Soccer: Armenia Secure Wooden Spoon in Group I

“It’s all over bar the shouting.” That’s an idiom often used when the outcome of a situation or event (or campaign) is a certainty, particularly when the outcome is known well in advance. Unfortunately for Armenia, that idiom could have been uttered well before their qualifying campaign came to a merciful end during the recent international break. Tournament hosts France (who’d already qualified) and first-time qualifiers Albania were the latest nations to defeat Armenia. Those results add to a run of 4 matches in which Armenia failed to score, and compounds a woeful 20-month spell that has produced a solitary friendly victory and 2 competitive draws from a total of 15 matches played. Needless to say, the other fixtures ended in defeat.

Those statistics do not read well, but not all defeats are created equally. Early in the campaign, Armenia competed well with results ultimately not going their way. However, the two most recent performances were very poor and had all the hallmarks of a team whose confidence had long since been obliterated. The players, as well as caretaker manager Sargis Hovsepyan, have played themselves into this predicament and need to bear some responsibility—a fact the home crowd let abundantly known with jeers and whistles ringing out after the defeat to Albania.

As caretaker manager, Hovsepyan’s task has been a difficult one. Inheriting a team whose confidence was low and whose standing in the group was well below par following the dismissal of Challandes was never going to be easy. Early performances under Hovsepyan were spirited, but ultimately he was unable to turn things around. The manner of performance Armenia produced to end the campaign is a poor reflection on Hovsepyan; those performances should take his name off the table and out of consideration as a permanent head coach replacement. He has value to add to the Armenian setup, but another role with the national team is likely a better fit.

What about his predecessor? Bernard Challandes didn’t cover himself in glory either. When Challandes took over the managerial duties from Vardan Minasyan in early 2014, expectations were high. Minasyan had left the team in great shape, having developed an exciting attacking identity, upsetting the status quo of typical European football hierarchy, and earning a reputation as occasional giant killers. Challandes’ task was to take the team from that well-established platform to the next level, to qualify for a finals tournament.

From lofty qualification ambitions to the wooden spoon in Group I, where did it all go wrong? It is true that a new managerial regime can bring fresh ideas, new energy, and with a bit of luck in the early stages, some added confidence and success. There is a fine line between introducing fresh ideas to a team and tinkering too much with a successful formula. That is a fine line on which many managers tread. For the elite few, team selections, in-game decisions, and aggressive tactics that translate into immediate success can elevate reputations to new heights. For most, however, a missed chance, penalty kick decision, or individual error on the pitch more often than not leaves managers with egg on their face and a premature pink slip.

Challandes took a tactical gamble early in his tenure. Flirting with a three-man back-line was an aggressive and progressive decision, but success from such a fundamental change in formation relies on an unwavering commitment to that tactic and the confidence of the players to implement the formation successfully. As it turns out, confidence can be a fragile thing.

Fixtures against Denmark, Serbia, and Portugal were all seemingly going to plan. It looked as though Challandes’ tactical astuteness was about to pay immediate dividends. In the blink of an eye, however, an early lead in Copenhagen and guilt-edged opportunities to put Serbia away in Yerevan had evaporated. By the time the final whistle blew in the Algarve, Armenia and Challandes had nothing to show from three matches for all their tactical investments. Nothing to show, but a few doubts in the back of players’ minds and a wavering commitment to the three-man defense.

Another early lead lost to Albania in March of this year, coupled with poor in-game management, a red card, and spurned opportunities at a death for a late equalizer culminated in Challandes being shown the door. He left behind a campaign in tatters, a team who’d lost its x-factor and was beginning to unravel. The rest is now history.

The end of the campaign is a blessing in disguise. It is a time to reflect, take stock, and reinvest in the idea that Armenia can regain its confidence and reimagine the possibilities ahead of a still-talented pool of players. A new manager is a definite requirement. A manager with Armenian ties and a proven track record would be ideal. Such candidates exist in the landscape of world football—Alain Boghossian and Michel Der Zakarian to name just two. In the winter months that lie ahead, can Ruben Hayrapetyan entice any reputable candidates to even consider the post? As things stand, that seems an unenviable task.

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: Soccer: Armenia Secure Wooden Spoon in Group I

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