As another captivating year of football in Europe sizzles to a close, board members from around the continent hold integral meetings, assess the season a whole, pinpoint what went well or what went wrong, and identify ‘tweaks to the current roster’ – sackings . Sadly, at this time of year, they are as ripe as ever. And I say sadly because I mean sadly. Too often in football do we act with such flippancy on managers losing their jobs, jeering “you’re getting sacked in the morning”, betting on who will be the next to get the chop, and telling them to “f*** off” on social media after a couple of poor results . Yes, we let our passion get the better of us sometimes but it is no real excuse. What you forget is that in modern day professional football, managers devote their entire lives to the club. It takes hour after hour of training ground drills, opposition research and tactical preparation. It takes travelling all across the continent. It takes the rollercoaster of the pain of the lows, and the thrills of the highs. And then it’s all gone. You’re a failure. “I remember that sense of hopelessness, having to go home and tell my kids I’ve lost my job,” Gareth Southgate powerfully recalled in the new BBC show: ‘A Royal Team Talk’, a mental health awareness-raiser. Harsh, sackings can be, but nonetheless necessary at times.
Make no bones about it, Massimiliano Allegri is, and will forever be, a legend of Juventus Football Club. Five consecutive Scudetti, four consecutive Italian league cups and two Champions League Finals. The old lady have been relentless under his guidance. When a club wins a league almost effortlessly for a sustained period, as Juventus have done over the past eight seasons, it undermines the achievement- rather than adorns it. PSG make Ligue 1 look like farmer’s league, the Bundesliga is becoming a foregone conclusion before it even starts, and it’s pretty telling that Allegri was given the boot after securing his 5th consecutive Scudetti. Though, as much as we malign these clubs for their embarrassment of riches, warding off renewed, hungry competition year in year out is no mean feat. Napoli pushed Juve right to the wire last season, Bayern were 7 points behind Dortmund in November and the likes of Lyon and Monaco have given PSG a good run for their money in recent years- the latter actually winning the title in 2017. It is in Europe though, where seasons are defined for these ‘superclubs’. And Juve have fallen short too often.
Allegri isn’t exactly your modern, charismatic aesthete. His Juventus team revolves around defensive solidity, and a high energy midfield providing freedom to the frontmen. It’s a reactive system, and one that relies on individual brilliance in attack. Over the past 5 European seasons, The Old Lady have never “bottled it”, or “chocked”, despite being one of the favourites every year. This season, the vibrant youngsters of Ajax just edged them with that extra pace in the quarter-final second leg; last season, again in the quarters, a dubious penalty decision in the 97th minute handed Real Madrid the tie. And then there were two finals. Barça in 2015, Madrid in 2017. Outclassed both times. Juve can’t seem to break the glass ceiling, even after brining in arguably the greatest Champions League performer of all time, Cristiano Ronaldo. It signified urgent change, and that starts from the top. Allegri departs with his head held high, with chairman, best friend and flat-mate Andrea Agnelli bidding an emotional farewell in an emotional final press-conference. But they desperately- and urgently considering their humongous expenditure on the wages of Ronaldo, Ramsey etc. – need something new, an injection of freshness, to retain their place at the summit of Europe for the first time since 96.
In terms of replacements for Allegri, options aren’t too plentiful. Sarri stands out as an obvious candidate, considering his stylistic brand of football and high regard held among the Italian media. Ronaldo and Sarri together though ? Come on, that’s never going to work. Sarrismo requires players willing to put the team before themselves, for every player to contribute to the passing moves, which Ronaldo doesn’t necessarily bring to the table. And there’s not a chance in hell Juve will clear out Ronaldo to make way for a manager. He is, as is described in NFL, The Old Lady’s ‘franchise cornerstone’. Guardiola or Pochettino ?- far too much money to prise away from their respective clubs and then fund their hefty wages. Simone Inzaghi, though, is a realistic proposition. The young Italian manager guided Lazio to within a hairs width of the top four last year on limited resources, and also won the Italian Cup on Wednesday. He improves players, brings a positive brand of football, and has shown he is tactically astute in his flexibility of systems and judicious substitutions.
