TSG had an interesting analysis piece up on Saturday tying a thread through the surprising, spectacular failures of Roy Hodgson, Mark Hughes, and Gerald Houllier in the EPL this season. TSG contrasts Owen Coyle's ability to harness the most of the talent in Bolton's existing squad with the three H's poor showing with greater assets in Liverpool, Fulham, and Aston Villa, respectively, arguing that the the technical rigidness of the trio has handicapped the natural talents and skills of their players.
Its a useful point and, insofar as TSG focuses on the effective utilization of existing personnel, is something I've been thinking about in a number of contexts recently.
I've made much of the departure and return of Chris Harris to the Bears. The road to Lovie Smith's second NFC Championship Game (should his squad be able to overcome the now 8-9 Seattle Seahawks next Sunday) will be paved the same way it was to his first: with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs anchoring the defense behind a competent defensive line, with a secondary quarterbacked by Harris and dependent on Peanut Tillman. The decision to jettison Harris and replace him with Adam Archuleta is not the only reason the Bears' have missed the playoffs the previous three seasons, but his departure corresponded with the team's decline and his return, conveniently, corresponds with the team's rise to the upper echelon of the NFL.
Correspondence is not causality, but Harris stands as a useful symbol of how Coach Smith's willingness to address errors and change tracks when necessary has put his team in a position to go to another Super Bowl. Bringing back Harris was an admission of error by Lovie (and Jerry Angelo) -- not because Harris did not receive a huge payday from the Bears, but because he was never adequately replaced -- but for Smith, any such admission paled in comparison to giving up defensive play-calling duties and kicking Ron Turner to the curb. In the end, it was Smith's admission of fallibility and his willingness to subjugate his authority to reliance on the expertise of others (principally Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli) that has put the Bears where they are. It was, in other words, Lovie Smith's lack of rigidness -- in tactics, personnel, and control -- that has led to the Coach's second act.
The flip side of that same coin has played itself out in Charlton and will likely plague D.C. United in the same season.
By all accounts, Phil Parkinson is a good person. Despite being shouldered with the unfortunate legacy of the ruins of Alan Pardew, following relegation to League One, Parkinson was able to steady a sinking ship, but once righted, the vessel seemed never destined to reach its port of call under his captaincy. Those supporters that did not call for Parky's head reasoned that a skint club and weak assets afforded him no opportunity of success. And perhaps that view is a closer reflection of the objective reality than the opposing position: Parkinson was endowed with more talent than the vast majority of teams in England's third division and, yet, Charlton had minimal prospects of promotion.
Wherever the truth may lie, there is little question that Parkinson failed to get the best out of what he had. More specifically, Parkinson was unable to draw out the skills and creativity of the talent at his disposal. It has been many years since I've had the privilege of being in The Valley, but I have, nevertheless, watched the likes of Therry Racon, Jose Semedo, Kelly Youga, and Lloyd Sam play first hand and the fact that their technical skills have only occasionally flickered with Parkinson at the helm is a fairly damning indictment of his reign. Not as damning as the team's frequently listless performances, which galled even those who backed Phil.
Poor tactics were augmented by personnel choices, where Parkinson reversed the gambling on rough gems by Iain Dowie and Alan Pardew (borne mostly from outsized egos) by adding safe, honest players with minimal upside. The comfort afforded by the players Parkinson added reinforced the lack of tactical competence on the pitch and Charlton's approach frequently degenerated to punted balls, with blown assignments on set pieces evincing some fundamental flaw in training.
Parkinson has now paid for his transgressions -- real or imagined -- with his job under this new regime. Ultimately, Parkinson's rigidness, underscored by a strange, ill-conceived tactical change that preceded a spanking from Swindon Town, forced his departure. While a good opening 45 minutes at White Hart Lane this morning was welcome, without a gaffer or a clear plan for revitalization, the immediate future does not seem bright.
Charlton's prospects, however, are far better than D.C. United's. I am trying to reserve judgment on the team, but I am not heartened by the personnel decisions made thus far. Ben Olsen's black and red and white army will be industrious and tireless and honest and, in all likelihood, an absolute bear to watch. Gone are the skills of Jaime Moreno, Rodney Wallace and Jordan Graye. Gone too are the more mercurial contributions of Pablo Hernandez, Carlos Varela, and Danny Allsopp. In their place, United supporters get Dax McCarty, Josh Wolff, Joseph Ngwenya, Daniel Woolard, Conor Shanosky, Ethan White, and the return of Kurt Morsink.
Morsink's new contract gives away this iteration of the team's approach -- if you want lots of running around to little effect, D.C. United is the team for you. Morsink fills no need for the team and, with McCarty, Shanosky, Clyde Simms, Stephen King, and Branko Boskovic available to play in the middle of the field, Morsink effectively eats up a slot that could have been filled by an attacking wide player or striker with an unrealized ceiling. Instead, Olsen's United will spend significant (although certainly not massive) funds on a security blanket.
As soon as Dejan Jakovic and Julius James are ushered away from the team, the players who pose the biggest threat to a novitiate's leadership will have all been cashiered. Olsen will have amassed a team of "coachable" players that should minimize his headaches in the locker room.
There is little reason to believe that the team will offer anything magical on the field (should it involve any player not named Andy Najar). United will probably enjoy better results than last year -- last year's team was so bad, it would take more work to be worse than better -- but they should offer very little entertainment for those who buy tickets.
The personnel moves also portend a team that will not display different approaches next season. The return of Carlos Varela and Pablo Hernandez would have challenged Olsen by giving him obviously talented guys who had underperformed. Instead, with this roster, what fans see is probably what we will get.
I hope that I am wrong, but the term "rigid" will be, I fear, fully descriptive of the identity of D.C. United 2011.
Finally, while the front office of United declined to saddle Olsen with players that might pose a challenge in the locker room, the same cannot be said of Jim Hendry. Efforts to dampen fans' expectations for next year have been obliterated by the addition of Matt Garza as well as Carlos Pena.
I love watching Garza pitch and have enjoyed the efforts by some to find flaws in his game, ultimately leading to a critique focused on Garza's purported inability to be an ace on a competitive team's roster. Whatever. He's a very good pitcher, who I never believed would end up in a Cubs uniform. Indeed, if you told me two months ago that the Cubs could have one of Zack Greinke or Matt Garza, but only one, I would have bit your hand off for Garza and started to count down the days to spring training.
But the addition of Garza doesn't make Quade's job any easier. The Cubs' clubhouse now features Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Silva, and Matt Garza -- three very talented starting pitchers that can best be described (according to press reports) as interesting personalities. Getting the best out of these three this season will be as important as any other coaching responsibility to the team's success.
I doubt that Quade is looking for any sympathy. Fans want their teams coached by people who do not pause in absorbing players of incredible, if untapped, talent. They are flexible enough in both approach and practice to absorb a wide array of personalities and overcome a spectrum of various individual flaws. It is cliche, but the best coaches are malleable enough to be able to fashion diverse elements into a cohesive, focused whole.
I wish Ryne Sandberg was managing the Cubs in 2011. But while few may say it -- and instead ridiculously declare that some type of talent chasm lays between the Cubs, Astros, and Pirates on one side of the Central and the Cardinals, Reds, and Brewers on the other -- north siders will be expecting a playoff contender come August. Therefore, there will not exactly be a high margin for error attendant to whoever leads the dugout for the Cubs. If rigid defines Quade's approach to coaching this season, it may be a Jim Essian-length run at the top.