The Walking Dead – Is change needed to stop this slump?

You’ll notice from this piece’s title that this is not match reaction to the Sheffield Wednesday per se. To any man who can knock out more than two paragraphs on it without a) losing the will to live, or b) completely deviating into general Watford chat I doff my cap. 

No, as the 1-0 loss was merely a continuation of the ‘can-we-really-call-it-a-crisis-given-what-happened-last-year-and-what-about-those-years-with-Bassini-and-Boothroyd-and-everything-oh-go-on-then-we’ve-lost-to-Yeovil’ crisis – pretty much indistinguishable from the five home games that have gone before it – this is more of a look at where we are now, and what really needs to be done.

One doesn’t really need much reminder these days that football is a results business. You can be manager at Manchester City or Macclesfield, if you aren’t producing the results right now you’re on borrowed time. The problem with that is that it condenses all of the wonderful, little intricacies and subtleties of the game into one discrete piece of data. There are thousands of moments in a match, little battles between players, coaches, even fans, but they all end up expressed as a 3, 1 or 0.

And this run of form, friends, is a results-based crisis – or at least it started off as one. We haven’t been that bad. Have we been outplayed in those five games? Has Zola been thoroughly outcoached? No. It’s been crap to watch, no doubt, but that’s because we know what’s coming: we know as we watch a good chance sail the wrong side of the post and the opposition lining up a free kick or corner that it’s going to fly in.

But we’ve been worse in very recent memory. Much worse. The results just aren’t falling our way.

As I said, it started as simply a bad run of results. A miskick or two against Derby, a dodgy linesman’s decision at Brighton, a last minute misjudgement against Middlesbrough. These are not deep-seeded, strategical errors; they are moments – a few among thousands – that have skewed the result of a game. But as those moments have piled up they have formed a weight: a big, shot-skewing, boot-slipping, interception-missing albatross around the necks of the players and, indeed, Zola.

Now, they are bereft of confidence and the buoyant spirit of last year has vanished. The fans too have been sucked into the myth of results. No win in nine games, 71 days (78 by the time we travel to Ipswich next Saturday) is unforgivable, but there will be teams in the top half of the table who have played much worse in the past two and a bit months and picked up many more points.

The problem is that it has become an inevitability now; not just in the minds of the fans, but the players and coaching staff as well. Who believed, as Connor Wickham’s free-kick lashed the back of Jonathan Bond’s net, that Watford would find a way back into the game? Very few, I’d wager, and not many of the players would have been amongst them.

Which is the real problem. I don’t believe that we’re in this mess due to any severe mismanagement. We’re worse than last year – of course we are – but have the people in charge of personnel messed up? Is this really a weaker squad? I don’t think so. We haven’t replaced some great players, and have been disappointed by some new ones, but this squad has enough talent to compete.

Last year, as we started to turn over sides like Leeds and Brighton, we were in a moment, and though that moment ended a month or so before the end of the season, we ran on the fumes of that moment, and it took us to Wembley. Now we’re in another moment, an altogether different type – but there’s no sign of it stopping.

That’s the issue. Can Gianfranco Zola get the team out of this funk? Does he have the man-management skills to get the players off the floor and into the mindset that had them steamrollering teams just twelve months ago?

For all the moaning about 3-5-2 and a Plan B and having no strikers, that is, to me, the big question.

We were all so wary of this Italian takeover becoming another incarnation of Vialli that we missed it becoming another Boothroyd. Zola and his team, like Aidy, came into the club and completely changed the mood of the place. He got them flying on a wave of new ideas and led an overachieving team to the playoffs. Both were hailed as geniuses.

But the true test of a manager is not how he starts the fire, but how he keeps it going and reignites the ashes when it unexpectedly goes out. Aidy is a superb manager, for six months. Everywhere he’s gone he has had immediate success – no doubt telling the same old fables, pulling the same old tricks – but has then floundered when he needs to change the tone or refresh his ideas.

Zola’s sophomore year has gone much as Boothroyd’s return to the Championship went: big expectations matched, for a time, by results if not performances, before the toppling house built on sand collapsed onto the beach below.

One of the mistakes that Boothroyd made during his tenure was showing the door to Keith Burkinshaw, the man who was brought in as number two to help guide the rookie manager in the finer points of football management.

