Southeast Asia Indonesia

OPINION – Examining the Departure of Head Coaches in This Season’s Liga 1

Only eight matchweeks into the 2022/23 Liga 1 Indonesia season, six head coaches have already lost their jobs. Arema FC’s Eduardo Almeida became the latest head coach to bite the bullet after he was “rested” by the Singo Edan‘s higher-ups, with former Persik Kediri head coach Javier Roca replacing him. Almeida’s departure signifies the Liga 1’s reputation as a ruthless league, with more head coaches losing their jobs there compared to other leagues within Southeast Asia.

To put things into perspective, the 2022 Liga Super Malaysia has also overseen six head coach changes, but the league has gone beyond the halfway point of the season with 17 matches already played. The 2022 V.League 1 has seen five head coach changes 14 matches into the season, while the 2022 Singapore Premier League had only two changes after 23 matches. The 2022/23 Thai League 1, on the other hand, have yet to witness any head coach changes after four matchweeks, with the notoriously trigger-happy Ratchaburi FC management being satisfied by their new head coach Xavier Moro being able to guide the Dragons to four wins out of four.

On contrary, Persib Bandung’s Robert Rene Alberts resigned from his position after just three matchweeks. This was after Persib fans conducted a huge protest in front of the club’s headquarters demanding Robert’s sacking after the Maung Bandung could only get one point from their first three matches of the season.

In between Robert’s resignation from Persib and Almeida leaving Arema, the Liga 1 has oversaw the departures of Roca from Persik, Jacksen F. Tiago from Persis Solo, Sergio Alexandre from PSIS Semarang, and Dejan Antonic from PS Barito Putera.

This, combined with the very high turnover of head coaches from last season’s campaign, led to Persebaya Surabaya head coach Aji Santoso dubbing the Liga 1 as “the most cruel, ruthless, and merciless competition in the world.” And Aji’s words were very much true – only six head coaches out of 18 survived the entirety of last season’s Liga 1 campaign, consisting of Bali United’s Stefano Cugurra Teco, Persib’s Robert, Bhayangkara FC’s Paul Munster, Arema’s Almeida, Persebaya’s Aji, and Persita Tangerang’s Widodo Cahyono Putro. Both Paul and Widodo left their respective clubs after the season, with the former joining the Brunei Darussalam national team as technical director, and the latter succeeding Paul at Bhayangkara.

There are a number of factors that contributed to the Liga 1’s reputation as a league that’s not head coach-friendly, with a huge one being immense fan pressure. Out of the six head coaches that left their posts this season, four of them – Robert, Jacksen, Sergio, and Almeida – were ousted due to fan pressure, albeit poor on-pitch performances also contributed to Jacksen’s departure from Persis.

This leaves us with Robert, Sergio, and Almeida. All three of them faced significant fan pressure for them to achieve something with their club, especially with the high expectations being placed on them after excellent performances throughout last season, pre-season, and also the transfer market (but more on that later).

But most crucially of all, Persib, PSIS, and Arema fans weren’t exactly too fond of these head coaches from the start.

Robert had faced significant criticisms regarding his outdated playing style throughout his tenure at Persib and despite guiding them to 2nd in the league the previous season, Persib’s slow start to the season gave the fans the excuse to finally oust Robert from his post once and for all, considering that, despite the investments and support given to Robert by the Persib board, the Dutchman hadn’t exactly lived up to the fans’ expectations of winning the Maung Bandung any silverware.

The huge protests held by Persib fans after their team’s 4-1 defeat away at Borneo Samarinda served as the straw that broke the camel’s back and in order to avoid any further wrath from the fans, Robert stepped down from his position shortly after the protests.

PSIS fans, on the other hand, weren’t fans of Sergio from day one. The Mahesa Jenar had invested heavily in their squad for the upcoming season, bringing in heavy hitters such as Taisei Marukawa, Carlos Fortes, Alie Sesay, Wawan Febrianto, Oktafianus Fernando and Guntur Triaji that complemented an already-talented squad containing Alfreandra Dewangga, Hari Nur Yulianto, Jonathan Cantillana, Fredyan Wahyu, Frendi Saputra and Septian David Maulana. This significant investment left PSIS fans longing for an ambitious head coach, someone who would led this star-studded squad to a title challenge that could potentially end the Mahesa Jenar‘s 23-year title drought.

But instead, the PSIS management brought in Sergio, the very head coach who tried and failed to keep Persiraja Banda Aceh in the Liga 1 the previous season. Sure, Sergio had turned Persiraja into a stubborn side that frustrated many during his tenure at the Laskar Tanah Rencong, but his appointment was seen as underwhelming by the PSIS fans dreaming of someone with more “star power” to their name.

Sergio did guide PSIS to the semifinals of the Piala Presiden pre-season tournament, but it proved to be a false down as the Mahesa Jenar had a slow start to the season – a lengthy injury received by Fortes during the Piala Presiden not helping things too. A 1-0 loss away at Persebaya on Matchweek 6 proved to be the last straw and Sergio was shown the door after the match.

