When Sackings Work

Last January, two days after Southampton’s impressive 2-2 draw away to Chelsea, club chairman Nicola pochettinoCortese sacked Nigel Adkins, the physio-turned-manager who had guided Southampton from League One all the way to the Premier League. Cortese immediately unveiled Adkins’ replacement: Mauricio Pochettino, a young, talented former Espanyol coach who didn’t speak a word of English. “Far-fetched was how the Premier League appeared then to Saints,” lamented Daily Mail columnist Michael Walker, referring to Southampton’s years in the lower divisions. “Far-fetched is how Adkins’ dismissal appears now.”

Walker wasn’t the only critic of Cortese’s decision – Southampton was on a six-game unbeaten streak at the time, and many pundits, including Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier, who said that Cortese had “a bit of an ego problem,” feared that Adkins’ departure would Unsettle The Dressing Room.

All this chagrin points up an interesting phenomenon: it’s increasingly fashionable to complain that football coaches, especially British ones, never get a chance. Pundits often claim that chairmen are dangerously impulsive – these days, it takes only a few weeks of disappointing results for them to lose patience, even with successful coaches – and there’s plenty of truth to that. Maurizio Zamparini, for instance, has raised firing coaches to, well, if not an art, then at least a sort of cruel hobby. Sir Alex Ferguson, or so the conventional wisdom goes, would have been sacked halfway through his first season at Manchester United had he been appointed in 2013, rather than in 1986.

That doesn’t mean all midseason sackings are necessarily unjustified, however, and in Adkins’ case, Cortese was right to take the risk. He fired Adkins because Pochettino, a highly rated, tactically savvy coach, had just come onto the market. Cortese realized that Adkins had taken Southampton as far as he could: “Whilst we acknowledge the contribution Nigel has made during the past two years,” Cortese said in a press release confirming Pochettino’s appointment, “for the club to progress…a change was needed.” It is just as reactionary to stick with a coach simply because his team happens to be winning as it is to fire him simply because his team happens to be losing.

This season’s results have vindicated Cortese’s decision. Southampton easily avoided relegation last May and has since risen to fifth place, passing Manchester United and Tottenham along the way. Pochettino is sometimes compared to Chilean maniac/tactical genius Marcelo Bielsa, and his Southampton team plays an intense pressing game – with a high defensive line and quick, two-touch passing – reminiscent of Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao.

All of this is good news for English football. Arsene Wenger is the longest-serving coach in the Premier League, but many clubs in the bottom half of the table (and in the Championship and League One) have never looked beyond the Allardyce-Warnock-Pardew managerial conveyor belt. At least in part because of Southampton’s success, that could be about to change: last week, former Real Madrid assistant manager Aitor Karanka – the guy who handled press conferences so that Mourinho wouldn’t have to answer questions about Dressing Room Unrest, Boardroom Shenanigans, or Iker Casillas – joined Middlesbrough. Karanka may turn out to be a total dud – but he’s far more likely than, say, Tony Pulis (not that there’s anything wrong with Pulis’ coaching style) to make the kinds of tactical adjustments that, as Pochettino has shown, allow small, relatively poor teams to hold their own against the Premier League’s traditional powerhouses.

Southampton represents a vision of English football that no longer seems entirely, erm, far-fetched: coaches who admire Marcelo Bielsa; clubs that think about the long-term implications of their decisions; and chairmen who sack managers not because the team’s playing badly, but because it could be playing even better.

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