Zola’s assistant, Giancarlo Corradini, also left after one year. He was replaced by Bastiano Porcu, a Sardinian novice with no experience of anything approaching top-level football.

It’s not an exact parallel, because although Corradini can claim to have managed Juventus (for two games in their post-Caliopoli Serie B season – he lost both), he hasn’t got any more experience of being top dog than Zola himself. But the thing with number twos is that the average joe watching from afar can never tell how much impact they have until they have gone.

Corradini has been an assistant to Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello and Didier Deschamps – so he may well have picked up a thing or two. The point is not that this was Corradini’s team or that Porcu is inept or out of his depth or whatever. It’s that something has been lost, and Zola, for all his charm and technical knowhow, doesn’t seem to know how to turn this particular ship around. Perhaps an old hand, with managerial, rather than coaching, experience is what we need.

To my mind, tactics aren’t an issue. We’re still making chances early on and are still, as the Leeds game showed, capable of putting a few goals past a decent team.

If anything, Zola is too keen to change it up. Against Wednesday, with injured, there was an obvious replacement in Daniel Pudil on the bench, but the mister opted to make an attacking switch, reshuffling three or four players and bringing on Diego Fabbrini. This is not the first time that Fabbrini has been shoehorned into the side after an hour of a losing cause, and although he was more effective than usual on Saturday, the change always seems to come at the cost of completely lost team shape.

No, the frailty is in the minds of the players. Chances flow until the opposition have that one lucky strike, and then they recede into themselves. There is strong talk of factions in the changing room: troubling, of course, but not terminal. Footballers – like all of us – are a fickle bunch: get them winning and they’ll all be going out for Rodizio and sangria or whatever these continental types do, lose and they’ll be at each other’s throats. Some of them at least, judging by Ikechi Anya’s Twitter, back the manager.

I guess the course of action that the Pozzos take rests on their short-term ambition. To be in with a shot of promotion this season would take an almost immediate turnaround. That’s not going to happen with Zola, but then, neither is relegation. Though a new coach may well bring the brief surge of form, he would still have the issue of players who haven’t adapted or aren’t up to it.

Were I in charge – and God knows one day I will be – I’d give him until February or March. I’d be interested to see what happens in January, both in terms of player arrivals and departures. Troublemakers might be shipped out, and 40 goal-a-season strikers may be brought in. If after changes there’s still no fight, then a change may have to be made.

We are due a transitional season, after all.

In any case, I’m sure the Pozzos wouldn’t act unless they had a firm idea of who they’d get in in his stead. There are certainly no appealing domestic options, barring Steve Clarke who was dismissed by West Brom after an awfully similar run of form to our own (7 points from a possible 30 to our 7 from a possible 33).

La famiglia will undoubtedly have  a few names from Italy up their sleeves, people most of us will never have heard of and who are comfortable in the Head Coach role, but for every import of Pochettino quality there’ll be one that produces Solbakken results. They won’t act until they’ve got somebody they know will galvanise the team in the long-term.

The one thing that rests on, however, is that the enveloping sense of doom and futility hasn’t seeped through to Zola himself. Talking to Three Counties after the game the man seemed beset with grief and disappointment. Does he have the heart to carry on trying to turn around this faltering wannabe juggernaut?

I fear he doesn’t.

Is Zola on borrowed time, will he walk before he’s pushed? There’s a poll there, tell us.

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2 comments

  1. Mark Bates · · Reply

    I think you’ve summed it up – Zola is a coach not a manager. Zola needs others to help him and without a decent number two to support him he’s lost and without a plan to motivate the squad.

  2. Sean Fulton · · Reply

    Great article. Its tough… Zola last year certainly earned loyalty and this year has missed the spine of our team from last term (through player loss or injury, plus Deeney’s less spectacular form this year). Any team losing nearly 50% of its best players would struggle, but something else seems up.

    Perhaps it is the number two. They say footballers are very quick to judge a manager and can tell if he doesn’t have the gravitas to guide them, and maybe our number 2 is in that position. This might have left Zola isolated. But at the end of the day, its all conjecture.

    I don’t want Zola to be sacked, but I struggle to see where the upturn in fortune is coming from.

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