Almeida, on the other hand, was practically sitting on a metaphorical time bomb at Arema as the Singo Edan fans had called for his sacking since last season, due to his uninspiring, defensive style of play that doesn’t suit the fierce, attacking philosophy expected from an Arema head coach – the Malang style of play, so to speak. But despite his naysayers Almeida had proven himself to be a Houdini of fan pressure, guiding Arema to their best finish since 2014 last season on the back of a 23-match unbeaten streak, before going on to win this year’s Piala Presiden.

However, Arema’s inconsistent start to the 2022/23 season angered the fans more and more with each passing result and finally, after a 1-1 draw away at struggling Barito in Matchweek 8, the Arema board finally caved into the fans’ demands and “rested” Almeida.

Another factor contributing to the high head coach turnover in the Liga 1 are the failure of head coaches to adhere to the targets set by the club, but in this case, sometimes the target set onto a head coach working for a Liga 1 club can be quite unrealistic.

Take newly-promoted Persis for an example. The club boasted a number of quality players, those worthy of a top-half team in the Liga 1 even. Confident with their own squad, Persis tasked Jacksen with the daunting task of winning the Liga 1 only a year after they were promoted. This task seems possible if the Jacksen coaching Persis was the same Jacksen who swept everything before him with Persipura Jayapura during the late 2000s and early 2010s, but this Jacksen was a man whose powers had waned, his magic already drained out. The Brazilian underwhelmed at Barito during his stint there from 2017 to 2019 before subsequently contributing to Persipura’s relegation last season, and his tenure at Persis was equally as disastrous, losing four consecutive matches before resigning in Matchweek 5 despite finally guiding the Laskar Sambernyawa to a win, a 1-0 victory away at Bhayangkara.

Dejan’s tenure at Barito, on the other hand, was a major disaster from start to finish. Despite doing somewhat well in the Piala Presiden, Barito lost their opening league game 8-0 away at Madura United, and despite beating Borneo 3-1 in Matchweek 2, the five-game winless run that ensued was more than enough to convince the Barito higher-ups to sack the Serbian.

The sacking of Dejan, along with Jacksen’s resignation, were, in the author’s opinion, the only justified head coach departures in this season’s Liga 1. For the former, losing 8-0 before embarking on a lengthy winless run was a recipe for a sacking waiting to happen, while the latter was a head coach in decline and being tasked with such a mighty task for a newly promoted team – seems like Persis are taking a note from the Muangthong United-Gamba Osaka-Kashiwa Reysol-BG Pathum United book of how to win the top-flight straight after promotion – ultimately proved too much for him.

And then there’s the utterly ridiculous sacking of Roca from Persik, a head coach that had guided the Macan Putih to survival last season with a number of eye-catching performance, as well as a figure that was well-loved by the Persik fans. What went wrong for him?

Remember the whole #DejanOut #ArthurOut #MarcoOut saga with PSS Sleman from last season? Well, controversial player Arthur Irawan left PSS after the protests alongside embattled general director Marco Gracia Paulo and technical director Danilo Fernando, with both Arthur and Danilo joining Persik. Things seemed rosy at first, with the arrival of Arthur and Danilo steadying a Persik ship seemingly doomed for relegation. Roca masterminded a number of results that ensured Persik’s safety, including a 1-0 win over Arema, a 0-0 draw with Persib, and a 1-0 win over Bhayangkara.

However, the 2022 off-season saw Persik being taken over by PT Astar Asia Global, a start-up company established by none other than Arthur himself. It was then that Persik fans began to allege that Arthur had exerted his influence on Persik just like what he did to PSS last season. The fans also suspected that Roca was intervened in his tactics and team selection by Arthur, leading to the Macan Putih starting off the season very poorly. When Roca was sacked after Matchweek 4, Persik had only earned one point out of a possible 12, leading to the Persik management to hold an evaluation towards Roca’s performance that led to his dismissal.

Roca’s departure did not go down well with Persik fans, who accused Arthur of playing an important role on the popular head coach’s sacking. Once again the #ArthurOut hashtag was trending on social media, this time by angry Persik fans demanding Arthur and his entourage to leave the club as soon as possible. Things got heated to the point that during a Matchweek 8 game with PSM Makassar, Arthur personally confronted a group of fans demanding his exit and threatening to physically fight them.

Regardless of the reasoning behind their departures, this season’s Liga 1 is showing a worrying trend in regards of head coach stability. A potent combination of fan pressure, unrealistic expectations, and poor results can result in a quick dismissal from one’s post, even when it’s possible for a head coach to turn things around. This in turn can lead to a lack of stability within teams that could potentially jeopardize their season even further. A new head coach can stabilize a team or instead plunge them deeper into crisis and it’s always a gamble when you entrust your team’s season to someone new.

Let’s hope that the replacement for these six head coaches would fare better than their predecessors and that both fans and club management would trust their already-existing head coaches in turning their season around, only replacing them when it’s necessary.