Rob Moss dissects squads and managers of the last 5 years. Could even Mourinho get the current crop performing?
With the club currently in the process of being returned to private ownership, staggering under a mountain of apparently (according to Chief Accountant Phil Gartside) irrelevant debt, with plans underfoot to try to turn the hotel and other surrounding space at the stadium into a profitable enterprise, and with Financial Fair Play rules crippling our wage and transfer budgets, it seems that all is not well behind the scenes at the Wanderers, a reality borne out by the return of just one point per game so far this season. Some are calling for the head of Dougie Freedman. A few would like to eat his liver with some fava beans and a nice glass of Chianti. Others are willing the club to stick by the current management staff as they believe the problems are deep-rooted and the blame lies with the reign of Owen Coyle. Still others continue to blame Megson. Some think it`s all Gartside`s fault. Some blame Eddie Davies and see him as a leech.
Wherever the blame lies, what gets you good results is having good players performing to the best of their abilities in a system that works against the opposition – as Chelsea admirably proved against Manchester City’s 4-4-2 last weekend with their rather familiar (to us) 4-2-3-1 system in what has been declared a “tactical masterpiece” by all the “football people”.
So what’s wrong with our season?
We play the same system as Mourinho employed to defeat probably the best team in the country, and if it’s good enough for Mourinho, it’s good enough for me.
But what of the players and their performances?
When Megson was fired, Owen Coyle inherited a squad that was looking like it could stay up in the Premiership. However, Megson’s consistent negative performances and disrespect of the fans who weren`t “football people” saw him fired on 30 December 2009, and Coyle was parachuted in on 8 January 2010 to save the season.
The regulars (10+ league appearances) were:
GK: Jussi Jääskeläinen
DF: Jlloyd Samuel, Gary Cahill, Zat Knight, Grétar Steinsson, Sam Ricketts
MF: Fabrice Muamba, Matthew Taylor, Ricardo Gardner, Mark Davies, Gavin McCann, Tamir Cohen, Lee Chung-Yong
FW: Johan Elmander, Kevin Davies, Ivan Klasnic
By the time he left, the club had seen an FA Cup Semi Final humiliation at the hands of Stoke City at Wembley, a subsequent relegation and a terrible start to the first season back in the Championship. Coyle had failed, and on 9 October 2012, that failure was made permanent. Jimmy Phillips had a brief stint at the helm before Dougie Freedman was appointed as manager on 25 October 2012. Upon his arrival, the squad’s regulars had now become:
GK: Ádám Bogdán
DF: Tyrone Mears, Marcos Alonso, Matt Mills, Tim Ream, Zat Knight, Sam Ricketts
MF: Chris Eagles, Keith Andrews, Martin Petrov, Mark Davies, Darren Pratley, Lee Chung-Yong
FW: David N’Gog, Kevin Davies, Marvin Sordell
Coyle’s reign had seen the departure from the starting line-up of Jussi Jääskeläinen, Jlloyd Samuel, Gary Cahill, Grétar Steinsson, Fabrice Muamba, Matthew Taylor, Ricardo Gardner, Gavin McCann, Tamir Cohen, Johan Elmander and Ivan Klasnic. They had been replaced by Ádám Bogdán, Tyrone Mears, Marcos Alonso, Matt Mills, Tim Ream, Chris Eagles, Keith Andrews, Martin Petrov, Darren Pratley, David N’Gog and Marvin Sordell.
Under the new boss, the regulars from the current squad are:
GK: Ádám Bogdán, Andy Lonergan
DF: Matt Mills, Tim Ream, Zat Knight, Alex Baptiste
MF: Jay Spearing, Chris Eagles, Robert Hall, André Moritz, Mark Davies, Darren Pratley, Lee Chung-Yong, Mohamed Kamara, Neil Danns
FW: Jermaine Beckford
So we’ve seen Tyrone Mears, Marcos Alonso, Sam Ricketts, Keith Andrews, Martin Petrov, David N’Gog, Kevin Davies and Marvin Sordell either fall out of first team favour or leave the club. In their place, we see Andy Lonergan, Alex Baptiste, Jay Spearing, Robert Hall, André Moritz, Mohamed Kamara, Neil Danns and Jermaine Beckford.
