On the face of things, many would say that Leyton Orient’s decision to dismiss Ross Embleton as head coach was a harsh one.
After all, Embleton is not only an O’s fan with an emotional connection to the club, he has also arguably earnt a smidge of loyalty.
The former youth development boss came through the coaching ranks at the club to play a key part in the National League title win of 2018-19, before bravely stepping up following the tragic loss of Justin Edinburgh.
Either side of Carl Fletcher’s ill-fated stint in 2019-20, Embleton steered Orient well clear of relegation trouble – effectively 20 points above the drop zone with 10 games to play if we discount Macclesfield’s points deduction.
This season, Embleton has overseen victories over four of the current top seven and he had Orient in Play-Off contention for the most part: sixth at the end of November and seventh in mid-January, before a six-game winless run cost the 39-year-old his job.
Some would argue it may be somewhat reactionary to sack Embleton for the sake of six games, given the inconsistent nature of the division: after all, Cambridge went five games without a win at one stage and are now top of the league.
Jobi McAnuff has replaced Ross Embleton at Leyton Orient
On the flip side, chairman Nigel Travis and vice chairman Kent Teague would say that they have backed Embleton well over the last 14 months.
In January 2020, the additions of ball-playing goalkeeper Lawrence Vigouroux and cultured sitting midfielder Ousseynou Cisse added much-needed higher league pedigree that boosted form.
Poacher Danny Johnson, who also joined that winter, has become the division’s joint-third top goalscorer this term.
Summer 2020 was quieter due to the pandemic and the number of players under contract, though Cisse joined permanently, before January business that Travis feels should have fired Orient directly into contention.
Adam Thompson’s arrival at centre-back helped the East Londoners defensively – Saturday’s 3-1 defeat to Tranmere aside – but dribbler Dan Kemp, creative maestro Nick Freeman and athletic forward Tristan Abrahams have not made the desired impact going forward.
In the first half of the season, Orient had scored a large proportion of their goals through short bursts and quick transitions, with tenacious midfielder Craig Clay being an expert at stealing the ball high up.
Once they got into the final third, they were extremely dangerous due to persistent poaching instincts of Johnson, as well as the skill and quality from Conor Wilkinson on the right of the attacking trio, which may also have included any one of James Brophy, Ruel Sotiriou or Louis Dennis.
The problem the O’s had was that they struggled to get into the final third as often as they would have liked, despite the ball-playing ability of Vigouroux, Cisse and Joe Widdowson as well as the direct running of Brophy when he was used at left-back.
Embleton could still have claimed, before January, not to have had in full the personnel to play out from the back effectively or relish long spells of possession.
The fact Orient’s use of the ball, however, did not improve after the signing of Thompson – who thrived in an expansive Bury side at this level in 2018-19 – may have given less weight to that assertion.
Retrospectively, it seems more reasonable to apply some responsibility for Orient’s limited use of possession from deep to Embleton’s coaching, which may have been limited in certain areas – though there is no doubting his honesty and man management qualities as somebody players enjoyed working for.
The question is whether the board have acted correctly in replacing the former Tottenham academy coach with Jobi McAnuff, whose footballing mind is still proving valuable on the other side of the white line.
McAnuff is unquestionably a respected figure in the O’s camp and, given his role as a national TV pundit, in the game collectively.
It seems unclear, though, just how well the 39-year-old will adjust to life as a head coach, without a prior period in which to focus solely on coaching under somebody else’s guidance.
Despite his Wimbledon links, the former midfielder could take some hope from the success of Russ Martin – somebody with a similar ability to connect with others - has had in swiftly swapping shirt for suit at MK Dons.
In Martin’s case, though, he has benefited from working with assistant Luke Williams, who is one of the best footballing minds in the English game.
McAnuff, by contrast, is working most closely with Danny Senda, Dean Brill and Matt Harrold; any one of them may yet prove to be brilliant coaches, but with respect to the trio, they are at different stages of their respective journeys to Williams and may not have the same tactical acumen.
The concern for Orient, therefore, is not so much the appointment of McAnuff itself, but the lack of managerial experience and knowhow around him.
Jake Buxton at Burton Albion is an example of a player to head coach appointment that has not gone well – the Brewers had just 13 points from 21 games by the time of the former centre-back’s dismissal – and although McAnuff may well fare better, the rookie’s circumstances bear greater similarities to that of Buxton than Martin.
The other issue is that McAnuff will be asked to manage not just the team but, to an extent, the club in its broader sense.
Embleton had the “head coach” title but McAnuff takes on the role of “manager”, a title switch that Travis confirmed was intentional.
McAnuff might have had a chance of succeeding if Martin Ling were taking on off-field responsibilities such as transfer dealings as Director of Football.
Ling has an extensive contacts book in the game and, we can expect, has influenced much of Orient’s transfer dealings during Embleton’s tenure.
‘WE ARE GONNA GO FOR IT’...🎙🗣— OrientOutlookPodcast (@OrientOutlook) March 1, 2021
We were delighted to be joined by Leyton Orient Chairman Nigel Travis at the start of😢EPISODE 236😢as he talked Ross Embleton, Jobi McAnuff & lots more.
Listen to this bumper & emotionally pod on iTunes, Spotify & https://t.co/38eV9L55oo! #lofc pic.twitter.com/3m8OKrMZ2L
DoFs, though, invariably work in tandem with Head Coaches rather than managers and it remains to be seen how responsibilities are shared between Ling and McAnuff.
The Orient board would argue there is a need to promote from within for the run-in, so that the manager in question has a comprehensive knowledge of the existing playing squad going into a congested fixture period.
A more established boss, for example, might have had more tactical nous but would also take more time to analyse the group, which could have been an issue given the immediate stakes.
Critics, though, would say that Orient have made three consecutive appointments of managers or head coaches who have no prior record of success as a number one: Carl Fletcher, Embleton and now McAnuff.
Of course, every manager has to start somewhere and there is an argument for taking a chance here and there, but Mark Bonner at Cambridge – the shining example of how an internal appointment can work out – had worked his way through the coaching ranks for years.
If the club wanted to take a risk, it might have made more sense to look at non-league managerial talent like Ben Strevens at Eastleigh, Luke Garrard at Boreham Wood and even Danny Robinson at Hungerford Town.
The main challenge for McAnuff will be to make bold decisions: the club has not signed a right-back permanently since promotion to the EFL, despite Sam Ling – according to fans - being the player whose regular berth in the side should be most up for debate.
Ling, Martin’s son, has generally started when fit and there are suggestions, valid or otherwise, that nepotism is a factor.
That may well prove grossly unfair, but the perception of nepotism is almost as harmful as nepotism itself and McAnuff must be ruthless in picking every player purely on merit and bold in asking for what he needs in the summer transfer market, should he reach that stage.
It’s a difficult time for every club in the EFL, with the pandemic dictating finances and a congested fixture list to come – but is McAnuff a genuine upgrade on Embleton? Time will tell.