coach (both against England, as he beat Steve McClaren’s side home and away but lost heavily to Fabio Capello’s team) and while he won over the fans, media and players in his most recent job at Besiktas, was unable to overhaul the Fenerbahce-Galatasaray duopoly. “The jury is still out when it comes to Bilic’s true managerial quality,” said Croatian journalist Alex Holiga.

West Ham move into the Olympic stadium next year and so cannot afford to slip down the table this year. With Allardyce at the helm, their position in the league was as good as guaranteed. With Bilic, you just never know: it could break into the top seven, or trouble the bottom five. That’s the risk that comes from always wanting more. The downside is a dangerous one: not everyone can do a Southampton.

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