Gert Engels’ dismissal on Thursday as manager of Urawa Reds was inevitable, but although he must shoulder some of the blame for a disappointing season in Saitama, the German could have expected better than the shabby treatment he received over the past few weeks.
Despite going into last weekend’s round of fixtures just one point off the top of the J. League table with three games to go, rumors that the Urawa hierarchy had already decided to relieve Engels of his position at the end of the season refused to go away.
The presence of former Freiburg manager Volker Finke at last Sunday’s home game against Shimizu S-Pulse added further grist to the mill, and Engels’ exasperated comments after the match painted a bleak picture of his future at Saitama Stadium.
“I confronted them (the management) and they said it was nothing,” he said. “I knew the development but there were no clear answers. The first time they denied it. Then they didn’t lie but they didn’t confirm it.”
The search for Engels’ successor appears to have been kick-started by last month’s Asian Champions League semifinal exit at the hands of Gamba Osaka, at a time when Urawa was still in the hunt for the league title and the Emperor’s Cup.
When the club’s challenge effectively ended on both fronts last Sunday, he became a dead man walking.
For all of Urawa’s resources, this season cannot be viewed as anything other than a failure.
Winning trophies is a requirement for a club that regularly attracts more than 50,000 fans to watch its expensively assembled side, but over the course of this barren season consolation cannot even be found in the team’s performances.
Engels protested that he could not be held entirely responsible for this, and he had a point.
Filling the breach two games into the season left by his sacked predecessor, Holger Osieck, gave Engels no time to impress his own philosophy on the team, and by then the flow of players coming in and out had already been finalized.
Injuries to Keita Suzuki, Tatsuya Tanaka and Robson Ponte — last season’s J. League player of the year — complicated matters further.
It is debatable, however, whether Engels made the most of the cards that were dealt to him.
Ponte’s injury and the sale of Makoto Hasebe to Wolfsburg left the club short of creative players, but Engels was strangely reluctant to make use of one of the few he had at his disposal, Tsukasa Umesaki.
Although the winger made several appearances as an impact substitute during Ponte’s layoff in the first half of the season, he has since languished on the bench even when the game needed to be chased.
Ponte, meanwhile, remained on the field despite being plainly short of fitness.
Naohiro Takahara has been a disappointment since his move from Eintracht Frankfurt, but the fact that he has only completed five full J. League games this season can hardly have helped him adjust.
Then there is the defining motif of Engels’ stewardship — playing central defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka in midfield. Tulio is Urawa’s best player wherever he is stationed, but his limitations have at times been exposed in an area of the pitch where physicality plays second fiddle to technique.
Whatever the club’s rationale for Engels’ departure, however, the cloak-and-dagger moves behind the scenes have left a sour taste in the mouth.
To accept Reds’ behavior as simply the realpolitik needed to run a modern professional club is not good enough. If Urawa really wants to be the country’s leading club, it must show class off the field as well as on it.