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PostPosted: Thu May 23, 2019 11:07 am 
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Across Europe, something is shifting. This season, for the first time in history, the defending champions in each of the continent’s top five leagues — Emirates Marketing Project, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain — retained their title. And yet, of the five title-winning managers, only Pep Guardiola could be said to be assured of keeping his job next season.

At Juventus, Massimiliano Allegri has already left. At Bayern, Niko Kovac’s future is up in the air, even though he could win the domestic double. No one would be entirely shocked if Ernesto Valverde or Thomas Tuchel found themselves back on the managerial meat market too. (That’s to say nothing of the many managers whose seasons could be considered a partial success, such as Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri, who are on the chopping block.) The conclusion is inescapable: conquering the country is no longer the iron-clad insurance policy that it once was.

For the elite clubs of the European mainland, winning their domestic league is no longer an achievement. In a landscape warped by the tectonic shifts wrought by massive financial stratification, lifting the league title is the baseline expectation. For coaches such as Allegri, Kovac and Tuchel, who may think themselves entitled to bask in the glory of having crossed the finish line first after a gruelling nine-month campaign, the reality is that they have merely discharged their minimum duty. When you are riding the biggest, strongest, most expensively shod thoroughbred in the field, winning the race does not get you much credit.

“As coaches, we know what we’re in for when we fail,” Dieter Hecking, the Borussia Mönchengladbach manager, said on Saturday. “We always thought we’d be OK if we succeeded. That seems to be turning. When everyone thinks it’s OK to give us the boot even if we are successful, that’s a new kettle of fish entirely.” Hecking is out of a job, despite guiding his team to fifth in the Bundesliga.

What’s happening here? In part, this is a symptom of club football’s evolution. We have reached a stage where the imbalance is so great, the hegemony of the big beasts so total, that those clubs know that only the biggest screw-ups could deprive them of Champions League status.

These days, Europe’s elite clubs, with the possible exception of the Premier League heavyweights, are too big to fail. Bayern were fifth at the start of December and still won the Bundesliga. Real Madrid had their worst season since 2002 and still qualified for the Champions League with nine points to spare. Eliminating jeopardy has a price. With nowhere to go in the domestic leagues, expectations are forced in different directions.

Plainly, the Champions League casts an ever-lengthening shadow. For PSG, Juventus and Bayern, whose domestic dominance is all but assured; for Barcelona and City, whose hunger for European glory far exceeds their sated appetite for domestic titles, the Champions League is no longer a bonus — it is the main objective.

In part, the epidemic of insecurity in Europe’s managerial stratosphere reflects the ever-shrinking definition of success at the top level. Winning on the home front and succeeding in Europe is no longer an either-or.

However, the European ultimatum is not the only factor here. If it were, Juventus would not be considering hiring Simone Inzaghi, who has never managed in the Champions League. There is a cultural shift at play.

Ten to 15 years ago, the scrutiny on managers was less multifarious. Win things and, with a few exceptions, you could expect to fade into the background. The past decade has had, in parallel with the rise of the cult of the manager, a proliferation of new tick boxes. Everyone covets what Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, the Champions League finalists, have: the manager who not only gets results, but who is charismatic and popular, who plays progressive, exciting football, who has an emotional connection with his squad, and who embodies the club’s ethos.

Part of this is about brand values. More than ever, the manager is the public face of the club. With Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham or Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, you know exactly what the club is about because the manager embodies it. Could you make the same claim for the identity of Valverde’s Barcelona or Kovac’s Bayern? Those two may be bigger, wealthier, more commercially muscular clubs but, right now, Liverpool, Tottenham and Atletico are stronger football brands, with a more sellable story.

That’s why Chelsea reportedly want Frank Lampard to replace Sarri, and why Manchester United appointed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. For all the objective risk attached to the hiring of such a novice manager, the upside of a coach who personifies the values that the club want to present to the world — youth, attacking football, no lost causes — is irresistible. As Robin van Persie said yesterday, Solskjaer is United’s “perfect match”. Europe’s biggest clubs, knowing that they can afford to be picky, are not content with Mr Dependable any more. They are looking for The One.

Where does this lead us? In the short term, probably to a summer of flux. Allegri, José Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Laurent Blanc are available; others including Kovac and Sarri may come into play; and plenty of clubs will be looking. Once again, the managerial carousel will turn and transfix.

Ultimately, you wonder if Europe’s coaches will look at the precarious predicaments of their title-winning colleagues, at the ever-narrowing path to success, and conclude that the downside of the game’s biggest jobs outweighs their cachet.

“These examples show that us coaches might as well stay at home because clearly we’re not needed,” Hecking said. “The next time you ask yourself the question, ‘Where are the coaches who are consistently successful?’ — they can’t be successful. Because even when they succeed, they get fired. Things can’t go on like this.”

Last summer the Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann, one of the most highly rated young coaches in Europe, turned down Real Madrid. This summer, he will join RB Leipzig instead.

Conventionally, that would be considered a less attractive job but it offers a manager many more different ways to succeed. Perhaps that is the one thing that may halt a seemingly inexorable trend. If clubs are looking for perfection, they may find that some coaches don’t want to be found.

"Will we next create false gods to rule over us? How proud have we become, and how blind."

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