Carlos Carvalhal and Sheffield Wednesday parted ways on Christmas Eve. The likeable 52-year-old formed a strong bond with the local fans and earned respect among his peers in the Championship, but ultimately failed to take one of England’s biggest club back to the El Dorado of the English Premier League.
Throughout Carvalhal’s spell in the Hillsborough hot seat, Daniel Burkinshaw has charted his progress at the club for PortuGOAL. Here is his assessment of Carvalhal’s time in Yorkshire.
Carlos Carvalhal’s reign at Sheffield Wednesday lasted exactly two-and-a-half seasons which is more than many might have expected given the expectations at England’s fifth oldest professional club. Indeed, had the interest of his latest club, Swansea City, not existed maybe he would still be in his role at Hillsborough.
The ex-Sporting and Besiktas chief was the first head coach appointed by chairman Dejphon Chansiri who announced on his arrival at Hillsborough that his aim was for Wednesday to regain their Premiership place in time for the 150th anniversary of the club in September 2017.
When it was confirmed that this target had been missed, after the club failed in the 2016-17 Championship play-offs, most observers would have expected Carvalhal to have been dismissed. However, the chairman and head coach had clearly formed a strong bond and the parting of the ways on Christmas Eve was amicable, with both men emphasising their mutual admiration. Indeed, Carvalhal called Chansiri the best chairman that he had worked for.
Injuries take their toll
Carvalhal’s departure was the culmination of a run of seven games without victory, a spell that coincided with a terrible run of injuries in which by the time of the 52 year-old’s final game in charge – a 2-1 home defeat to Middlesbrough – all of the club’s best players were unavailable for selection.
Carvalhal can justifiably claim that luck deserted him in his final months with Wednesday but arguably the reverse was true in 2016-17 when The Owls reached the play-offs for a second consecutive season without ever looking convincing from an attacking point of view and being the beneficiary of several slices of good fortune, in a campaign in which eighteen of the team’s twenty-four wins came by a single-goal margin.
Despite spending significant sums of money on forward players, at times Carvalhal could not seem to get Wednesday playing fluent football consistently and the bedrock of the side’s success was a tight defence. However, the previous manager, Stuart Gray, who had nothing like the money made available to Carvalhal, had already instilled this quality in the team and the defence was held together by arguably the club’s two most consistent players, goalkeeper Keiren Westwood and centre-back Tom Lees. Both had been signed by Gray.
Many fans believed that had he been retained, Gray would have achieved more with the resources enjoyed by his successor. Leading Wednesday back to the Premiership would have been viewed as a tremendous achievement by Carvalhal, given the unremittingly tough nature of the Championship, but with the money at his disposal for team strengthening it would not have been viewed as anything like as remarkable as his achievement in leading third-tier Leixões to UEFA Cup qualification in 2002.
Certainly there is a strong case for stating that Carvalhal’s transfer business was responsible for his ultimate downfall. When he joined the club, a transfer committee was in place but this was disbanded and he was given more responsibility for recruitment. However, many of the signings seemed to be in the wrong areas of the team. Bizarrely, in January 2017, the club signed two high-profile centre-forwards, Sam Winnall and Jordan Rhodes, when there were already six established players of that position at the club, yet the desperate need for a competent left-back and left-sided centre-back was only belatedly (and unsuccessfully) addressed.
Possessing so many strikers inevitably meant that some of them would not be given enough chance to prove themselves, Lucas João being a prime example. Since joining the club in July 2015, the Portuguese international has started only 24 games, scoring 11 goals. He has shown flashes of real quality, but, without the reassurance of a long run in the side, it is unsurprising that his confidence has been affected.
Wednesday have also suffered through a lack of an incisive wide midfielder throughout Carvalhal’s tenure, in the same time that he has signed a surfeit of central midfielders and centre-forwards. Marco Matias, recruited before Carvalhal’s arrival, joined Wednesday as a hot property, having scored 17 goals for Nacional in the 2014-15 season, but he has been hampered by injuries and, more significantly, has never looked compatible with English football, apart from the isolated exception of a goal-of-the-season winner in a game at Leeds United in August 2015. The lack of pace in the team has been glaring at times; indeed João is probably the only orthodox centre-forward in the club with the speed to genuinely trouble opponents.
In Carvalhal’s first season in charge, Wednesday reached the Championship play-off final against Hull City at Wembley. In what was undoubtedly his best chance to lead The Owls back to the Premier League, the team produced an insipid performance, with neutrals quick to point out how Wednesday’s possession was far too deep in their own half and never likely to create a goalscoring chance.
While it seemed that Carvalhal’s instinct was always to be bold and attacking – often he would make substitutions that entailed Wednesday playing with four centre-forwards on the field – he could never quite find the optimum combination of players to sustain strong attacking displays. At times, the likes of Barry Bannan – Carvalhal’s best signing for the club – Kieran Lee and Gary Hooper combined to produce some superb football, but not on a consistent basis.
The disappointment of the performance at Wembley against Hull was tempered by the fact that this was the Portuguese’s first season at the club. Hopes were high that he would go one better the following campaign and their regular league season finish of fourth was indeed two places better than the previous season. But attaining a play-off place owed much to good fortune which compensated for the team’s inability to create goalscoring opportunities and after two tight semi-final games against Huddersfield Town, they were beaten on penalties in the second leg at Hillsborough.
At this stage, most supporters and local journalists would have expected Chansiri to seek a replacement. However, the bond between the men was clearly very strong and Carvalhal survived several poor results but after the defeat to Middlesbrough on 23 December, the first significant vocal expressions of unrest from supporters seemed to have brought matters to a head. Luck had now deserted Wednesday and any head coach would have struggled to cope, in the absence of all of the club’s key players.
On several occasions, Carvalhal pointed out that to have reached the Championship play-offs in consecutive seasons was an achievement that eluded most teams and it cannot be denied that he established Wednesday as a consistent force in what is undoubtedly the strongest second-tier league in Europe. In his 115 league games in charge (not including five play-off games), Wednesday won 43% and lost 27%, averaging 1.33 goals a game scored and 1.03 conceded.
The word from behind the scenes is that the ex-Braga defender was popular with his players, a quality that can never be underestimated in modern football and his tactical plans to counter opponents usually seemed sound. Furthermore, only on rare occasions did he lose his likeable exterior, and it was clear that he had established a lot of goodwill among his fellow Championship managers and in the English game generally.
There is little doubt that Carvalhal is a credible head coach and it would not be a surprise to see him achieve success elsewhere; whether he can do this at Swansea, currently bottom of the Premier League, remains to be seen. Had the transfer budget not been wasted on so many strikers for a side that often struggled to create chances, and instead addressed more deficient areas of the team, there is every chance that Carvalhal could have attained hero status at Hillsborough by leading the club back to the top division in England.
Ultimately, however, many Wednesday fans’ view of him is neutral and it is probably the limited impact of many of his signings that made his departure from the club inevitable
By Daniel Burkinshaw