Jussi Jääskeläinen left to join West Ham United, where he secured a regular Premiership first team place, generally impressed last season, and it would have been nice if Coyle hadn’t got rid of him. Jlloyd Samuel went to Cardiff as cover for Mark Hudson and then ended up at Esteghlal in Iran, where he’s since won the league title playing alongside Andranik Teymourian. Gary Cahill departed for a fee in the region of £7m and has gone on to win the FA Cup, UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League, as well as representing England on a regular basis. Grétar Steinsson spent a year in Turkey after he left us and retired after injuring his knee in November, only 9 games into the season. Fabrice Muamba we all know the story behind. Matthew Taylor left us after a bout of glandular fever and went on to help West Ham United to promotion and then survival, but as another 32-year old it seems his Premiership days may be numbered, having made only 7 appearances in the League this year. Ricardo Gardner has yet to officially retire, but continues to spend more time on his music label than he does trying to get a 35-year old body, the victim of multiple knee injuries, back into professional football. Gavin McCann retired from professional football following injury and now turns out for Clifton Casuals alongside Colin Hendry. Tamir Cohen went to Maccabi Haifa for a while and then joined Hapoel Ra’anana and continues to get regular football. Johan Elmander is currently at Norwich, where he’s chalked up 19 league appearances with no goals, having scored 16 in 52 for Galatasary previously. Ivan Klasnic is currently sat on the bench for Mainz 05 after a string of injuries have kept him out for nearly two years. Of the regulars who left under Coyle, you might perhaps want Jussi Jääskeläinen and Gary Cahill back, but the rest are either too old, too injured or were just not good enough in the first place. So we can’t really blame him for that. Except for Jussi.
Tyrone Mears is now totally cut off from the first team setup but refuses to leave the lucrative contract Owen Coyle gave him – and why would you? Marcos Alonso was offered a new contract by Freedman but instead went to Fiorentina, where he’s played three times, and then to Sunderland on loan, where he’s play four times. Sam Ricketts has gone on to be club captain at Wolves and is by all accounts having a reasonable season, although at the age of 32 and having been on Premiership wages his departure was inevitable. Keith Andrews has gone to Brighton where he’s playing in roughly half their fixtures. Martin Petrov is at CSKA Sofia after a short spell with Espanyol; at 35 years of age he’s struggling to find first team football now. David N’Gog has gone to Swansea and… and… well I haven’t worked that out yet. Kevin Davies has a couple of goals in his 22 league appearances so far for Preston North End but he’s not really setting the world alight. Marvin Sordell has a staggering TWO goals in only SEVENTEEN League games for Charlton so far this season and I honestly can’t understand why we let our £3m man go out on loan. Of the players Coyle managed who have left under Freedman, whether it be for pastures new or heading off to the reserves, you’d perhaps want Marcos Alonso back – whom he tried to keep – but the rest can stay gone for me.
So what of the players Coyle has left behind who remain in the first team?
Ádám Bogdán is a generally reliable goalkeeper who’s scared of penalties. Andy Lonergan is a generally reliable goalkeeper who’s prone to errors, or at least has been of late. Both have cost us points this season. Matt Mills was awful last season but has done well this season. Tim Ream has been a breath of fresh air recently. Zat Knight is… Zat Knight. He’s cost us a lot of points this season. Again. Jay Spearing, who Freedman took in permanently under some fan pressure after Owen Coyle signed him on loan, had a good season last year but this season hasn’t been great. Chris Eagles is talented but phenomenally lazy and a complete tart. Mark Davies we all hope will at some point reproduce what we know he’s capable of, but has only been good since his return, not outstanding. Darren Pratley has been much better under Freedman than he was under Coyle, although he’s still guilty of some poor play at times. Lee Chung-Yong isn’t the player he once was, and will perhaps never regain that confidence he once used to possess when running at the opposition.
So what’s the deep-rooted problem at our club? Is it that we’re using a 4-2-3-1 formation that’s not suited to modern football? I certainly wouldn’t be telling Mourinho that. Perhaps we should play a 4-4-2 like David Moyes does. Oh, wait.
