Jordi Cruyff is the first to admit it.
This has been his toughest season at Maccabi Tel Aviv since becoming the club’s sports director in the summer of 2012.
The former Barcelona and Manchester United player and son of the great Johan Cruyff arrived at Maccabi while it was in the midst of a 10-year Premier League title drought. He helped the yellow- and-blue claim its first championship since 2003 in his first season with the team, with Maccabi going on to win three league titles in a row.
Despite ending last season without silverware, 2015/16 included plenty of highlights for Maccabi, including a first visit to the Champions League group stage in 11 years.
This season has been very different.
In fact, matters have been so bad that it is reminiscent of the pre-Cruyff days.
For the first time since 2011, Maccabi fired a coach mid-season, with Shota Arveladze paying the price for the team’s disappointing results.
Maccabi is still a clear favorite to end the league campaign in second place, but the fact it has fallen so far behind Hapoel Beersheba, which is heading for a second straight championship, is simply unacceptable by the standards established at the club by owner Mitch Goldhar and Cruyff.
Goldhar purchased the club in the summer of 2009 and it wasn’t until Cruyff’s arrival that Maccabi became the dominant force in Israeli soccer.
Coaches have come and gone, or to be more accurate, six different coaches have guided the team since Cruyff’s arrival. However, up until last month none of them had been fired.
Peter Bosz only joined Maccabi last January, but his departure was announced following last season’s State Cup final loss to Maccabi Haifa, with the Dutchman receiving an offer he couldn’t refuse from his native Ajax.
For a fifth straight year Maccabi started a season with a different coach to the one that ended the previous term.
After ending the club’s 10-year championship drought in 2012/13, Oscar Garcia left for Brighton & Hove Albion of the English Championship.
Paulo Sousa of Portugal replaced him and led the team to a second straight league title before leaving for FC Basel.
Oscar returned for a short stint in the summer of 2014, but left before the league campaign even began due to the security situation at the time. Pako Ayestaran, also of Spain, was hired in his place and led the team to an unprecedented domestic treble in 2014/15.
However, his contract wasn’t extended.
Slavisa Jokanovic of Serbia took his place, but after guiding the team to the Champions League group stage, he bolted in December 2015 for Fulham of the English Championship. Bosz surprisingly left Dutch top-flight team Vitesse Arnhem to join Maccabi, but he departed for Ajax after less than five months.
Maccabi, and Cruyff in particular, are proud that the team’s coaches have been recruited by prestigious European clubs. That certainly speaks volumes of Cruyff’s eye for coaching quality and of his ability to attract names who would otherwise probably not even consider coming to Israel.
However, the coaching carousel inevitably leads to unrest in the squad, something the players have admitted to more than once.
Cruyff’s latest choice seemed like one of his safest, with Arveladze being courted by the Dutchman for years.
The Georgian got off to a promising start, leading the yellow-and-blue to the Europa League group stage and picking up 16 of a possible 18 points to start the Premier League season. But the team lost its way over recent months, winning just three of 10 league games and suffering a disappointing exit from continental competition.
Maccabi’s level of performance dropped dramatically and never recovered, and after much deliberation, Goldhar decided last week that a change was required.
“We are going through a difficult year and we expected it,” said Cruyff last Thursday. “We probably didn’t expect the last 6-7 weeks when we lost points against teams that we should have taken points from.”
Despite reports to the contrary, Cruyff insisted that he has a strong relationship with Goldhar.
“My relationship with the owner is a good one and a solid one. Things that are happening this season were not unexpected for me and for him,” he explained.
“We were planning to go through a process over the summer and maybe we will begin in January. Mitch Goldhar is a man with a winning mentality and character and I have that same character.
“The club has had many good years and now is a difficult time with changes,” he added. “When you get used to winning you forget what losing is. Sometimes losing gives you a reality check.”
Cruyff has stepped into Arveladze’s shoes until a new coach is signed, leading the team to a 3-0 victory over Bnei Lod of the National League in the State Cup round-of-32 on Saturday. Cruyff will also be at the helm for Wednesday’s league match against Hapoel Ra’anana.
“It has been my most difficult season at Maccabi for sure,” said Cruyff following the win over Lod.
While the arrivals of both Goldhar and then Cruyff can be marked as turning points in the history of Maccabi, a closer look at the numbers shows that in fact it is another name who truly made the difference.
It is difficult to overstate Zahavi’s importance to Maccabi since joining in January of 2013. He led the Premier League in scoring in each of the previous three seasons, breaking the 61-year-old record for goals in a season with 35 last term.
He left for Chinese club Guangzhou R&F in June, with a lucrative offer convincing the player to move on and Maccabi agreeing to the deal after receiving $8 million for his services. Maccabi tried to keep Zahavi at the club until the last moment, with negotiations continuing until his flight departed for China. Zahavi has since admitted that the sides were close to an agreement and had Maccabi accepted his terms he would have stayed.
Maccabi knew it would miss Zahavi, but wasn’t expecting his departure to take such a toll.
According to statistics collected by journalist Nitzan Livneh, the team has registered a 65 percent success rate in league action during Goldhar’s time at the club and almost 72 percent since Cruyff’s arrival. However, when subtracting the team’s results with Zahavi during Cruyff’s time, the Dutchman’s rate also plummets to around 65 percent.
The numbers show that Zahavi has been the true difference maker, with the team’s success rate during his stay reaching over 74 percent.
Zahavi was brought to the club during the January transfer window four years ago, but it seems impossible that Cruyff will find such a player once more in the coming weeks.
A return to the top will require a far more arduous rebuilding process, one which will test the patience of Goldhar and Cruyff, as well as that of the yellowand- blue faithful.[email protected]