The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
After a house burns down, the ashes all look the same, and after a prominent team falls out with its successful coach, the commentaries tend to be more or less identical. By the time the end comes, every aspect of the story has been gone over so many times that analysis has settled on a few broad points of consensus. This is certainly the case with the Martin Jol catastrophe at Tottenham, about which the same two ideas have been repeated over and over, to the point that they’ve come to seem inescapable. Of these two points, one is right but obvious, and the other is probably wrong but difficult to judge.
These are the points:
1. That the Tottenham board have behaved disgracefully by undermining their manager’s position and eventually forcing him out in a clumsy, badly timed, continually dishonest, distractingly public way.
2. That, while the board mangled the affair, Jol probably did need to go: that his limitations as a tactical thinker meant that he “wasn’t the right man” to help Tottenham break into the top four.
The first point, which has been repeated in chorus since Spurs officials first put on their fake noses and went to meet Juande Ramos at the Alfonso XIII Hotel, seems completely uncontroversial. What would a defense of this pack of weak schemers even look like? If you’re going to drop your successful and popular coach, do it swiftly and have a plan in place. Every new development in the Spurs saga—the belated, unbelievable denials, the halfhearted statements of support, the incredible decision to force Martin Jol to repeat in public his determination to reach the Champions League—seemed to reinforce the impression that, had the board actually wanted the team to lose matches, they could hardly have found a better course. Perhaps most damagingly, the fact that they were eyeing Ramos at all seemed to deflate the sense among the fans (and, I suspect, within the team) that Spurs were a club on the rise, that they were making progress. The board seemed to portray Jol’s two impressive fifth-place finishes as mild embarrassments which they would not continue to tolerate. And as it turns out, they won’t have to.
The second point, about Jol’s tactical shortcomings, began as a whisper among the fans and turned into a widespread muttering as the season began to come apart. On the face of it, it’s much more difficult to evaluate. Tottenham certainly showed a tendency under Jol to let leads slip away and to stumble at the ends of games (the embarrassing 1-0 loss to Sunderland to begin this season is one example; last season’s 3-3 FA Cup quarterfinal draw against Chelsea, in which Spurs squandered a two-goal lead at Stamford Bridge, is another). Jol’s substitutions were often rightly criticized and his tendency to play too cautiously, to stack the whole squad in the back third the moment he had a lead, was held up to heavy scrutiny.
But given what we know about Jol’s lack of control over transfer policy, about the meddlesome nature of the board and the influence of Damien Comolli—given the point, which has also been endlessly repeated during this process, about Spurs spending £16 million on Darren Bent when Jol wanted to buy defenders—it seems clear that Jol has been playing with pieces he didn’t ask for; has been playing, to some degree, with a badly assembled team. Certainly it has not been a team assembled with an eye to his strengths. This point is often overlooked when discussing managers’ tactical decisions, but every successful manager (like every military commander, or every grandmaster of chess) has a unique tactical personality. Success isn’t simply a matter of managers making the right decisions with the players they have, but of clubs assembling a team that reflects their manager’s tendencies and that he can use to the fullest advantage. (How do you think Arsène Wenger would do with the players on hand at Blackburn?) In football today managers are seldom given the long-term stability they need to build a team that suits them, and often wind up simply bouncing from club to club in the hope that by a happy accident they’ll land on a good fit. Rather than having less tactical intelligence than any other coach, Jol may simply have been a prudent, somewhat defensive-minded manager at a club whose transfer activity revealed a desperate desire to be Arsenal.
Granted, that’s in some ways a thin extenuation; it doesn’t explain, for instance, Jol’s tendency to keep favoring players (Jermaine Jenas, Paul Robinson) who didn’t seem up to the job, or the fact that, for a coach with defensive tendencies, he led a team that surrendered an appalling number of goals. It may be this last point that most clouds my own admiration for Jol: he sometimes seemed to send the team into Roman testudo formation after scoring in the first ten minutes, and yet they almost never kept a clean sheet and gave up three goals as often as one. A defensive coach in his third full season, even one with two strikers for every fit defender and no real midfielder on the left, should have done better. Still, the slow transformation of Jol in the press into a sort of likable born loser (“He was unable ever to defeat one of the top-four sides whose ranks he was charged with breaking into,” wrote Matt Scott on the Guardian blog today, forgetting that Spurs beat Chelsea just last season to end a sixteen-year drought) was extremely harsh given his record the past two seasons. Whatever his shortcomings may have been, they weren’t enough to justify the treatment he received from his club. He should still be the manager at Tottenham. It will be interesting to see what sort of success he’ll have with his next team, and what sort of success Tottenham will have without him.
by Brian Phillips · October 26, 2007