It is a story which does not only ring true in Russia, but across the footballing world. Even international sides have taken to the new trend, much to chagrin of more traditional observers. Sensing that the old ways which brought success are outdated, teams are increasingly looking to stylish managers from overseas to modernise their clubs, with results understandably varying wildly.
One place this policy has failed to meet with success is at Spartak Moscow, Russia’s most decorated club and perhaps the country’s symbol of its footballing prowess. Every Russian football fan, whether a follower of the red and whites or not, can recall the halcyon days of the 1990s, when Oleg Romantsev’s side swept aside all before them to win an unprecedented number of championships. Spartak competed at the top table of the Europe game, the elusive European trophy always seeming like a possibility given their impressive style of play.
Post-Romantsev however, things began to turn sour for Spartak. Suddenly faced with new and strengthening competition from CSKA, and later the emerging forces of Rubin and Zenit, the old ways began to fail. The managerial genius left in a cloud of alcoholism and discontent, whilst Andrei Chernyshov failed to pick up the pieces. Following the example of so many European clubs seeking to revive their fortunes, it was only a matter of time before Spartak looked abroad. A full eight years after his Parma heyday, Italian boss Nevio Scala was flown in to steady the ship. He lasted less than a year.
The domestic route was returned to in the aftermath of Scala’s sacking – the Italina has not coached again since being dismissed from the Luzhniki bench – but in 2008 it was decided that a young, vibrant and overseas boss was needed as a counterpart to the traditional methods employed by the Russian managers of the day. In came none other than Michael Laudrup, fresh off the back of a successful spell in Spain with Getafe, and again the concept of modernisation and style was at the forefront of the Spsrtak philosophy.
Again however, the plan failed. Laudrup sat on the Spartak bench for just seven months and 14 games, recording a win percentage of less than 30%, one of the lowest in the club’s history. Defeat in the Russian Cup to fierce city rivals Dinamo saw the end of his tenure, and it became apparent that Spartak were not a side who could have a particular style suddenly imposed on them. With specific expectations from the fans, the Moscow giants needed a manager who understood that philosophy and knew how to implement it.
The man to do that was Valeri Karpin, an appointment which delighted the Luzhniki faithful at the time. The year before, the three-time Russian champion was appointed as the club’s director general, and after playing an instrumental role in removing Laudrup, appointed himself to the manager’s position. It was a risky move given his lack of coaching experience, but this was a man who understood the Spartak way, having played under Romantsev before becoming something of a hero for Spanish club Celta Vigo, and who could relate to the fans who cheered his men forward.
With the fans onside, Karpin led Spartak to the league’s silver medal in his first season, finishing behind repeat champions Rubin to earn entry into the lucrative Champions League group stage. A shakier second season saw Spartak slip to 4th and the consolation prize of Europa League football as the Zenit era began to take shape, but Karpin remained a mostly popular figurehead in the stands.
In the elongated 2011-12 season, things began to go pear-shaped. After one of the worst starts to a season in recent memory, Karpin vowed to relinquish his managerial duties – but only at the end of the season. As the year continued and Spartak struggled for form, calls from the stands for his removal grew louder by the week. However as almost every top team, with the exceptions of champions-elect Zenit, suffered a loss of form in the post-Christmas period, Spartak somehow recovered to sneak into the runners-up spot once more, providing something of a false position and ensuring that Karpin left with Champions league football once again arriving at Luzhniki.
Karpin’s self-appointed replacement was revealed as Unai Emery, a man associated with attacking football at Valencia, where he led the Mediterranean side to successive 3rd-place finishes behind the twin titans of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Somewhat harshed chased out of Valencia after having his hands tied by the club’s precarious financial position and need to sell star players, in Emery it appeared that Karpin had found the European moderniser that he believed Spartak to be in need of.
Fast forward six months to 25th November. The venue is the Luzhniki. It’s derby day in Moscow and Spartak, who have crashed out of the Champions League, been knocked out of the national cup by lowly Rostov, and are struggling in the league, host a Dinamo side undergoing a resurgence led by manager Dan Petrescu.
The game is a massacre. Some truly shocking defending from the hosts lets Dinamo go in 3-0 up at the break, Alexander Kokorin making a mockery of the Spartak back line. At the final whistle, the Spartak players rushed down the tunnel to a chorus of boos, Artem Dzyuba’s late goal scant consolation as they wound up on the wrong end of a 5-1 thrashing by a team they had beaten by four goals earlier in the year. Emery did not emerge for the post-match interviews.
In the press conference, Karpin appeared to announce to the assembled media that the board of directors had agreed that Unai Emery should not continue as manager of Spartak Moscow. Those in the media huddle with Spartak sympathies applauded the announcement, but no further notice was given as to the managerial position.
Over the following days it emerged that Karpin would in fact be returning to the hotseat he had departed from less than a year ago. This time however, the atmosphere around the club is less than optimistic. Despite a 5-0 thrashing of Krylya Sovetov at the start of the month and a morale-boosting victory over Krasnodar the following week, a turgid draw at Volga and the hammering by Dinamo have served only to emphasise the inconsistency which has plagued the club. Coupled with a disastrous European campaign which sees the club fall out of continental competition entirely before December, and the gloom is understandable.
Spartak possesses a squad which, on paper at least, should be challenging for the Champions League positions if not the title. What has held the club back in recent years has been a combination of overpaying foreign imports, stunted growth of young Russians – the two are certainly linked – and instability in the staff. Emery is the ninth manager to leave Spartak in the past decade, and with rumours of a player revolt – not helped by comments from Dzyuba after the Dinamo game – there are worries that no-one will want to take the job on a long-term basis, even if the trigger-happy directors allow them.
The issue now is that Karpin is part of the rotten furniture. Having played an instrumental role in bringing Emery to the club, there are plenty who would rather see Karpin fall on his director’s sword then step into the breach once more. He may be Spartak through and through, but today he represents part of the problem rather than the cure. With few obvious options to take the manager’s job and no rush to appoint with the winter break round the corner, Spartak are undeniably in something of a crisis. Unless Karpin finds an answer, he may find his legacy somewhat eroded.