It’s the morning after the night before for Garry Monk: his eleven year association with Swansea City came to an end on Wednesday, with chairman Huw Jenkins dismissing him with cause after a winless November and a three-goal humbling at home to Leicester. Jenkins turned his head away and pulled the trigger: the club’s long-term future is tied to Premier League survival and to the new broadcasting deal which begins in 2016. Monk had the side in a fearful nosedive which threatened that and, consequently, realism had to override sentimentality.
Swansea’s tailspin didn’t come from nowhere. Despite the successes of last season, Monk’s first full campaign in charge, there were underlying concerns which never really went away. They beat Arsenal and Manchester United home and away, defeated Manchester United at The Liberty Stadium and were generally reliable against the league’s lesser sides. But there was a fragility, albeit one which escaped a definitive tactical explanation. Every once in a while, Monk’s naivety would creep into view and whether it was Tottenham mugging them at The Liberty Stadium in December 2014 or Chelsea running rampant in South Wales the following month, there were hints that the foundations were only cosmetically sound.
Hindsight makes us all experts and it’s easy to link last year’s periodic hiccups with this season’s full-scale collapse. Whether they’re actually linked, who knows, but between September and December of this year Garry Monk evidently ran out of answers. He brought a freshness and a set of new ideas to the club and he healed many of the scars left by the last corrosive months of Michael Laudrup’s reign, but when his novelty waned his inexperienced showed. Over the past six weeks, Swansea have played like a side who knew they were flawed but didn’t understand why. The game with Leicester City, which would prove to be his last, was as chaotic and as bad a performance as the team have produced in eighteen months. The passing accuracy was there and as was the familiar ball-retention, but the wide open spaces into which Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy galloped betrayed the hidden turmoil.
Swansea were getting worse and, heavy heartedly or otherwise, Huw Jenkins had to make a change.
Young managers can find it difficult to recover from failure, especially when their first job ends in such an alarming slump. For a while, September 2015 to December 2015 will define the perception of him as a head-coach and act as a red-flag to future employers. But if Monk does have to spend a few months on football’s unemployment island, then he can take solace in knowing that he has a ticket back to the mainland: his first job may have ended in failure, but it still showed him to be bright, hard-working and to possess the sort of initiative which many players who transition into coaching appear to lack.
In August of this year, Monk granted an interview to The Guardian’s Stuart James. It was interesting because it was different. While we’re used to hearing ex-players preach the importance of phantom qualities and of hearing their impact characterised with Sherwoodian rhetoric – shake things up, rattle cages etc – he spoke in an unusually cerebral way about multi-faceted plans and long-term thinking. Four months later, the article carries an inevitably bittersweet quality, but the appetite for personal growth it conveyed remains relevant.
Monk had ideas. He initiated new levels of video analysis, he equipped players with iPads from which they could review their own training performance, and – to the mirth of some – he installed sleeping pods at the training ground to aid recovery times between pre-season sessions. It’s easy to sneer and, with the benefit of hindsight, to view his thinking as flawed quirkiness, but Monk was showing the kind of appetite for detail which rarely results in anything other than long-term success. He inherited his opportunity at Swansea and was the beneficiary of the three-way fall-out between Huw Jenkins, Michael Laudrup and Bayram Tutumlu, but it would be reductive to cast him as a blunt traditionalist.
More accurately, he is a blend of the old and the new and, in spite of its ending, his time at Swansea demonstrated that.
Having taken control of Laudrup’s free-falling side, he stabilised the club and staved off relegation in 2014. A heavy period of flux followed, with many of the players trusted by the previous management departing the club: Jose Canas, Michel Vorm, Chico Flores, Pablo Hernandez and Ben Davies were all sold and Michu, one of the symbols of Swansea’s Premier League era, was loaned to Napoli. The revenue was reinvested in – most notably – Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jefferson Montero, and Federico Fernandez, and all three of those players’ stocks rose under Monk’s management. Fernandez formed one of the Premier League’s better centre-back pairings with Ashley Williams, Sigurdsson was one half of a highly potent combination with the resurgent Wilfried Bony (who would earn a lucrative transfer to Manchester City in the middle of the season), and Montero became one of the most destructive wingers in the division.
If Monk’s modernist tendencies show in the form of iPads and sleeping pods, then the successful integration of those players demonstrated the contrasting side of his skill-set. Team-building is a managerial attribute as old as the professional game itself and, evidently, Monk possesses it. Player turnover is often considered to be the kryptonite of the football world and yet he dealt seamlessly with what could have been a tumultuous situation.
Similarly, his handling of Jonjo Shelvey during that first full season was also a useful indicator. Shelvey, a sizeable yet emotionally-stunted talent, had arrived in Wales in 2013 after becoming expendable at Anfield. His first eighteen months at the club were pockmarked with structural waywardness and indiscipline and Monk was really the first manager of his career to successfully challenge the way he approached the game. Shelvey responded maturely to public criticism and admirably to a slightly altered midfield role and, between January and August of 2015, he sustained a level of form which elevated him back into the England squad.
Not every manager has that sort of touch with a player and not all of them are able to extract value from enigmatic potential.
But, like the promising combinations in the rest of the side, Shelvey has faded away. Though injured for most of the last month, his performances have been in decline since September. Jefferson Montero faded from view, too, and Bafe Gomis’ goal at The Etihad over the weekend was his first in over three months. In retrospect, the caveats issued by the analytics community and their concerns over the sustainability of last season’s form were well-founded; Swansea have crumbled and Garry Monk was incapable of rebuilding them in the time allowed.
But that in itself portray him as a bad manager, rather – viewed in their entirety – the last twenty-two months have shown him to be a capable head-coach who maybe just lacked the necessary situational experience to cope with the peaks and troughs which occur at the top level. Yes, last year probably was a false economy and his naivety may well have been veiled by anomalous results, but there’s an initiative to Monk and a determination to evolve which is hard to ignore. Behind the impeccably gelled hair and the smart suits there’s a sharp mind and a bank of original thinking. He clearly wasn’t content just to rely on the tried and tested formulas to which he’d been exposed as a player, but wanted instead to implement his own methods and to challenge what had come before.
That’s someone worth persevering with, someone who clearly has a value beyond his playing career.
Managers who start their careers in the Premier League are often considered privileged and, in many ways, that’s absolutely true. But there’s a caveat: it’s a harsh landscape which isn’t necessarily the best learning environment. Mistakes are brutally punished – and sometimes to the extent that they unduly detract from periods which were generally quite positive.
Time ran out for Garry Monk, but his time will come again.