Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No Champions League, No Plan B...No More Schuster?

At about this time last year, despite being in the midst of a historic championship run, there were many who debated whether then coach Fabio Capello should continue at the helm of Real Madrid. In the end, he was let go and I think the situation worked out for the best for everyone. However this does not change the fact that I think he was unjustly let go. Capello was hired to win a championship, he did just that and was promptly fired.

After the team got knocked out of the Champions League this season, Capello’s replacement, Bernd Schuster, now finds himself under the same scrutiny as his predecessor. Almost immediately following the defeat to Roma, the Spanish media started to call for his head. Now there are talks that ex-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has been in contact with the higher ups at Real Madrid. As if Schuster’s problems weren’t big enough, he now has to deal with Mourinho nipping at his heels.

Once again, I find this entire situation to be very unfair to the manager. The performance during and result of that Champions League defeat was unexpected and unacceptable from a team of Madrid’s stature. However, I don’t think it should be the basis for an overhaul in leadership.

To be fair, the team has not looked good for a some time now, and some of that definitely has to be blamed on the manager. Schuster was responsible for that defensive minded “double pivot” formation that paired Fernando Gago and Mamadou Diarra in the 1-2 loss to Roma. If someone watched that game and didn’t know the result of the first leg, it would not be unreasonable to think Madrid was up a goal or two with that formation. Gago and Diarra in the midfield is just unnecessary when the team is down a goal.

It’s important to also remember that Madrid is simply an injury filled squad at the moment. Add to that all the suspensions and now we’re talking about a thoroughly depleted side. Ironically, Madrid were knocked out of the Champions with almost the same starters and tactics as the Capello era.

I think that the people who run the team as well as the fans are too short sighted. They want victories, titles, flash, and goals and they want them now. They need to understand the importance of letting a project grow and breathe. Madrid changed their signing philosophy over this last transfer window, swapping the Galaticos for talented youth in the development stage.

Players like Drenthe, Robben, Marcelo, Pepe and Metzelder need time to develop into the players they are destined to develop into. In order to do this they need to get used to a manager and a system. Constantly changing the game plan might hinder their growth. Simply look at Robinho for proof of this. As soon as Schuster said he was going to become an integral part of the attack, he flourished.

With a victory over the weekend Schuster has bought himself some time, but another defeat and the talks for his dismissal will no doubt reignite. I believe that Schuster should be judged when the side is healthy and completely match fit.

This entire health situation has shone a spotlight on a major problem that both Schuster and the administrative staff at Real Madrid have not addressed; a plan B.

What I mean by that is that when the team is hurt, they are basically caught with their pants down and have no idea what to do. All the great sides in Europe are rich in talent. Teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Barcelona can all survive when their starters get hurt or are suspended. This has not the case with Madrid. When starters are hurt the drop in talent is significant. The best example is the right back position, which goes from Sergio Ramos to Michel Salgado. Salgado’s best days are behind him, and he is unfortunately prone to injuries, so he’s far from an ideal backup.

Please don’t misinterpret my position on the managerial issue as pro-Schuster; he has not had enough time with a full squad to state with surety what his managerial merit is. My position is one of sticking with someone and letting him run the team his way for more than a season. Once players are healthy and settled for more than a campaign one can begin to form informed opinions with an appropriate sample size.

It’s obvious that results alone won’t save Schuster from this point on. As a minimum he has to win the league and if he doesn’t do it with the style that Ramon Calderon sees fit, then heaven be with him. Let’s just hope that however the season ends, we as fans can see the healthy and fit starting eleven that we were all were so excited about when the season began.