Magath's methods under scrutiny
Felix Magath refused to speak to media after Wolfsburg's latest defeats
Magath is well-known for his cold demeanor towards his players
Historically Magath remakes his squads with constant transfer turnover
In Serie A, it's a well-known method to deal with a crisis. Clubs impose a period of "silencio stampa" -- no word to the press from the players (or the manager) - to starve the raging fire off its oxygen. One or two Bundesliga teams have adopted similar strategies over the years but a manager not talking to the press? Virtually unheard of. No pun intended.
Felix Magath, the all-powerful coach of VfL Wolfsburg, canceled his scheduled news conference on Tuesday. But that was only half of it. The 58-year-old Magath (the son of a U.S. soldier and German mother) is still so upset about his side's meek 2-0 defeat at the hands of newly-promoted FC Augsburg (who had not won a home game this season before) that he refused to speak to his players, too. According to Wolfsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, two consecutive sessions were held with Magath watching silently and motionless from the touchline. "Wolves" are currently 12th in table, only four points ahead of the relegation places.
Magath, a talented midfielder and European Cup winner with Hamburger SV, was influenced by the management style of Ernst Happel and Branko Zebec. The two legendary coaches were men of discipline and few words. Above all, they knew how to use players' inherent insecurities to their advantage. The Austrian Happel, in particular, was feared for the way he emotionally manipulated a dressing room. "One thing I've learned from my coaches as a player is that you have to keep your distance in order to be successful," Magath told 11 Freunde magazine.
Magath has found success at Bayern Munich (two doubles) and Wolfsburg (2009 champions) with a mix of calculated coldness and a stringent fitness regime bordering on torture. But this strenuous way of doing business is difficult to keep on a long-term basis, as teams grow wary of the mechanism and lose their fear. "Magath only works with pressure," Bayern defender Philipp Lahm wrote in his autobiography recently. Few outsiders could understand why the Bavarians parted company with the bespectacled coach halfway through his third season -- he'd won four trophies before -- but the relationship between him and his players and him and the board had simply become too fraught. Magath, according to club insiders, stopped talking completely, blanking everyone from Uli Hoeness (general manager at the time) down, all the way to his secretary.
Now, in his second season back in charge at the Volkswagen-Arena, the man who was hailed as Germany's smartest and most influential coach a couple of years ago, seems to be running out of options, too. He's already tried the old trick of shooting down a key player or two to instill a mixture of fear and gratitude among those promoted. Brazilian playmaker Diego was shipped out to Atletico Madrid. Former German international Arne Friedrich tore up his contract in September when Magath suggested he should play with the reserves. And Patrick Helmes, a Germany striker not long ago, has been banished to the amateur team. "He's only a scorer, we don't need him," said Magath, who has form in that respect. At Schalke, too, he loved sending out-of-favor members of the side to the youth side. U.S. international Jermaine Jones, for example, found himself sidelined until Magath was fired by the Royal Blues in the spring.
"The players see through him now, they know how he works and have stopped responding," one German journalist who closely follows the fortunes of the Lower Saxons, told SI.com this week. Magath is probably wise to this. Game after the game, he's been stressing that new, hungrier and more committed players were needed. He's reportedly lining up a raft of acquisitions for the winter transfer window, including André-Pierre Gignac (Marseille), Bayern's Ivica Olic and Tomas Rosicky from Arsenal. The constant changing of squads -- he's bought 12 players this summer and moved on 15 -- serves four purposes. Firstly, it keeps up the pressure on the existing staff. Secondly, it brings in new players who can still be molded and impressed by his methods. Czech forward Vaclav Pilar, who will join from Viktoria Pilsen in either January or June, admitted to Wolfsburger Allgemeine Zeitung that "every footballer is a little afraid of (Magath)." Thirdly, Magath likes to gamble. One Edin Dzeko, bought for next to nothing from Teplice and sold for £27 million ($42M) to Manchester City four years later, justifies the outlay for Hrvoje Cales, a Croatian defender from Trabzonspor, at least in the coach's eyes. "Gamblers (like Magath) love to speculate, they want to sell their buys at a multiple of their original values, like shares. By doing so, they are looking for validation," said the economic psychologist Alfred Gebert to Zeit Online.
Lastly, all the comings and goings allow Magath to play for time. "It takes a while to put the puzzle together," he told Bild recently. It's the perfect, ready-built excuse: after a every transfer window, he can ask his board for patience, as needs to bed in the latest dozen or so recruits.
Most Bundesliga clubs have a sporting director, men charged with taking a medium to long-term view. They will buy and sell players irrespective of the coach in charge, to prevent the situation Schalke found itself in after Magath's departures. The Champions League semifinalist had almost 20 unwanted players on their books after a huge shopping spree by Magath, who acted both as coach and general manager, effectively without much supervision. "There were some transfer irregularities," said the S04 chairman Clemens Tönnies.
It's a mystery why Wolfsburg, who knew how Magath operated, decided to entrust its fortunes to him again. Back in October, he was adamant that his team would "rise up the table and get into the Champions League." At the moment it looks more as if survival will be the main aim, once again. Magath might just replace enough players to make the silent treatment work or chance on another star player who will save his bacon. But his status will suffer further in the process as more and more players and supporters wise up to his shtick.
"In the last 10 years, those who were in charge -- the coaches -- were changed more and more rapidly," he told Zeit not long ago. "Not because it was the best solution, that's nonsense. But because it was the most comfortable solution for the clubs and their representatives." Substitute "coaches" with "players" and "clubs" with "coaches" in that statement and you'll see how hypocritical that position is.