Manager rarely stays at clubs for long anyway
5 February ~ It might in retrospect have been better for both parties had Michael Laudrup cashed in his credits for Swansea's League Cup win last summer rather than staying on for a second season. While it was a relief at the time not to have to go through the summer ritual of finding a new manager for the fourth time in as many years, the relationship was always on borrowed time. Laudrup never pretended that Swansea was any more than a stepping stone for him and spoke of "one more year". It was also increasingly clear that his relationship with chairman Huw Jenkins was one of mutual tolerance rather than genuine understanding.
Which is not to say that Swansea would not be only two points off the relegation places had Gus Poyet, the likely choice at the time, come in during the summer. The much-vaunted unpredictability of this year's Premier League fails to conceal the fact that it has broken into two leagues of wholly predictable membership and that the odds against those outside the oligarchy are steeper than ever. The surprise is not that Swansea are in a relegation struggle, but that it has taken three years to happen. And they remain a club punching way above their weight on the basis of sound financial and footballing principles. Relegation would be a severe disappointment, but need not be a catastrophe.
Laudrup's problem, though, is that the reputation that got him named as a runner for just about every big job going during the first nine months of 2013 relied very heavily on his achievement with Swansea. He retains a certain glamour from his playing days and remains, amid a world of one-eyed whingers, an engagingly rational and urbane figure in post-match interviews. But he now increasingly looks like an upmarket Paul Ince – a manager who may bring you some success, as he also did in taking Getafe to the final of the Copa del Rey in Spain – but who never stays very long anywhere. His 20 months at Swansea were the longest he has been in any of his last four jobs, and getting sacked at the end of it amid evident disarray at the club rubs off much of the gloss acquired last year.
That he is the first Swansea manager to be sacked for ten years conceals the hard-headedness with which Jenkins goes about his business. That sacking of Brian Flynn represented the ruthless disposal of a manager who had served the club well while the "mutual consent" formula used to explain the departure of Flynn's successor Kenny Jackett concealed the reality that Jackett, in spite of an impressive record, had little option in the matter. And there remains a strong suspicion that Paulo Sousa's defection to Leicester in 2010 came not far ahead of the axe at the Liberty Stadium. The problem this season has not been the way Swansea play – heeding the voices of those such as Alan Hansen and Leighton James who have called for a change of style would be the surest way of guaranteeing league fixtures against Brentford and Leeds next season – but that they have not been playing very well.
There has been an element of ill-luck in that, against which we have to acknowledge that there was considerable good fortune in the lack of injuries in earlier Premier League seasons, particularly 2011-12. But the malfunctioning of a previously smooth-running team pattern cast doubts on Laudrup's effectiveness as a tactician. There was in particular a breakdown of the crucial link between the defence and midfield, leading to at best a loss of fluency and, rather more seriously, possession being given away in the Swansea half. One element here was Laudrup's apparent lack of faith in the team's metronome and joiner-up-of-dots Leon Britton, a veteran but still only 31. Laudrup frequently preferred summer signing José Canas – a decent, but rather different player – and then, with Canas injured, chose to try to plug the gap with Jordi Amat, a good centre-half but no midfielder.
The spectacle of Amat labouring fruitlessly out of position at Upton Park while Britton, a former West Ham player, stayed on the bench may have been the terminal blow to Laudrup's tenure. Nor, in this connection, has the sight of Ki Sung-Yong, deemed surplus to requirements by Laudrup and loaned out to Sunderland, spearheading their renaissance under Poyet while the Swans struggled for midfielders, been very helpful to his cause.
Should Swansea go down, a lot of fans will remember the last-minute penalty awarded to Stoke City at the Liberty in November as a crucial moment in the decline. Seated a good 70 metres from the action I can't say for sure that it wasn't a penalty, but it did seem odd that none of the seven Stoke players in the Swansea area appealed for the offence detected by the referee.
But the real culprits in this were the Swans who, having fought back from 2-0 down to take a 3-2 lead, lost their shape completely and sat behind the ball, offering Stoke a free go at them. Coming three days after Krasnodar's last-minute equaliser in the Europa League in Russia, itself a repetition of what had happened in the home leg, it was clear evidence of a team losing its way. Brendan Rodgers' teams were not above trying to play out time when ahead by the odd goal, but would do it by maintaining their shape rather than collapsing into damage limitation.
A clean break has been signalled by also dispensing with coaches appointed by Laudrup. There is an element of "back to basics" in the interim "for the foreseeable future" appointment of Garry Monk and Alan Curtis. The basics in this case are likely to be the pressing and possession game associated with Roberto Martínez and Rodgers, opponents on the weekends which follow this Saturday's derby clash with Cardiff City at the Liberty. Curtis is the archetypal old retainer and keeper of the club flame. Monk, a former captain still on the playing staff but being developed as a coach, has for a while had the air of a player destined for management – but neither he nor we can have expected it quite this soon. Huw Richards