Is it motivating the players? There may be some of that. It is absolutely the manager’s job to ensure his players are motivated. This is done with a variety of financial incentives written into the player’s contract at the time he is signed on, in addition to his basic salary. Of course, the majority of the highly-paid players at the club who were showing a lack of motivation at the time of Coyle’s departure signed contracts with incentives drawn up by Coyle, which perhaps tells its own story. It’s all well and good telling a player that he has to fight for his life on the pitch, but if he gets paid the same whether he scores a hat-trick three games in a row or sits at home for a month, why would you bother leaving the house? Why would such a player ever listen? You get the feeling that most of the players Freedman has signed himself are fighting out there, but there are some big names on the pitch for us on big wages who couldn’t seem to care less.
So what’s left? Are the players bad? Well, of the four goalkeepers we’ve seen over the past few years at the Reebok, the two best are now playing for other clubs – one at West Ham United and one at Wigan. Of the defenders we see lining up now, Zat Knight strikes the fear of God into me every time he comes anywhere near the ball, and Jlloyd Samuel, Gary Cahill, Sam Ricketts and Grétar Steinsson was a much better defence than the one we’ve ended up with now, despite seeming fragile at the time. Fabrice Muamba, Matthew Taylor, Tamir Cohen and Lee Chung-Yong wasn’t the strongest midfield four I’ve ever seen play for the Wanderers, but it wasn’t bad. Coyle was given plenty of money to strengthen. He made one truly great signing – Stuart Holden – who sadly didn’t last long. He also tried Petrov, Pratley, Reo-Coker, Eagles, Wylde, Andrews and McKee and hasn’t left us with anything desperately better than what he started with. Coyle also tried to replace the misfiring Johan Elmander with David N’Gog – and we all know how that turned out – having also signed Robbie Blake, Tom Eaves, Marvin Sordell and loaned in Daniel Sturridge, Tuncay Sanli and Benik Afobe. The only striker he ever found who could score regularly went back to Chelsea, whereupon we couldn’t afford him. The other who looked like he might score regularly apparently throws up whenever he gets outside the M25.
I haven’t answered my question. Are the players bad? I haven’t answered that because it isn’t a sensible question. ‘Bad’ is a relative term in football. Are the players poor compared to the squads we were competing against, as well as our own squad, towards the end of Big Sam’s reign? Yes. We don’t have anyone anywhere near Okocha, Djorkaeff, Campo, Hierro, N’Gotty or indeed most of the first team regulars of that era. How about if we compare them to the end of Megson’s reign? Well, I’m afraid the answer there is probably still yes. We had a better goalkeeper, a better defence, a solid if not world beating midfield and an average strike force. What about if we compare the squad now to the squad when Coyle left? It’s not hugely different, unfortunately. After our relegation, Coyle released or lost Dino Fazlic, Grétar Steinsson, Ivan Klasnic, Mark Connolly, Nigel Reo-Coker, Paul Robinson, Rhys Bennett, Ricardo Gardner, Robbie Blake, Sean Davis, Tom Eckersley, Tope Obadeyi and Jussi Jääskeläinen. Since then, the only ‘major’ transfers have been Martin Petrov, Kevin Davies, Marcos Alonso, Sam Ricketts and David N’Gog out and Medo Kamara, Alex Baptiste, Jermaine Beckford, André Moritz and Jay Spearing in. Mostly it’s been like-for-like tinkering around the fringes of the first team squad and something of an overhaul of the development squad. The core players who Coyle thought would see his team challenging for the Champions League places were seriously challenged in the Championship and continue to be so. A remarkable run catalysed by the loan signing of Craig Dawson last season saw us finish in 7th place, having been in 20th place at the end of February. Obviously we all hope that Freedman can come up with another stroke of genius this season and propel us up the table during the final few months of the campaign. But don’t hold your breath. Until Coyle’s men are gone, there’s little that can be done to get the squad to get up off their backsides and put some effort in. Freedman has demonstrated an ability to pick good transfers on the whole so far and encourages the players who he`s signed to perform so, for me, we have to stick by him whilst we endure the agonising, painfully slow process of watching the big contracts run down and expire, endure the ridiculous stories in the press of how the players were ‘surprised’ not to be offered a new contract, and then see what we can come up with in the summer transfer window.
Is the loan window going to excite me?
Well, probably, because I get giddy like that. But not for any rational reason. Unless we employ North Korean motivational tactics (lose and you get shot sort of thing) we’ll never see a group of players with the Posh Womble’s signings at its core go anywhere fast.