Six month tenure ended this morning
How has it come to this?
The story regarding Paul Lambert’s future at Molineux first broke three weeks ago, with the narrative being that Lambert himself was considering his future as a result of a disagreement regarding transfer policy; specifically that Jorge Mendes, rather than Lambert, would be placed in charge of recruitment this summer. However, this is a question of performance and competence rather than any kind of clash behind the scenes regarding our future strategy on signings. That story in the Telegraph was planted by either Lambert himself, or someone close to him, in an attempt to limit any damage to his reputation when he already knew that his position was seriously under threat, or even that his fate had already been decided. It’s much better for his future career prospects if a picture can be painted that he was sawn off by the powers that be rather than dismissed for poor results. It might well be that he would prefer more autonomy than we are set to offer to any Head Coach, but that isn’t the reason this has happened. There has not been a breakdown in relations or a critical rupture regarding how the football side of the club is operated. Fosun have reviewed how the team has performed since the Scot arrived and they deem it to be unsatisfactory. They aren’t sufficiently convinced that he is the man to take us forward from here and so he has been sacked. It’s a fairly standard, straightforward, footballing matter. As much as some elements of the media would wish it to be otherwise.
How to assess Lambert’s time in charge?
It wouldn’t be fair to paint Lambert’s time here as an unmitigated disaster, but he simply hasn’t done enough to further his cause. His immediate brief was to avoid relegation – a state of affairs that we shouldn’t even have been remotely considering after we’d made the investment we had in the summer – and we ended up doing that with a degree of comfort, though for a time in February and March our prospects looked bleak. Beyond that, there wasn’t all that much to suggest that he could take us beyond severe inconsistency and overall mid-table returns. Fosun will have expected him to pull us out of a relegation scrap (which he did, through December and January) and keep us well away from the bottom end of the table, even though a push for the top six was already all but unattainable by the time he arrived. Sinking back into the mire through the late winter was not on the agenda. Our five successive league defeats included shocking performances against Burton, Wigan and Birmingham and the general paucity of our play – as well as picking up 0 points against teams who ended up finishing well below us – will not have escaped the attention of the board.
The FA Cup run was a welcome surprise, particularly coming almost a decade since we’d had any kind of progress in any cup competition. To beat good Premier League teams on their own patch, and deservedly so, will live long in the memory. When we won at Anfield it genuinely seemed like we were on to something under Lambert. However, perversely the run didn’t help him out in the long run. He somehow got it into his mind that the tactics that had beaten Liverpool would serve us well going forward. Yet this was never likely to work; we played that way in that specific game knowing that Liverpool would be relentlessly attacking us, we would need to soak up that pressure and play exclusively on the break. With the best will in the world, Burton and Wigan are never going to face up against Wolves, home or away, and adopt that approach. The upshot of which was we spent a month playing very little football at all, continually looking for an early ball forward which proved fruitless as the forwards were surrounded by defenders who hadn’t pushed on, there was no space in behind to exploit as there had been against Jürgen Klopp’s men. Predictably enough, it didn’t work. Had we not scored two late goals at Brentford in March – a game which, in fairness, we fully deserved to win – then there’s every chance he might not have seen the season out, although it’s hard to think who we could have appointed at that stage.
In general there were few clear signs of how Lambert wanted us to play. It’s true that he pushed the full backs on more than Walter Zenga did. He eventually shifted Ivan Cavaleiro into the number ten role to good effect. He continued to get serious output out of Helder Costa (though Lambert is well wide of the mark when he suggests that Costa was in and out of the team before he arrived). The signing of Ben Marshall indicated that he valued footballing ability in the wide areas just as much as raw pace and directness. He granted debuts to Connor Ronan and Morgan Gibbs-White, two excellent young footballers. These were all small good signs yet our games were still characterised by slack passing, an overly direct approach at times, a lack of cohesion, players not showing for the ball, significant periods where we appeared shapeless…I have some sympathy with him because he didn’t have the greatest tools at his disposal. We were never likely to spend big in January given that we were out of contention for promotion and as such, were not going to be well placed to pick up any high profile players at that stage. There isn’t a manager in the country who’ll turn George Saville and Dave Edwards into acceptable passers of the ball. But then no-one made him pick them. We simply didn’t even resemble a decent team in the bulk of his games in charge and there certainly isn’t any excuse for the tepid displays once survival had been all but secured at the start of April. At a time when we had nothing to play for, to refuse to experiment, to still play in a fashion whereby we seemed to be happy to try to eke points out at the expense of playing with any flair at all (the 0-0 draw with Blackburn was particularly puzzling) was not a good advert for our future prospects under him.
