Special for the Armenian Weekly
With just under a quarter century of football in the books as an independent nation, Armenia has had 18 different management teams. Whether they be contracted or caretaker managers, very few could boast of success.
From 1992 until 2009 the position was a metaphorical revolving door. That was until Vardan Minasyan took the head coaching position and established some much needed stability to the setup. Minasyan is the longest tenured manager for the Armenian National Team to date. He was at the helm in an official capacity from 2009 to 2014.
It is broadly accepted that Minasyan brought stability and ultimately some long awaited success to an underachieving outfit up to that point. Although Minasyan lost his fair share of games, there was a sense that the team had an identity, a style of play and basic organization at the back. Yes, his defense contained notable stalwarts such as Berezovsky, Arzumanyan and Hovsepyan, but under his management the defense exhibited a cohesion that other managers failed to instill in the team. As well as that, the team recorded impressive results earned with memorably high scoring and exciting performances.
Following the departure of Minasyan in 2014, the success enjoyed by the national team led to higher expectations and standards for the team to strive for. All exciting developments for the team and indeed the fan base and nation as a whole, following this first taste of success. But alas, along with these higher expectations came pressure, and a spotlight that was just a little more intense than it had been. Impatience was another detrimental side effect of success. The ‘what have you done for me lately’ syndrome left managers on a short leash and with limited time to make a good impression and bring their ideas to the fold.
And now it seems, since 2014, the revolving door to the Armenian national team’s hot seat is in full swing again. That is a shame. Bernard Challandes’ tenure lasted nine matches, with Sargis Hovsepyan unable to pick up the pieces at the end of the Euro 2016 campaign as caretaker. With that failed campaign, the team was left with a toxic atmosphere between players and the top brass of the FFA, an atmosphere that ended with a few talismanic and influential players in exile from the national team setup.
Varuzhan Sukiasyan attempted to rebuilt, rebuilt a trust with the players and a product on the field. Following a good defensive performance and clean sheet against Belarus to begin his reign, Armenia enjoyed two goal-fests while touring the USA, recording terrific victories over Guatemala and El Salvador. It all proved to be fool’s gold, however. Those big results achieved in Los Angeles, which make for impressive reading in the record books, proved to have little value in preparing the team for the current World Cup 2018 campaign. The Guatemala and El Salvador teams were 90 minutes from a much needed vacation after a long club season, and they played as such. Armenia profited from their lack of application, with the ever sharp Mkhitaryan having a field day.
To be fair, injuries and suspensions have regularly scuttled Armenian campaigns before they even get off the ground. But that only highlights the lack of experience and high quality depth in the squad. Just as Challandes was left to rue last minute goals and injuries at the most inopportune times, Sukiasyan lost Mkrtchyan and Mkhitaryan in the friendly against Czech Republic just before the campaign began. Couple that with poor performances from players in key positions and he found himself very quickly unemployed.
During this campaign, Gaël Andonian, Armenia’s promising young central defender has not helped his own cause nor the team’s, with a run of uncharacteristically bad form. In Armenia’s second qualifying match, when the flood gates opened after Romania took an early lead from the spot and Armenia were left with 10 men, the central defensive pairing of Mkoyan and Andonian were directly at fault in all but one of the five goal haul that Romania amassed. Nobody has ever questioned the honesty of effort that is brought to the table by each and every player that dons the Armenian jersey, but at some point their needs to be more. More quality on display, more composure during long spells without the ball, and an ability to be more clinical when a chance is there for the taking. A lot of those characteristics can be improved with a better mental approach to the game. A mental approach that is usually established by the manager.
The response against Poland in the very next game was terrific. However, yet again, Andonian showed inexperience, picking up two ill-advised and well deserved yellow cards in the space of three first half minutes leaving his teammates under the cosh for a second straight game. Despite playing with 10 men, and falling behind to a set-piece, a disappointing trend in recent times, Armenia forged an equalizer through Pizzelli. As the game drew to a close and the expectant home crowd urged the Polish players forward, Armenia was presented with not one, but two guilt edged opportunities to steal all three points at the death. Both David Manoyan and Aras Özbiliz spurned chances, for want of a little composure under pressure. As time expired, a panicked and rash defensive challenge gave Poland another set-piece at the edge of the area and it was duly converted to break Armenian hearts and ultimately give Sukiasyan his marching orders.
Another honest and spirited effort was yet again undone by the gulf between the sides in terms of quality decision making under pressure, but also by terrible defending at set-pieces. Defending set-pieces is a facet of the game that Armenia just cannot afford to be poor at. It should be their bread and butter and allow them a platform to compete against the higher seeded teams in their qualifying group. Although it is the players that actually defend, the defensive setup and emphasis on concentration and organization comes from the coaching staff. Armenia conceded early against Denmark and Romania, and late against Poland suggesting a lack of preparation and intensity when it matters most.
One bright spot in this poor run of results is the emergence of a more than worthy replacement for Roman Berezovsky in Armenia’s goal. Arsen Beglaryan’s performance against Denmark was nothing short of spectacular, including an unbelievable double save from a spot kick. Left wickedly exposed against Romania, he was unfortunate to ship five goals. Beglaryan’s shot stopping, distribution, command of his area and general ability to marshal his defense has been very impressive and bodes well for the future.
Artur Petrosyan will lead Armenia into that future having accepted the manager’s position this month. The former midfielder who had an eye for goal and the one-time top scorer of the Armenian National team brings a successful track record as a player and coach to the table. League titles in Armenia and Switzerland as a player with FC Shirak and FC Zurich respectively and a successful coaching career in the FC Zurich academy system prove his pedigree. His first game in charge will be Fri, Nov 11 in Yerevan against a strong Montenegro team.
As with any new coach worth his salt who takes over a team in disarray, there is usually a simple three step plan to help get the team back on track. Step one: sure up the defense by keeping things simple, i.e. if in doubt, kick it out! Step two: clean up sloppy defending and conceding goals from set pieces by re-establishing concentration and an organized approach to defending. Step three: reap the short term rewards by keeping a clean sheet. If such a simplified plan can be implemented and defeat can be avoided, the team can build on that defensive foundation. By any stretch of the imagination, a clean sheet in Petrosyan’s first game in charge would be considered successful and a step in the right direction as Armenia look to recapture the form that has alluded them for two years.