Graham Potter- once labelled the ‘English Guardiola’. Although maybe a slightly outlandish comparison, his footballing philosophy does emulate that of the two-time Champions League winning Spaniard. Potter’s Swansea love to control possession, move defences around and then pounce into gaps. The Swans played some of the best football in the Championship last season, and finished a respectable 10th on low resources, while often finding themselves on the wrong side of luck. They even showed up Manchester City themselves in the FA cup, going 2-0 up after a wonderful, free-flowing passing move for the second. City eventually clawed it back, though it proved to be their toughest challenge of the whole competition.
There’s something about Brighton that seems like an ideal destination for Potter. For a Premier League club that reels in around 30,000 fans every week, The Seagulls go under the radar. They get limited media attention, limited televised matches and rarely spark heated debates or discussion. They kind of just sit there. Potter is free to experiment with his new squad, try out new players in new positions, abandon this ‘safety first’ culture developed by Chris Hughton. There are bound to be cracks in the system at first, it is a given when switching from two managers almost the antithesis of each other. Hughton was an ultra-conservative, and Potter’s ethos is all about being positive on the ball, taking risks and playing on the front-foot. For starters, the outstanding yet traditional centre-back pairing of Dunk and Duffy are going to need to get more comfortable on the ball. Glenn Murray, well, won’t be able to do what Glenn Murray does best. Namely, knock down long balls and finish scraps in the six yard box. Potter needs a striker willing to link play, as Oliver McBurnie did for him at Swansea. In truth, should the fixture list present a daunting start for Brighton, it could all go horribly wrong for Potter- it will take time for him to mould this Swansea side to his will. You can envisage The Seagulls going the first 5 or 6 matches without a win. A huge gamble for boring Brighton, but what’s life without a few risks, eh ?
Few outside of Germany recognise the sheer size of FC Schalke 04. The 7x German Champions rack up around 60,000 fans every week, and hold one of the most revered academies in the country, most recently producing stars such as Julian Draxler, Leroy Sané, Mesut Özil and Manuel Neuer. The Veltins-Arena has been a hostile environment of late, with fans growing frustrated at the levels of underperformance in the past five years. The general expectation at Schalke is consistent Champions League football, which they’ve only been able to meet once in the past five seasons, while also registering some particularly insipid finishes of 10th in 2017 and 14th this year. Schalke appointed Domenico Tedesco at the end of their underwhelming 2016/17 season- a controversial decision. The chronically inexperienced 33 year-old had never played football professionally, his CV solely consisting of an 11 match spell at German second divison side FC Erzgebirge Aue, whom Tedesco clawed from the depths of relegation to 14th. His inaugural season (2017/18) at the Veltins-arena sparked cautious hope, as Schalke soared to 2nd place. Yet this season it all fell to pieces. 14th, Schalke ended up. Poor recruitment played it’s part, so did a 7-0 mauling at Manchester City- bringing an abrupt end to what was a bright Champions League campaign, reaching the round of 16. But, at times- and this is what really pushed the Schalke faithful over the edge- the players, bar one or two, cut uninterested figures. Fans need players willing to do anything for the badge, willing to put their bodies on the line, willing to chase down every ball. Fans need players who know what it means to wear the shirt. It lights this fire within us. And, unfortunately, too many Schalke players didn’t understand what it means to play for the shirt. David Wagner does.
Remember him ? The guy you just wanted to cuddle up and put in your pocket. David Wagner, ladies and gents, he’s back. The German just about managed to leave Huddersfield in time with his reputation intact, and will take a massive step up next season as he becomes the manager of Schalke. A bizarre appointment, no ? That is, until you get some context behind it. Wagner played for two years at Schalke, winning the UEFA Cup in 1997. He knows what it means to be a Schalke player- he understands the club, the responsibility, the expectations- something which very few have been able to do in recent years. Let’s be realistic. Wagner is not going to be a steaming sensation, he’s not going to play beautiful, free-flowing football (think Huddersfield), or attract the big-name players to Gelsenkirchen. But what he will do- being the likable, amiable human being that he is- is rekindle the bond between fans and players. And that is what it is most important right now.