Ultimately, a month ago I wasn’t calling for his head. The points return that he managed (41 points from 30 games, 1.36 PPG) would equate to a tally of around 62 points over a full season, enough for around 11th place in this or most other seasons. Given the litany of issues facing the squad, whereby we don’t even have one genuinely capable option in several key positions, that probably isn’t far off the limit of what anyone could have got out of these players, although the fact that results tended to come in bursts of either winning or losing form with nothing in between doesn’t necessarily help perception. He didn’t do a bad job, but he certainly didn’t do enough to secure his own position. It’s apparent that the owners expected more. Personally, I can’t say I’ve shed any tears since it was clear that he was soon to be on his way. Other than the ones I shed every day about our left back situation. I certainly cannot agree with some of the handwringing that’s already on show about his supposed “shabby treatment”. The only reason he appears to have been left on the hook for the last three weeks is because someone from his side of the fence chose to leak a story regarding uncertainty surrounding his position. The club have played no part in that. They’ve assessed his contribution to date and concluded that it isn’t sufficient for us any more. That’s football. I can’t see what is manifestly “shabby” about that.
Where does this leave us?
Barring a major surprise being sprung, Nuno Espirito Santo will be announced as Lambert’s successor in the coming days. On the face of it, a Championship club should never be able to attract a manager who has Valencia and Porto as his most recent two clubs; furthermore, he led Valencia to a fourth place finish in La Liga as recently as 2014/15 and this season, lost a mere two league games with Porto, one of them being a final day dead rubber when their challenge for the title was already over. Although he failed to pick up any silverware with Porto, Benfica’s dominance in Portugal is not exclusive to this campaign; Porto have failed to win any trophy since 2013. It is through Jorge Mendes that we have been able to tempt him into the dizzying prospect of midweek encounters at Portman Road and The Den, Nuno being his first ever client. Being familiar with Mendes and being open to his players being brought to the club (as happened with Nuno at Valencia) is going to be crucial for any Head Coach as we move forward.
Some fans may not like this prospect but they are simply going to have to get used to it. Fosun have a serious financial and emotional stake in Gestifute and it will be through them that we source a large proportion of our signings. I think we’d all take a couple more Helder Costas. It is of course up to Mendes to furnish his man with the requisite quality – players, of course, that have to be willing to come to the Championship and buy into what this league requires – and at this stage, we have to operate with the faith that he will live up to his end of the bargain. It would make little sense for him to place a trusted client at a club where he clearly has an ongoing involvement, then send him signings of the calibre of Ola John. Time will tell. While it wouldn’t be fair to castigate Lambert wholesale on mere rumours, it’s telling that no-one thought it outlandish that his supposed targets included Jason Steele, Grant Hanley and Jordan Hugill. I would suggest it is likely that Mendes can offer us better than that. Additionally, the success in the Championship of late from the likes of Slavisa Jokanovic, Jaap Stam, Aitor Karanka (not that I would ever welcome his brand of footballing torpor to Molineux) and David Wagner suggests that the days when managerial experience of this league was a prerequisite are over. Worry about the talent of the man in charge before you consider the colour of his passport.
Making three managerial changes in less than a year is not ideal. Optimally you would seek to find the right man straight away and let that side of affairs look after itself. However, what the flux suggests is that Fosun are never going to be content with mediocrity. There is no chance that the club will be allowed to drift along as one of those teams that enter August each year with the vague hope that they might sort of challenge for sixth place if everything turns out well. The ambition is to get out of this league (at the right end, so apologies Deano, but you need to not apply) at the earliest possible opportunity. This cannot be a bad thing. I know that I’m not happy watching us finish 15th. I know I’m not happy with successive sub-60 points finishes in what remains a fairly ordinary division – for evidence of which, have a re-watch of yesterday’s Championship playoff final. Go on, I dare you. I know I’m definitely not happy watching the players that have contributed to the last two years of drudgery and are the sole common factor across those two campaigns. We need to change and it needs to be pretty radical, there is no value in wasting time or offering more opportunities to those who have conclusively proven that they are not up to the task. For many years, fans have bemoaned our coaching structure and called for a clearout. They’ve got their wish as Lambert is followed through the exit door by Stuart Taylor, Rob Edwards and Tony Daley (with Pat Mountain also set to be downgraded from first team matters if he remains at the club). Nuno will bring in all his own men. They’ve looked at other clubs and lamented that we are never as “ruthless” as they are. Well, they’ve done that now as well. More than once.
We need them to get an appointment right, one that sticks and one that brings us success. We need this soon because if we end up in a long-running cycle of failed appointments that don’t end up seeing out even a full season, it certainly won’t help the perception of the club, particularly when it comes to recruitment. If they do continue to get it wrong and we fester in this league for any length of time, questions will rightly be asked. But the signs are that Nuno will be given the tools to succeed, and he has a pedigree that should be wholly unmatched in this division next season. This club is changing; perhaps attitudes need to change along the way.