Two defeats from their opening two J. League games hinted that something was seriously wrong at Urawa Reds. Now the crisis has been made official.
Holger Osieck’s dismissal on Sunday afternoon was as surprising as it was brutal. Even Spain and Italy’s most impulsive clubs give their managers more than two games of the new season before lowering the axe, and for Reds such drastic action seemed unthinkable.
After delivering the club’s first Asian Champions League title last year, Osieck appeared to have bought himself enough goodwill with the Urawa fans to survive December’s spectacular meltdown.
Reds threw away a comfortable lead to lose their J. League crown on the final day of the season, and suffered the additional humiliation of being dumped out of the Emperor’s Cup by lowly Ehime FC.
But a respectable performance at December’s Club World Cup prompted Osieck to claim his players had put the disappointment behind them and were ready for a fresh start.
Two defeats later, no one is putting a brave face on things any more.
Reds chairman Mitsunori Fujiguchi lifted the lid on a fractured dressing room when he cited a breakdown in relationship between the coach and his players as the reason for Osieck’s sacking, and in retrospect the writing has been on the wall for some time.
Striker Washington has been the most obvious dissident.
The Brazilian was packed off to Fluminese at the end of last season, but his outbursts and gestures throughout the year painted a telling picture.
Washington made no attempt to hide his disgust at being substituted in an early ACL game last season, and the striker again broke ranks in October’s 0-0 draw with Nagoya, shaking his head and snubbing the bench as he left the field.
Osieck replaced the striker with Hideki Uchidate with five minutes of that match left to play, opting to close the game down and settle for a draw.
The incident would prove to be the turning point in Urawa’s season.
With just three games to go, Reds picked up only one more point and subsequently lost the championship to Kashima Antlers.
Coach Gert Engels, who has now taken over as manager, described Osieck before the start of the 2007 season as more of an “in-the-stands” manager, in contrast to his predecessor Guido Buchwald.
That may have created a distance between Osieck and his players that, after the success and hands-on intimacy of Buchwald, could not make a connection when things started to go wrong.
Engels, on the other hand, is popular in the dressing room, speaks fluent Japanese, and enjoys the support of the players.
Whether that will survive the transition from tracksuit to shirt and tie remains to be seen, but the fact that he worked side-by-side with both Buchwald and Osieck will at least give the players continuity.
For the players who are new to the club, however, the latest development could pose more of a problem.
Strikers Naohiro Takahara and Edmilson have looked ineffective and short of ideas in Urawa’s two games this season, and with the manager who signed them now gone, the future looks even murkier.
On Sunday, Fujiguchi said of Engels: “at this present time he is the only person for the job.”
That, however, fails to provide a clear, unambiguous answer to his long-term future.
It may be that the German will fill in as caretaker until the end of the season or the summer break, giving the club time to mull over a permanent candidate while a safe pair of hands gets Urawa’s season up and running.
Engels, on the other hand, has years of experience as a head coach in Japan, and it would not be too much of a surprise if he was asked to take the reins full time.
Whatever happens, Engels must make sure that player power does not do for him what it did for Osieck.