Coaches have been dominating the agenda across Europe this week, whether they are under pressure, like Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, or on sabbatical, like Pep Guardiola. Two Premier League clubs sacked their coaches last week, with their replacements receiving markedly different reactions. Here is a round-up of the latest from the managerial merry-go-round.
The Mourinho myth? The myth that Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho suffers from Third Season Syndrome has been working its way around Spain. Mourinho always said his teams perform better in his second year in charge, but that's because he has only stuck around for a third year once in his career.
He left Porto left after winning the 2004 Portuguese League and 2004 Champions League in his second season there; at Inter Milan, he ended his second season with the treble, a Serie A and Coppa Italia domestic double coupled with the 2010 Champions League. His only third year anywhere was at Chelsea, where he won the 2007 FA Cup and League Cup but paid the price for failing to win a third straight Premier League; after a poor start to the following season, he left in September.
This is relevant now because, as usual, Mourinho is center stage in Spain ahead of a decisive few weeks for Real Madrid. Saturday's 1-0 loss at Real Betis left Madrid 11 points behind leaders Barcelona and eight behind city rivals Atletico, its opposition this weekend. Madrid is eight points worse off than at this stage last season; by way of comparison, Barcelona has nine points more. Mourinho's Madrid dropped 14 points last year and has already dropped 13 this season.
So what's biting Jose, and what does it mean? He feels let down by the club for two reasons: First, last month's argument with Castilla (Real Madrid's "B team") coach Alberto Toril -- whom he accused of not preparing players ready for the first team -- remains unresolved; this was a test from Mourinho, to see if the club would back his calls for assistance from Toril, and it did not. Mourinho has also asked for a former player to help him fight the system: someone like Fernando Hierro, who could support Mourinho's lone-voice polemics against referees, the fixture list and other enemies, imagined or otherwise. Again, his request has been denied.
Mourinho also has a problem with his squad. He has accused players of complacency and lack of motivation; there are cliques between the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking players; and he wants to refresh the group by providing more competition to players like Iker Casillas. Madrid president Florentino Perez seems unlikely to accept his demands and, unless Madrid wins its Holy Grail this season, la decima, its 10th Champions League (by finishing second in Group B, it runs the risk of facing Porto, Bayern Munich or Manchester United in the next round, the draw for which is Dec. 20), then Mourinho seems likely to leave Spain this summer.
And that comes onto the next question: where will he end up? On Wednesday, Marca ran the headline 'Mou offered a blank cheque from PSG,' but it is not inconceivable that England's four biggest clubs might soon have managerial vacancies. It takes no great leap to see that Mourinho's short-term coaching style is better-suited to Chelsea or Manchester City as opposed to Manchester United or Arsenal. The prospect of Mourinho ending up at one of the former clubs (I think he is too smart to return to Chelsea and risk his legacy there) and Guardiola at one of the latter is an enticing one (even if it might not seem so for the former Barcelona coach).
On Tuesday, The Sun reported that United was Guardiola's preferred destination. If true, City could surely become Mourinho's. Just imagine: the Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry all over again, but in Manchester. It is a long-shot, but it would certainly make the Premier League more interesting. I would also add that for Mourinho to have survived for three years at a club like Real Madrid is a success in itself.
Does anyone want to win Ligue 1 this season? It may not have the quality of other big leagues in Europe, but you can't argue with the suspense in France, where four points separate the top eight teams in Ligue 1. On Friday night, Valenciennes had the chance to go ahead if it beat Saint-Etienne, but it lost 1-0; on Sunday, Bordeaux could have taken the lead but lost 1-0 to Montpellier; then Lyon could have taken first but lost 3-0 to Toulouse.
The top spot is currently shared between Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain, which, for all the money lavished on the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and Ezequiel Lavezzi last summer, should be running away with the league. It may yet win it and is certainly benefiting from a lack of consistency provided by the competition.
The "What If?" question comes if somehow PSG fails to win Ligue 1 this year as well: last season, coach Carlo Ancelotti arrived in late December with the team atop the table, but it finished second behind Montpellier. Owner Qatari Sports Investment did not see it as a major problem: the bigger picture was that Ancelotti's presence ensured those big-name signings arrived. But a second successive league failure may be harder to forgive. The club has gone "all-in" by backing sports director Leonardo's recruitments, but the Brazilian will be under pressure if another trophy-less season follows. Mourinho's name has been mentioned, but for all the glamor of the club and the city, a move to the French league would be an obvious step for Mourinho, and I can't see it happening.
The Sack Race gathers momentum in England. There were two surprises in England last week: one, not that Chelsea sacked Roberto di Matteo but that it replaced him with Rafa Benitez, a more experienced and (probably) superior coach, but one who rejected this post back in March, was overlooked in the summer (when owner Roman Abramovich was set on talking Guardiola out of his sabbatical plans) and has been roundly vilified by fans since taking the post.
The other surprise was not that Mark Hughes was fired after Queens Park Rangers failed to win any of the first 12 games, but that owner Tony Fernandes waited until six days after the toothless 3-1 defeat to Southampton (a game the media dubbed "El Sackico") before dismissing him. It would seem that the prospect of the man who eventually took over, Harry Redknapp, signing a four-year deal to be Ukraine coach convinced Fernandes to move quickly.
Redknapp told the English press that he had been very close to accepting the Ukraine job, even though few questioned why he would take it. Redknapp famously rejected an approach from Newcastle in January 2008 as he felt it was too far for him to travel; and yet he seemed willing to coach the team ranked No. 55 in the world and currently fifth (behind Poland and Moldova) in World Cup qualifying Group H. Really?
His first game in charge was Tuesday night's 0-0 draw at Sunderland; not a terrible result but one that, had Hughes been in charge, would have been described as two points lost rather than one gained. For his opposite number, the same is true: Sunderland has now won just two of its last 22 league games under Martin O'Neill, and yet he is not under pressure (although reports he offered his resignation at the weekend were denied) or the subject of fans' protests. Two bad results for Tottenham coach Andre Villas-Boas, on the other hand, and his future will be questioned; meanwhile Arsenal fans at the weekend chanted, "You don't know what you're doing," at Arsene Wenger.
There is such thing as a narrative for coaches: in some instances, whatever the results, their storylines are already cast. Even if QPR did go down under Redknapp, you can't help thinking that it would be Hughes taking the blame for it.