Tuesday, August 11, 2009
The true contribution of a coach
It's still the school holidays in that part of Germany where I live, which is why we currently have a young lad at the office who earns himself a few Euros during the summer weeks. He was born in Mainz and supports Mainz 05.
Last week, on Monday afternoon, one of my colleagues, faking innocence, casually asked him: "What do you think about the new coach?" The teenager looked up, somewhat bewildered, and replied: "What do you mean? Who's got a new coach?"
"Mainz have", my colleague said, stunning the boy. "Guy called Thomas Tuchel, or something along those lines." This additional info came as a relief to the Mainz fan, who quickly said: "Oh, you got that wrong. Tuchel is the coach of the Under-19s." It was only when he saw the other guy's slightly gleeful grin that it dawned on him he should really check the latest wire reports.
Firing your coach five days before the first league game of the new season is, as far as I'm concerned, a record. I say "as far as I'm concerned" because the German media found a precedent, saying something similar had happened in 1996, when VfB Stuttgart appointed a new head coach a mere four days prior to the first matchday.
(Incidentally, they promoted an assistant by the name of Joachim Löw on what was supposed to be an interim basis. Löw promptly won five and drew one to be given the job for good.)
However, the way I recall it, Stuttgart's original coach in 1996, the Austrian Rolf Fringer, was unpopular with the players, the fans and the board - but he was not fired. In the week leading up to the season opener, Fringer was offered the job of Swiss national coach and asked Stuttgart to let him out of his contract. As hinted, the club president's reaction amounted to "God, I thought you'd never ask!" and thus the guard was changed on short notice.
Well, unprecedented or not, the timing of Jörn Andersen's dismissal at Mainz was, at the very least, highly unusual. Though strangely fitting. That's because the past weeks and months have seen coaches hogging the headlines with surprising regularity - and regularly surprising us.
In mid-July, there was a minor altercation during a press conference ahead of a pre-season preparation tournament at Schalke's arena. Someone who was there told me that Schalke's new press officer introduced one of the men sitting behind microphones as "Bayer Leverkusen coach Bruno Labbadia".
Hamburg coach Bruno Labbadia, it seems, didn't feel the mistake was the slightest bit funny and shared this opinion with those present. But the fact remains that the mistake was easy to make, as you really needed one of those dreaded spreadsheet applications to keep track of who was coaching whom, since when - and perhaps even why.
The trend was probably started by Felix Magath. In early May, with four games left in the season and his team in the title race, he announced he would leave Wolfsburg and take over at Schalke in the summer. Twenty days later, Martin Jol jumped ship at Hamburg to the utter amazement of anyone who wasn't privy to what happened in the very inner circles. And another five days later, Cologne's coach Christoph Daum announced, literally hours before the deadline, that he'd evoke a get-out clause in his contract, which amazed even the members of the inner circle.
(Cologne's vice-president Jürgen Glowacz said Daum called president Wolfgang Overath at 7pm on the last day of May, a Sunday, and opened the conversation by saying: "Well, I'm off, then." Overath had no idea what Daum was talking about - and the same went for business manager Michael Meier, whom Daum called a bit later. "I've been caught by surprise," Meier told a reporter. "Guess I'll have to go over to the clubhouse now and see if we've received a letter of cancellation by fax.")
And then, of course, there was the above-mentioned Labbadia. Five days after the Daum stunner, Labbadia was let out of his contract by Leverkusen and signed with Hamburg - a move made possible in part by the fact Hamburg paid Leverkusen an undisclosed transfer sum, estimated to come to some 1.3m Euros.
"I detest the job-hopping of coaches," Leverkusen's general manager Wolfgang Holzhäuser said. "This has got to stop." He wasn't referring only to Labbadia, now with his third club in as many years, but the whole new trend of coaches doing ... yeah, what exactly? ... well, moving about as freely and as unsentimentally as the players, I guess.
Maybe this is only fair. A coach who's got to live with the fact he can never build a team that will stay together for more than one or two seasons could be forgiven for, himself, going where there's more money and more potential (Daum) or where they'll grant you more power (Jol - when he left for Ajax, Hamburg's chairman Bernd Hoffmann said: "Ajax offered him the far-reaching authority he wanted").
I suspect that a coach like Magath would tell you that this is also fair because it levels the playing field: in the past coaches were always at other people's mercy and would get fired at the drop of a hat, now they try to call the shots and be more in control of their own destiny.
But of course there is, in the transfer market, a crucial difference between players and coaches. You can assess a player's contribution fairly accurately, but you'll never know what - if at all - the coach is contributing. Let alone what makes a good or a bad coach.
According to Mainz's business manager Christian Heidel, Andersen had been as good as fired back in March, following a heavy home defeat against Aachen. But then the coach promised to be more communicative and play less defensive football, so he stayed on the job - and won promotion. During the pre-season training, though, Andersen seems to have rediscovered his old self. "He didn't follow the path we had decided on," Heidel says. "There was no communication at all between him and the team." Losing a Cup tie to a fourth-division side did not, we can safely assume, improve his standing - and so Andersen went from scapegoat to hero to scapegoat again in just seventeen weeks.
That's quick, but not untypically quick. The above-mentioned Löw stayed at Stuttgart for two years, winning the German FA Cup and reaching the Cup Winners Cup final. But then he lasted only one season at Fenerbahce, was fired after less than six months at Karlsruhe, returned to Turkey - and was given the boot at Adanaspor all of three months later. Was he that good at Stuttgart, and that bad elsewhere?
After the first round of games of the new season, my local newspaper's columnist was rather surprised by Wolfsburg's strong performance, concluding: "Wolfsburg's big plus is that only coach Felix Magath has left the club. And it suddenly looks as if he had less to do with the team's success than we thought."
Now, how much is "less"? Last week, the well-loved former radio commentator Manfred Breuckmann said he didn't understand all that talk about the coaches at Schalke and Dortmund, because: "A coach's share in the team's showing comes to only thirty per cent, at the most." That line caught me by surprise. Because thirty per cent, if you think about it, is actually an awful lot, isn't it?
Ah, maybe it's all got to do with the club. Maybe there are clubs where the coach makes all the difference and clubs where the coach has next to no discernible effect. You doubt that?
In 2005, Greuther Fürth finished 5th in the Second Bundesliga under coach Benno Möhlmann. In 2006, they were 5th again. That must have frustrated Möhlmann, because during the next season, he declared he would not extend his contract as Fürth were not upwardly mobile. The team finished 5th. In 2008, under new coach Bruno Labbadia, Fürth came 6th. Labbadia went, Möhlmann returned, but Fürth still finished 5th.