Why Tony Popovic’s time might be up: the three year rule and the curse of Bela Guttman

After three years of extraordinary success, could this be the end of the Tony Popovic era?

Quite rightly, Tony Popovic’s position in charge of the Western Sydney Wanderers is not in question. After winning a Premiership, the Asian Champions League and two consecutive Grand Final appearances, he has earned himself an extraordinary cushion, one that is currently protecting him from talk of the sack after a winless start to the season.

It’s an extraordinary contrast – Asian champions, and bottom of the A-League. After spending the previous two seasons (their first two seasons in existence as a club) on a high, this is certainly the low. Amidst suggestions of player unrest due to both pay disputes and impending transfers, and the rumours linking Popovic to the temporarily vacant Crystal Palace job, the Wanderers have an enormous challenge on their hands to simply make the finals, let alone make it a hat-trick of Grand Final appearances.

The challenge Popovic faces is one faced by many top coaches across the globe. The difficulty of maintaining player motivation, presenting fresh ideas and keeping the dressing-room harmonious over a long period of time has long been acknowledged. There’s even a specific theory for it devised by the legendary football manager Bela Gutmann.

Put simply, “the third year,” Guttmann famously said, “is fatal.” His reasoning was that when a manager stays at a club for more than two years, the players get bored and opponents begin to work them out.

Guttmann’s own history is fascinating. He had a strict adherence to his own theory, never staying at a club longer than two years. He had 25 different jobs in a forty year managerial career, working at the likes of AC Milan, Sao Paolo and Benfica, winning two consecutive league and European Cup doubles – having won the league with Porto in the year prior to jumping ship.

If Guttmann never stayed put long enough to put his three year theory to the test, there have been countless examples of it perhaps being grounded in truth (provided the theory is given a little leeway, and expanded to four years).

For example, Ariggo Saachi won the Serie A and two European Cups but fell apart in his third year – a failure to win any trophies saw the end of the Saachi reign. More recently, the wildly successful Jose Mourinho was sacked in the third year at the only two clubs he has ever spent more than two seasons at (Real Madrid and Chelsea), failing to win the league or European title in either of those years.

Guttmann’s theory was intended for managers, but applies to clubs too. Ajax won three European Cups in three years during the 1970s, but had two coaches (Stefan Kovacs and Rinus Michels) during that period, before the dressing room collapsed due to player power in the fourth year. Barcelona are another more modern example, winning two European Cups under Pep Guardiola between 2009-2011, before falling away in the manager’s fourth and final year, finishing nine points behind Real Madrid in the league.

It’s difficult to draw examples close to home given the short history of the A-League. Without knowing Ange Postecoglou’s ultimate motivations for leaving Brisbane Roar after three years – two of which were unprecedented success – it may have been because he felt the side might stagnate the following season (as they did under Rado Vidosic). This hypothesis is corroborated by the fact Postecoglou went on to play a very different brand of football with Melbourne Victory, a much quicker, transition based style, that was the direction the A-League was heading after slower, possession based styles had come in vogue due to Brisbane’s success.

Even in other sports, the three/four year theory can apply. In the NBA, for example, the Los Angeles Lakers won three consecutive titles between 2000-2002 before fractions between star players Shaquille O’Neill and Kobe Bryant broke the team apart. In the ‘fourth’ year, 2003, they didn’t make it past the second round of play-offs.

The success of the Chicago Bulls is even starker evidence: three Championships in 1991-1993, then none when Michael Jordan retired, then three more between 1996-1998 when Jordan returned. In the ‘fourth year’ of the first three-peat (1994) the Bulls were knocked out of the second round of the play-offs; after the second three-peat (1999), general manager Jerry Krause dismantled the team, who won just 13 of 50 games the following season.

In many ways, it is this exact theory that makes Sir Alex Ferguson so remarkable as a football manager. In 25 years at Manchester United, he had an extraordinarily consistent run of trophies, winning . However, Ferguson’s success in itself is another vindication of the underlying theory behind Guttman’s famous proclamation. He was a master of evolving his squad, breaking up teams and rebuilding anew. He was famous of ripping out the core of winning sides as to bring new faces who weren’t familiar with his methods.

The overall conclusion that can be drawn here is that change is key to ongoing success. In football, the risk of players stagnating and team dynamics disintegrating is too great, especially when opponents are constantly changing themselves in order to achieve success. Like management in any discipline, upon which there are countless books written about change theory, evolution is necessary to keep one step ahead.

Speaking specifically about the Wanderers, it’s a valid argument to suggest that Popovic has not done enough to evolve the side. Tactically, he remains welded to the 4-2-3-1 formation favoured from day one, and the side remains reliant on the hard-working, counter-attacking approach that brought them such success. Although there have been subtle evolutions, such as a greater emphasis on playing out from the back when Matthew Spiranovic was signed, and this season, more possession-based attacks with the wide players coming inside to create overloads, the tactical characteristics of the side remain very familiar. They have become predictable, and opponents have ‘worked them out’, evidenced by their incredibly poor run of form in the A-League.

Of course, there are other factors at play. Despite rotating the squad, Popovic probably doesn’t have enough depth in the squad to manage all the extra games thanks to the Asian Champions League and Club World Cup. Those games, too, with all the extra travel – and A-League scheduling has not been kind, with the side having been forced to travel to New Zealand immediately after returning from both Saudi Arabia and Morocco – has accumulated fatigue in the squad that has had an obvious impact upon their ability to play at a high tempo, or press as high up as Popovic desires.

For example, it was reported by Sebastian Hassett on SBS’s The World Game that “it looked like Mateo Polajk was going to physically collapse” post-match to the 1-1 draw with Newcastle Jets. This followed on from an article by the same journalist that said “some players have been visibly tiring towards the end of matches because of the club’s inability to structure a full pre-season…Dutch winger Romeo Castelen was “dead” after only 35 minutes against Newcastle last weekend.”

The travelling, too, will have had an impact on relationships between members of the squad. The more time spent together, plus time away from friends and family, will have made it more difficult for the relationships between all 23 players plus the coaching staff to remain harmonious. These are factors beyond Popovic’s control, but are crucial elements in the successful management of a group dynamic.

It feels sacrilegious to point out the flaws in the management approach of Tony Popovic, who created the squad from scratch and took them to the highest glory in Asian football, achieving remarkable success in the A-League along the way.

Popovic might be determined to prove he can turn things around, but not only are there obvious tactical, physical and mental factors at play, he’s also up against the weight of history in what might prove to really be the third ‘fatal’ year.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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