Sheffield Wednesday: The highs and lows of Carlos Carvalhal's rollercoaster Owls reign
It's a sad day in the Owls' colourful 150 year history.
After two-and-a-half-years in charge, Wednesday have parted company with Carlos Carvalhal.
He becomes the second manager to be axed on Christmas Eve in the Owls’ history, following in the footsteps of Derek Dooley 44 years ago.
Carvalhal, a charming, dignified man, steered the club to successive play-off finishes but lost his job after overseeing just six victories from 23 matches at the halfway stage of this season.
When Carvalhal was appointed in the summer of 2015, he was little-known in this country and a surprising left-field choice to replace Stuart Gray.
But the 52-year-old quickly won over the detractors with his charistmatic personality. He woke the giant up, turning fans from doubters into believers again. In year one, his team, for the most part, produced aggressive, entertaining, exhilarating football. They pressed opponents high up the pitch, hunted in packs and thrilled fans with their silky football.
There was plenty of ‘meat on the fire’ and the side built their success on closing the ‘doors and windows of their house’, according to Carvalhal.
No one will ever forgot those memorable nights under the lights at Hillsborough when Wednesday blew away the likes of Arsenal and Brighton and Hove Albion with their slick, high-tempo pressing game.
They were one of the league’s great entertainers. Their ‘rock and roll football’ as Carvalhal called it wowed the fan-base, prompting many of them to describe it as the best they had seen in almost two decades.
‘Carlos had a dream’ was a popular refrain on the terraces and Carvalhal achieved a boyhood objective in leading the Owls to Wembley.
However, the team froze in the Play-Off Final. Carvalhal’s players did not turn up at Wembley and were second best in all departments as Hull City deservedly claimed a lucrative place in the Premier League.
Carvalhal was left holding back the tears at the final whistle, clapping the 40,000 plus Wednesdayites who passionately roared the team on in London.
Deep in the bowels of Wembley Stadium after conducting his post-match interviews, Carvalhal would have been deeply hurting inside but was still gracious in defeat, shaking the hands of Steve Bruce, Robert Snodgrass and company. It was just the type of classy gesture you have come to expect from Carvalhal.
In many ways, Carvalhal has been a victim of his own success. He raised expectation levels.
After the first near miss, he promised a maximum of five new signings but the Owls brought in more than double that over the course of the 2016/17 campaign. Wednesday opted for quantity over quality and Carvalhal has to take his share of the blame for failing to add the missing pieces to the puzzle.
The Owls were crying out for a top class centre-back and a commanding, physical central midfielder. Neither materialised.
Their recruitment drive, post Wembley, has badly let them down, leaving them with a bloated, unbalanced squad, which remains a big problem 18 months on.
And the Fernando Forestieri saga certainly hindered the Owls’ ability to hit the ground running in year two. His refusal to play at Norwich City cast a large shadow over the team’s promotion aspirations in the early part of the season.
Although their performances were largely uninspiring and unconvincing last year, Wednesday dug in and ground out results. Carvalhal changed the style of play, adopting a far more cautious and pragmatic approach.
They didn’t play with the same fluidity and cohesion. They became boring and predictable to play against.
It didn’t help that the Owls missed key players in Kieran Lee, Tom Lees, Gary Hooper and Forestieri at vital points through injury.
But Hooper’s return to fitness coincided with an upturn in the team’s fortunes. Wednesday recorded six wins on the bounce to confirm a top-six finish with a match to spare.
Ultimately, Wednesday came fourth, securing their highest-placed finish in 17 years. No one can take that achievement away from Carvalhal.
The Owls entered the play-offs as strong favourites to see off Huddersfield Town over two legs. Unfortunately, their tendency to disappear in big matches came back to haunt them again.
After a goalless first leg where Wednesday did not muster a shot on target, the Terriers came-from-behind to win 4-3 on penalties at S6.
Some Wednesdayites felt Carvalhal should have been shown the door after the Huddersfield tie but chairman Dejphon Chansiri kept faith with him.
After two agonising near-misses, the Owls were expected to challenge for automatic promotion this season.
Carvalhal axed his medical team, bringing in his own physios, when what he really needed to focus more on was reshaping his squad.
Their number one priority should have been recruiting a centre-half to compete for a starting spot with Glenn Loovens and Tom Lees. Carvalhal claimed they looked at over 200 defenders.
Missing out on Cardiff City’s Sean Morrison was a major blow and it took Wednesday until nearly the end of August to draft in Joost van Aken, a raw but talented Dutch player.
The warning signs were there in pre-season when the team lost to Rangers in pre-season that all was not well.
Carvalhal briefly steadied the ship but the Steel City derby trouncing proved a big turning point in his reign.
It was rare for Carvalhal to ever criticise his team publicly. He always tried to protect them, which is commendable.
But he should have hammered them after their performance against Sheffield United. Yet again his players let him down on the big stage.
Carvalhal shielded his players, telling none of them to speak to the media after the derby.
He fronted up again two days later to the press corps, losing his temper in front of the cameras and bashing a £20 note on the table. Carvalhal lost his cool and the pressure appeared to be getting to him even at that stage.
Inconsistency has dogged them since August and fans grew tired of their pedestrian, boring style of play.
After their dismal showing at Bolton Wanderers, some supporters called for Carvalhal to be sacked. Other chairman might have pulled the trigger but Chansiri stayed loyal and elected against making a change.
The excuses from Carvalhal for their indequate results kept piling up: injuries, refereeing decisions and the busy league schedule. Yes, injuries have hampered them but what fans wanted to hear was Carvalhal taking more responsibility for their lacklustre displays. He was the manager and the buck stopped with him. If he had done, it might have bought Carvalhal more time to arrest their slide.
Results dipped further and the team continued to go backwards over November and December.
Their lack of width and pace out wide made them predictable to play against and Carvalhal struggled throughout his time in charge to get the best out of big-money signings such as Almen Abdi and Jordan Rhodes.
When the going got tough, Carvalhal was too stubborn to mix things up and switch to a 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 formation. He was unwilling to be more flexible, rigidly sticking with his 4-4-2 shape. Carvalhal experimented a midfield diamond for a couple of matches but that was quickly ditched.
It is a year which has promised so much but has been an unmitigated disaster. And given Wednesday have spent in excess of £30m in assembling one of the biggest squads in the division, six victories in 23 matches is simply not good enough.
Carvalhal’s Owls dream is over.