Felix Magath’s appointment as the new Fulham boss brings one of the most enigmatic, controversial and successful Bundesliga managers of the last decade to the Premier League. Magath becomes the first German to manage in England’s top flight as well as the first man of American/Puerto Rican descent (his father was a US serviceman) to manage in the Premier League.
The sacking of Rene Meulensteen was particularly cruel given how many young players the Dutch coach used in this week’s credible showings against Manchester United and Liverpool. The failure of Fulham’s press release announcing the Magath hiring to even mention the sacked Dutch manager or his technical staff was poor form. Meulensteen lasted only 17 days earlier this year at Anzhi after replacing Guus Hiddink with the Russian club, and this time lasted only 75 days after replacing Martin Jol. The ability of the Dutchman to manage in his own right after a very successful run as Manchester United Assistant Manager is being questioned.
But back to Magath. His appointment is highly controversial but he has a resume about as good as it gets in top European football. He has a track record of being able to remake teams in transfer windows by spending big money. He’s also a renowned disciplinarian. But he has little time to acclimatize to life in England as the club is in a desperate fight for Premier League survival and — unlike at Stuttgart, Bayern, Wolfsburg and Schalke — he won’t be able to buy big to remake the team or pressure those he inherits with the transfer window closed.
Magath won three Bundesliga titles including an improbable one with Wolfsburg in 2009 as a manager. But it was in his time at Schalke that followed where his reputation suffered due to player unrest related to his methods. When he was at the Gelsenkirchen based club, players and fans both lost patience with the manager’s regime and his unwillingness to show any sort of flexibility both tactically and in the public arena. After being sacked, he returned to Wolfsburg but allegations about relationships with agents were levied due to the excessive spending he inflicted on the club in three transfer windows.
All of this having been aired, Fulham were going to be relegated for certain without a management change. It is questionable whether they can stay up even with the new leadership, but having invested millions in the club, Shahid Khan wants to maintain Premier League status. However, perhaps simply going down without disrupting the club too badly and fighting in the Championship next season for a quick return would have been a more prudent course.
By making this change so dramatically, the Cottagers are exposing the new American based ownerships fear of relegation and their continued quick trigger finger with regards to management. They are sticking all their eggs in a controversial basket hoping for a quick turnaround and maintenance of Premier League status.
While it cannot be questioned that Magath is a good manager, he’s always had the ability to spend money and to exercise total control over the footballing side of a club. That was a problem eventually at both Schalke and Wolfsburg. At Fulham he comes into a west London side that one time had been built through careful planning but suddenly appears to simply have a hodgepodge of veteran players unwanted elsewhere. What he can do with this rag tag bunch is very much in question.
The Cottagers have taken a chance. Instead of riding out the problems with Meulensteen and potentially going down to the Championship fighting, they have brought in a manager who could rip the soul out of the side and still get relegated. But the flip side is perhaps Magath’s disciplined routine works in the short-term as it did in his return to Wolfsburg in 2011 after his Schalke sacking. In that instance, he moved Wolfsburg out of the drop zone to mid-table safety in a very short period of time. However, the next year and a half were miserable for the club thanks to the overspending and inability to break past mid-table status. Magath was eventually relieved of his duties in a move applauded by most fans.
Fulham’s problems run deeper than anything Meulensteen and his staff could solve. So maybe Magath with his tough approach will have greater success with a group of players who quite frankly should get relegated.
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