Intense scrutiny has top managers fighting for their jobs
Roberto Mancini, Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger: four very different managers, are all under the same pressure. This high-profile quartet are squirming on an unexpectedly hot seat. Instead of celebrating success, at least two of them are likely to leave their clubs at season’s end.
Not one of them saw their team lose this weekend, but only one did enough to at least mute the criticism that had gone from being part of the job to almost inevitably crushing.
And all of them offer an object lesson in how an increasingly impatient society - driven by a news cycle that has gone in short order from round the clock to almost real-time - may be destroying the very things that soccer clubs need to have to prosper: patience, a long-range plan and continuity.
We live a time that has been called the Age of Entitlement, a society that is so driven by high-tech gadgetry and instant, on-demand services that its people have forgotten that just ten short years ago the depth and breadth of international soccer games on offer didn’t exist. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, and very little of the instantaneous critiquing that is now a defining part of the modern sports world.
For high-profile football managers, that has meant a wrenching re-definition of their job.
A decade ago, an Arsenal side sliding off the edge of another trophyless season might not have had to endure the withering criticism that followed Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool. The Gunners now sit a full six points behind Manchester United and don’t look remotely capable of challenging for the title.
Worse, what would have once been a North London soap opera is now an international debate. Arsenal is a world-wide brand; it's no longer a comfortable English club in an oh-so-English league. The creation of the Premier League and global television contracts killed that notion before many in England knew it was happening; today's social media has merely inflated the impact of a performance like Sunday's.
Wenger, an icon at the Emirates, likely isn’t going anywhere, but with a new American majority owner, Stan Kroenke, firmly in the driver’s seat, he is facing a scrutiny that would have been unthinkable even three years ago. His tactics are instantly chopped and diced on message boards across the globe, and it has become journalistic shorthand to note that every Arsenal fan can see what the team is lacking, but the man paid to manage it seemingly cannot.
The same is true for Ancelotti. His Chelsea won Saturday, downing what had been a buoyant West Bromwich Albion side under Roy Hodgson, but that’s hardly enough to save the Italian’s job. Chelsea were supposed to defend their title and also win the Champions League this season, weren’t they? When they came out the gate last August they looked fully capable of dominating at home and abroad, of brushing aside challenges with a display of athleticism and willpower.
Instead, the manager has endured what he himself has called a sleepless season: partisans conveniently forget the toll injuries and the World Cup exertions took on his team. When Frank Lampard missed much of the first half of the year no one stepped forward to take his role. Chelsea went from unbeatable to unlovable in the space of two months.
Unless there is a miracle finish - and that requires a complete collapse from Manchester United - Ancelotti is likely to be sacked come May. That won't solve the problems at Stamford Bridge, of course. It will merely initiate another cycle of new players, a new boss with more cash to spend. The goals won't alter, nor will the shrill dissent: winning has become the only thing at Chelsea.
Mourinho, who saw his Real Madrid side take its first point against Barcelona Saturday in what seems like a dog’s age (it’s really only six games) is also likely to head for the exit. His crime? Not beating his arch-rivals and having the ill-fortune to be facing them in an era when the Catalan side is arguably the best club in modern history.
Despite clearly being the best man-manager in the game, Mourinho hasn’t done enough for the almost irrationally impatient Florentino Perez, a club president who has tried and failed to buy his way to a European Cup since 2001-02 and seems unwilling to admit any culpability.
On Saturday Mourinho showed why he is both a great and controversial manager. Real Madrid didn't come out to attack in its own stadium, instead employing a grim, slow-paced defensive game, trying to squeeze pretty Barcelona to death. For much of the first hour it worked, at the expense of Real's own attacking flair. When a penalty gave the Catalans an opening, simultaneously reducing Mourinho's side to 10-men, a strange thing happened. Forced to attack, Real Madrid suddenly looked much better, more dangerous.
Romantics immediately can blame Mourinho for not having the confidence in his own collection of stars; they'll argue that he ceded too much to Barcelona, that he gave the opponent too much respect. Yet Mourinho is the man whose Inter Milan stopped Barcelona in Europe last year and his approach was as effective as any against the Barca midfield.
The problem, of course, is that Mourinho won't be applauded until he actually beats the arch-rival in the Champions League semifinal, then lifts the trophy, himself, at Wembley in May. Entertainment isn't the issue: it's results.
Then there’s Mancini, slave to a mercurial set of City owners who assembled a huge and massively expensive squad, that immediately began imploding. The debonair Italian also won this weekend, sending arch-rivals United crashing out of the FA Cup in a signature win for the club - but if he fails to secure Champions League football at Eastlands, he’s done.
How that can possibly be true demands an explanation. We are, after all, talking about Manchester City, the "other team" in a city which most of the world thinks has only one. City isn't a big club - ask Sir Alex Ferguson if you don't believe me - but wants to be one. The problem is that fulfilling that desire requires more than purchasing players; you cannot buy the history and tradition in an instant.
Mancini, in fact, probably has done better than could have been expected. He's taken a constantly-changing roster and while nobody will proclaim him a tactical genius - it is hard to decode what kind of game City wants to play - he has managed the egos and actually has City right on the edge of where they want to be. Fail to finish in the top four, however, and that probably won't be good enough.
Of the four, only one has had any sort of time to tend and groom a squad, and that’s Wenger. It’s rather ironic that of the four, he’s almost certain to be left standing despite the fact that his team has lost all spark and his squad decisions, for the second year running, have cost his club the Premiership crown.
Wenger enjoys exactly what the other three men would kill for. His club has never shown impatience and has steadily clung to the idea that you can develop and win with young talent. The fact that this ideal is being shredded by the modern game doesn’t seem to faze them. What's paradoxical is the fact that Arsenal probably needs more of an overhaul at the management level than Chelsea, Man City or Real Madrid.
Were Ancelotti, Mancini and Mourinho to get more time - or more rope, if you wish - you'd expect them to make their clubs into the world-beaters their owners demand. But it’s apparently easier to spend tens of millions on players than it is to endure what has become an insatiable public demand for triumph. And the results are sadly quite plain to see: players shattered before their time, whole development systems gutted for the sake of big-ticket signings, and manager after manager shuttled around like pawns.
Maybe a Real Madrid without Mourinho or an Arsenal without Wenger would be better, but that's far from a sure thing. It’s debatable whether any manger can rein in the out-of-control situations at Stamford Bridge or the Eastlands as long as "instantly" is the most-often heard victory goal.
It’s clear that no matter what folks who know anything about the game say, that the fabulously wealthy men who now own these clubs will continue to spend big on players at the cost of establishing a club with longevity.
Fans should fear this. Soccer is becoming a sport of unsustainable balance sheets and sloppy quick fixes. This is zero-sum gaming at its worst. Must every team win everything now? Wouldn’t fans and owners prefer a team that shows steady performance and a strong club culture? And let's be clear about one thing: who wouldn't want any of these four managers charting the course of their favorite club?
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.