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What direction is football heading in?

Jonathan Roberts looks deeply into the direction football is heading in, using de Boer’s sacking as an example. 

It’s easy to focus attention on major talking points from the weekend’s action or find yourself lost in some of the league’s best goals when engaging in water-cooler talk. But there are far more pressing matters at hand which recent events have offered a sobering reality towards. Crystal Palace announced the dismissal of former Ajax manager Frank De Boer after only four league matches in charge, resulting in his managerial tenure being the shortest in terms of games for any Premier League boss ever. In and of itself, this is a startling enough statistic to comprehend. But what came as more surprising was news that revealed the club sought a replacement out two weeks prior to this announcement.

Their season began with understandable optimism after chairman Steve Parrish explained his plans to step away from Palace’s rigid football in favour of a more forward-thinking, attractive style of play. He then followed through on this statement by appointing Dutch manager Frank De Boer whose impressive CV had taken a minor hit last season with a short-lived stint at Inter Milan. De Boer’s Palace suffered four consecutive league defeats, which was coupled with their failure to score in any of those four matches. But it’s important to highlight that despite these results leaving a lot to be desired, they haven’t always necessarily reflected the performances on display.

Take the Burnley game as a noteworthy example. Burnley were incredibly fortunate to come away from the match with all three points after Palace dominated the majority of possession and created heaps of chances. Offensively, the imagination and the desire have been there, but it’s sadly the chance conversion rate which has let them down. Christian Benteke wasted two ample 1v1s before Scott Dann missed an appetising, close-range free header in the dying embers of the game. These sorts of things are completely out of the manager’s control and it’s disheartening to see that despite this encouraging performance, Palace have pulled the plug on the manager’s time already.

On the other hand, it’s easy to state a case for why proceedings aren’t quite as black and white as we’d like to believe. Amongst the reasons for Palace’s dissatisfaction with their new appointment, you have: De Boer’s departure from the agreed formation, the squad’s struggle to adapt to their new style of play, poor feedback conducted on training sessions and match preparation as well as a perceived lack of input in the way of transfer activity. But does this justify the decision the club made? This potentially could mark a frightening precedent in the world of football.

While it’s undeniable that football has and always will be a results-driven game, impatience has become an increasingly prominent mentality adopted by the people in the driving seat. With the introduction of social media, football took on a whole new dynamic to the way content is consumed and football is discussed. Outlets such as Arsenal Fan TV have created celebrities out of your average Joe, providing them a platform to voice their opinions on everything from post-match analysis to transfer speculation. These commonly harbour toxic evaluations from a biased and usually uninformed fanbase that could well contribute to the dire state that influences premature managerial departures. Add to these the position that hot-headed owners hold whose vested interest lies with protecting their investment and you have a dangerous ideal being embedded within the footballing culture.

We live in a world where two former title-winning managers were sacked months after achieving this success. Jose Mourinho was dismissed seven months after he led his Chelsea side to the 14/15 Premier League title after a slump in his side’s performance during his second spell at the club. Claudio Ranieri survived until February 2017 following Leicester’s implausible success story the season before. This came just two weeks after the Leicester board offered him their unwavering support. So, what could be the real reason behind these dismissals?

The significant influence that money has on the game has seen these circumstances become increasingly popular. It’s understandable in many ways given the fact that participating Premier League clubs earn a whopping £84.4 million per season for competing in the league after the new lucrative TV deal took effect. And this is still before other factors like performance rankings and TV revenue determine the final figure added to a club’s earnings.

It’s not always the case, however. Steve Bruce has occupied the role at Aston Villa since October last year and has been in charge for 45 games. Villa’s relegation and subsequent takeover was conducted with the promise of helping the former Premier League outfit to make an immediate return to the top flight; of which Bruce was acquired to help fulfil. Bruce’s record and performances have drastically underwhelmed the Villa faithful but his extended period of time to change his side’s fortunes suggests that this isn’t maybe as widespread as first thought. Although, talks of his sacking have surrounded the club’s disappointing start to the campaign which has left Bruce seriously feeling the pressure.

Another instance is Slaven Bilic at West Ham. For the longest time, he was almost dead set on becoming the first manager sacked this season in the Premier League. Fortunately, his team’s 2-0 victory over Huddersfield ensured his safety for at least the time being despite last season’s shortcomings. But what’s interesting to discuss in this case is the impact that the media and other external sources have over matters.

Journalists have been seemingly sympathetic towards De Boer’s struggle given the circumstances he found himself in. But this perceived attitude was massively undermined by their perpetual coverage of gunning for his dismissal and discussing who of the current managers would be the first to bite the bullet. Their views hold undeniable weight in the footballing community and owners could well have taken on board the thoughts of others when ultimately making the decision. So, why isn’t the same logic applied to players?

We seem to forget that players suffer from unfavourable stints, sometimes more so than managers tend to. What’s typically the case is that while these periods don’t go unnoticed, they are more easily forgiven or rectified. Players are held in a significantly higher regard than managers in this respect. Managers hold an unholy amount of responsibility in relation to a club’s success. And in that sense, it’s completely acceptable to understand that they must bear the brunt of the blame when things aren’t going well. But realistically, what is a manager supposed to do with four league games in charge?

If the board is going to operate from a place of scathing criticism conjured under a short amount of time, clubs can forget ever seeing the likes of another Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson. These were managers, who admittedly, came with credible backgrounds in the game before trying their hand at their respective clubs. But they only achieved the success they’ve managed because of the patience they were entrusted with. Success takes time, and it’s only once in a blue moon that lightning strikes so quickly. So, what does Palace’s appointment of Hodgson mean for the future of football?

A conceived lack of ambition. This is exactly the type of decision we can expect at least the lesser sides making in the coming years. There is clearly a divide between money and a team’s expectations against the reality of what a club could and should achieve. Sadly, much of what is deemed important is discarded in favour of security. It’s why Gazidis and Kroenke haven’t sacked Wenger despite his dip in form and ambition at Arsenal. It’s why Oldham Athletic consistently appoint inexperienced managers in their desperate attempts to avoid relegation year after year.

Crystal Palace have clearly demonstrated their intentions after approaching former manager Sam Allardyce about returning to the club before appointing Roy Hodgson in the role. The ex-England manager was heavily criticised for the nation’s bitterly disappointing performance at last year’s Euros and resigned from his position after accepting full responsibility. His teams have typically played negative football, using long-ball tactics that is a cataclysmic departure from the football that De Boer was brought in to implement.

Unfortunately, this looks less like an isolated incident than it does a new trend. Some of these elements are entirely down to the individual in charge which nightmarish owners like Massimo Cellino or Vincent Tan can support. But Parrish’s 180-degree turn on his club’s outlines for a long-term strategy could spell doom and gloom on the horizon for the future of the sport.

Jonathan Roberts
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