The Two Latest Victims of the Win-Now League

Struggling managers getting fired is no surprise.

Football, as we are often reminded, is a results-based business. Win and you are in but lose and you are out. Yet there was still something about last Sunday's dismissals of Graham Potter and Brendan Rodgers that felt like a double murder had been committed.

Potter at Chelsea.
Chelsea Call Time on Graham Potter

The eleventh and twelfth victims of this season's Premier League sack race were two of the most admired young British managers of recent years. Now they are out of work, their reputations tarnished temporarily.

Potter's exit from Stamford Bridge is hard to argue against, given the moneybags Blues' slide into the bottom half of the top flight following a January transfer splurge larger than four of Europe's big five leagues combined.

Talk about hubris. There must be a lesson in that for Chelsea's sophomoric owner Todd Boehly, an arriviste in the madhouse of professional football. Boehly took a big risk in appointing Potter ahead of an established big-club coach and his first big call was the wrong one. It was an error that leaves the club half a billion pounds poorer and barring a late rally, facing next season without the financial blanket of the Champions League.

So will he splash the cash again willy-nilly or realise clubs have to spend smart and not just big? As an American sports guy he should have already imbibed the rudiments of Michael Lewis' seminal study of sports club management Moneyball, instead of trying to remake Brewster's Millions. Having a huge squad almost feels like ostentation, but keeping so many men happy must be impossible.

It felt a bold or foolhardy move from day one: Potter, for all his famous people skills and praise from the likes of Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola, was up against it in West London. Chelsea's bloated 33-man squad was a list of cake ingredients without the icing on it - a fit and in-form centre-forward. Romelu Lukaku was loaned back to Italy after nobody passed him the ball while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Joao Felix have failed to fire.

Although Potter was adept at shifting systems at Brighton, his fluid formations and personnel changes caused confusion at Chelsea, whose fans pined for a settled eleven in the end.

He had made his name at Ostersund with innovative man-management, ideas which translated well to the Seagulls as another club wearing the underdog badge with pride, but his seeds fell on rocky ground when confronted with big egos and great expectations at Stamford Bridge.

A typically insipid 0-2 home loss to mid-table Aston Villa was the last straw after seven months of failing to mount a title challenge or even threaten the European qualification places. It was a fair cop in the end.

The only flaw in Boehly's axing is that Chelsea could still win this season's Champions League. They are preparing to take on Real Madrid in the quarter-finals and Potter had steered the Blues through home and away wins over Milan before defeating Borussia Dortmund on aggregate.

Stranger things have happened before. Roberto Di Matteo won the same competition having taken over as caretaker manager in March of 2012 and Tony Barton did likewise with Aston Villa having been handed the reins in February 1980. We will never know if Potter would have won it if he had stayed.

The usual lazy assumptions that Potter had lost the dressing room and fallen out with senior players appeared in the press. The fact is players cannot speak out in practice so we can but speculate on Potter's relationship to his squad. 

Kai Havertz has broken the taboo a little but his comments are somewhat equivocal. "Of course, there were mixed emotions for everyone," he said. "It is not that everyone is either frustrated or happy. For me it was of course sad news. I liked Graham and I liked what he did."

The Blues do not belong in the bottom half of the table any more than Liverpool, whose coach Jurgen Klopp sagely noted his past had saved him from the chop this season. David Moyes has built up a well of respect over many years, which has saved him from the chop at West Ham, while Steve Cooper's achievements at Nottingham Forest have shielded him from the knife. 

Worryingly given what happened at Chelsea, Forest have a squad of 39 first-team players. When you can only start with 11, it must take some people skills to keep everyone on board with the project.

Leicester too lost patience and fired their manager, who has coached Celtic and Liverpool, won the F.A. Cup two seasons ago and was once linked with the manager's job at Barcelona. Rodgers was hailed as a tactical genius for a long time but has been on the slide for a while now. He could point to a lack of funds at the King Power stadium as a mitigating circumstance.

So, Potter and Rodgers leave the hot seats to jump on the merry-go-round, awaiting another club calling.

12 firings this season from a division of 20 clubs is a record. Realistically now with eight games to go, it is last orders in the last chance saloon, but some owners may still blanch at the thought of leaving the richest league in the world and will roll the dice if they think it could work.

With three points separating 12th from 18th, nine clubs are involved in a relegation battle, a wonderful spectacle. Escaping the drop is always more exciting than reaching or staying at the top. 

Losing your job in a cut-throat world like the EPL is sadly to be expected. Good managers need time and money but the former is always in short supply. Clubs like Chelsea are stuck in a 'win-now' mode, having invested too much capital to wait and see if a coach will work in a year's time. They will surely go for a tried and tested man next time.

There are always second chances though. Already former Chelsea managers Antonio Conte and Frank Lampard are being mentioned as making second comings at the Bridge. At Eastertide, the theme of rebirth redemption in football could not be more apposite.

And, there is always next season.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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