Swansea changes its course with abrupt Laudrup dismissal
Last February, Swansea City eased to a 5-0 victory over Bradford City at Wembley Stadium and so lifted the League Cup, the first trophy in its history. Here was vindication for a club that had emphatically done things the right way. In a decade Swansea had recovered from financial meltdown, climbed from fourth flight to top, while playing neat, intelligent football.
By implementing a philosophy and then acquiring the players and coaches to fit, it had avoided the wastage of splurge-and-cull that afflicts so many other clubs. Managers -- Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers -- had left for (seemingly) bigger and better things and Swansea had carried on with barely a stutter. This everybody agreed, was how to run a club.
It seemed then that Michael Laudrup, as elegant and relaxed on the bench as he was on the pitch, might not see out his contract at the club, which was due to expire in summer 2015, but only because he was so much in demand. Chelsea, it was reported, was interested. A little less than a year later, Laudrup has gone, but not of his own volition, and not to a Champions League club.
The board called him in for crisis talks on Tuesday and, after discussing how the present slump in form might be averted, decided to move on without him. Huw Jenkins, the Swansea chairman, spoke with genuine regret of how difficult sacking Laudrup had been: after all, Swansea hadn't dismissed a manager in the 10 years since bankruptcy. For the first time since reformation, the club is in something like a crisis.
There is a key detail in the account of the sacking, and that is that the talks with Laudrup happened on Tuesday. They had been prompted by Saturday's abject 2-0 defeat to West Ham United, but Laudrup hadn't been available until the Tuesday because he was in Paris, visiting his daughter. That was emblematic of his approach: Laudrup has never been a Shankly-style obsessive, going to bed thinking of football, waking thinking of football, and spending every minute from then until going to bed again thinking of football.
Even when he was a player, he kept football in perspective. It was a job, one was very good at, but little more, which is probably why he felt able to cross the divide from Barcelona to Real Madrid: the tribal aspect didn't affect him. That lack of intensity is now being held against him. There are few rights and wrongs in football; only results. What is a mature regime that trusts the players to handle their own preparation when things are going well becomes laxity and apathy when they aren't.
It could equally be the other way round: as Andre Villas-Boas and Fabio Capello have found in England, discipline and attention to detail very quickly become stifling authoritarianism if form slips. And form has slipped. Since the League Cup final, Swansea has won just eight of 35 league games, and stands just two points above the relegation zone.
Although it has beaten Manchester United and Birmingham to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup, the League Cup defense lasted only one round. There's been progress in the Europa League, but even with an attractive tie against Napoli to come, that has felt like a drag - and has probably had a negative impact on league performance.
The loss of Michu to injury has been a major hindrance too, while of the summer signings only Wilfried Bony has really made his mark. It's not just results, though. Relations between Laudrup and the board have been strained since the summer when ties were severed with the manager's agent, Bayram Tutumlu, amid concerns he was having too great an influence over signings.
Managers often end up dealing primarily through their own agent for reasons of trust and ease of access without there necessarily being anything amiss, but the practice is anathema to the Swansea model, which is to prioritize the philosophy above any individual. There has been a sense that Laudrup, who has spoken of leagues within a league, was overly defeatist against the top sides, his frustration at Swansea's lack of resources itself frustrating the board. And there is evidence that laissez-faire approach had begun to lead to indiscipline.
Defender Chico Flores and new coach Garry Monk, now appointed interim manager, clashed on the training ground last month, while so pitiful were Swansea's attempts to deal with the aerial threat of Andy Carroll on Saturday that the captain Ashley Williams was publicly critical.
Monk is only 34, and, although his only appearance this season was in the League Cup defeat to Birmingham, he is still registered as a player. Until Tuesday, he was still engaging in the usual dressing-room banter. He is studying for his UEFA A license and is highly respected, but it's still a huge leap for him to take charge, as Jenkins put it, "for the foreseeable future." It's safe to assume his approach will be tougher than Laudrup's.
For now, though, all that really matters for Swansea is steering away from relegation. If that is achieved, then it can begin to assess what went wrong with Laudrup, whether it was a question of his failure, or whether the model that has been so successful may need adjusting.