Pochettino has been the subject of protests while Nagelsmann received hundreds of death threats. The biggest clubs just don’t seem very happy.
The predictable finishes to some European league seasons has provoked much comment, largely about how damaging it might be for the game across the continent. But less seems to be said of whether it might be damaging for those who work at those clubs, or perhaps even the clubs themselves. Because if there’s one thing that can be said for many of these super-clubs, it’s that so many of them seem to be so unhappy for so much of the time.
The appointment of Mauricio Pochettino at PSG at the start of last year was the best of appointments and the worst of appointments. Despite a failure to win any silverware with Spurs, his talents were widely acknowledged, while Pochettino got to work with some of the world’s best players, and at a club with an unlimited budget for shiny new ones. PSG have won Ligue Un at a canter this season but they tripped up again in the Champions League, and that’s where they set the bar for success now. Supporters boycotted their title celebrations. With three games of their league season left to play, they are 14 points clear at the top of the table.
Meanwhile in Germany, the one-sidedness of club football is even more severe than in France. Bayern Munich have just won their tenth Bundesliga title in a row, a remarkable achievement in a country that can hardly be said to be wanting for big and storied football clubs. But again, that bar is set so high as to be almost unmanageable, as can be seen from the 450 death threats that head coach Julian Nagelsmann received after his team was eliminated from the Champions League in the quarter-finals by Villarreal. Bayern Munich are currently 12 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga.
Both of these stories are particularly troubling because of the scale of the anger. In the case of PSG, the nature of their capitulation to Real Madrid in the Champions League inevitably caused anger among supporters (it was, let’s face it, embarrassing), but the fact that it’s still hanging in the air more than six weeks later surely can’t be healthy for anyone concerned. For there to be talk of Pochettino leaving after they’ve just won the league title seems ridiculous.
When PSG are talked of as being ‘unmanageable’, we usually mean their expensively assembled cadre of mega-players, but when fan protests are thrown onto this bonfire as well, it looks more like the entire club. The concern is similar yet different for Bayern Munich. They should have beaten Villarreal, but the scale of such vituperation against Nagelsmann after this defeat is startling. 450 is a lot of people prepared to send death threats.
Pochettino leaving PSG come the end of the season now seems inevitable, and this period will likely be considered a blot on his career, despite having won two trophies in a year and a half. Where he goes from here is just about anybody’s guess; Spurs still feels like it was an ideal fit for both parties, despite the way in which it ended before. Perhaps he could return, end this faintly absurd relationship they have with Antonio Conte in which every bad result seems to prompt him to threaten to leave the club, and Spurs can just run on vibes.
Julian Nagelsmann, meanwhile, is just 34 years old. He is at the stage in life where most players would be about to embark upon what they would hope to be a long managerial career. Nagelsmann has already been coaching to some degree for 12 years, and has been managing for six. He has shown no inclination towards leaving Bayern, but where do either party go if the modern management meat-grinder spits him up and chews him out by the time he’s, say, 37 or 38?
Bayern Munich’s longest-ever serving coach was Udo Lattek, at eight years and 295 days, and it took him two spells at the club to achieve that. Do those 450 who sent those death threats have a better solution than Julian Nagelsmann for Bayern Munich? If they feel strongly enough about it to send a death threat, perhaps they should run for the club’s board. After all, Bayern are 82% fan owned.
This unhappiness seems to be almost everywhere. In England, a bomb threat was made to the Manchester United defender Harry Maguire. In Scotland, fans protested the idea of a Rangers vs Celtic ‘friendly’ in Australia to a point at which the idea was abandoned. Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus still seem to be trying to push through a European Super League, whether anyone else wants one or not. And if we strip away what people are so angry about and whether they’re right or wrong, it surely can’t be doing anyone much good that so many people feel this way.
Furthermore, as that bar continues to rise, as expectations continue to grow, the number of Champions League trophies that can be given out at the end of each season remains exactly the same. Perhaps it really is as simple as that it’s all become too easy and that this feeds boredom, and consequently anger. There have been plenty of times throughout the history of PSG when the club would have given anything to be anywhere near the top of Ligue Un, while it’s not difficult to see how it might be difficult for Bayern Munich supporters to get anything like as excited about their tenth consecutive Bundesliga title as they did over their first.
In England, there remains just enough plurality to give an illusion of competition, but even that now seems restricted to two – at a push, three – clubs. Manchester City and Liverpool have each other to keep themselves competitive, and that seems to be paying dividends in the Champions League. But Liverpool’s success has been despite a huge degree of inequality, and Manchester City have the bottomless pockets of Abu Dhabi to fall back upon. There are few guarantees that Liverpool will be able to keep up with City indefinitely.
Mauricio Pochettino and Julian Nagelsmann will never struggle for work; they are elite-level coaches and it shouldn’t be necessary to worry about their future prospects. But we should worry about a football culture that is simultaneously narrowing the horizons of what it means to be successful while making it prohibitively expensive to try to achieve it. The blunt instrument of the accumulation of trophy players hasn’t been enough to deliver a Champions League trophy for PSG, and winning the Bundesliga repeatedly doesn’t seem to have done much for Bayern Munich in this competition either. They’ve won it once in the last nine years.
But perhaps the point is that once in nine years should be enough for one club in a pan-continental tournament. If football needs a reset, perhaps that should be the first aim – to lower expectations, to make football feel more competitive again, and to make silverware feel like something that has to really be earned than something that just falls into your lap every May. To return some rarity value.
It’s true to say that this level of anger is at least as much a reflection of an increasingly angry world as it is of football in splendid isolation, but that doesn’t mean that the game itself shouldn’t work harder to try and mitigate it. Because setting these increasingly unmeetable expectations for clearly talented coaches such as Mauricio Pochettino and Julian Nagelsmann and then becoming incandescent when they can’t achieve them doesn’t seem to be doing anybody any good.
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