Reading FC have a new man to take them into the future, as the club officially announced the hiring of Veljko Paunovic on Saturday morning.
A former player at the highest level, Paunovic played for the likes of Getafe, Mallorca, and Atletico Madrid before going into management. He started off coaching the Serbian youth national team at various levels, ultimately leading the U-20 side to a World Cup title back in 2015.
Paunovic went on to get his first professional coaching job a few years later, taking charge of the Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer. Things didn’t go well in the United States, though, as he was fired after four turbulent seasons.
Now, his focus will be on getting Reading back into the Premier League. However, looking back at his coaching career so far, it does not seem like Paunovic is the right man for the job.
Although winning the World Cup at the U-20 level with Serbia is quite the achievement, it doesn’t properly showcase Paunovic as a manager. Weird things can always happen at a tournament, especially one with that many knockout round games. Serbia also didn’t win a single knockout round game in regulation, either advancing after extra time or on penalties.
All that considered, Paunovic’s run with the Chicago Fire is the one that is truly important when it comes to analyzing him as a coach.
That spell was an admittedly tragic one. Out of the four seasons he spent in MLS, only one of them was any good, as Paunovic led Chicago to a third place finish and a spot in the playoffs. However, even that campaign ended very poorly, as they lost 4-0 to the New York Red Bulls in the first round of the postseason.
The other years were spent in the bottom half of the league standings. Incredibly inconsistent, the Fire would look superb one week before falling apart the following weekend. They could win two in a row but then follow that up with a four game losing streak.
A big reason for that was Paunovic’s ever changing tactics. He seemingly refused to keep things as they were, tinkering with the gameplan on a weekly basis.
He liked to use a 4-2-3-1 formation early on, but when that didn’t immediately succeed, he switched to a 3-5-2. When that failed, Paunovic tried a 4-4-2, then a 5-2-3, and would sometimes revert back to a 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2. Fire fans could not predict how their team would line up going into any game, and neither could the players.
As you’d expect, the constant changes prevented the team from building up any momentum. Players were forced to play in unnatural positions, with Bastian Schweinsteiger famously converted into a centerback. Yes, you heard that right, Paunovic had a World Cup winning center midfielder playing in defense.
Paunovic never adapted to his opposition either. Some coaches will develop a strategy to beat a certain team on the day, but that never happened in Chicago. The Serbian coach would just go with what he thought was right, and it either worked or it didn’t.
However, no matter how bad Paunovic was on the tactical side of things, it pales in comparison to how bad his man management was.
Losing the dressing room
Paunovic had enough talent to work with, but it was how he handled that talent that ultimately cost him his job.
As mentioned earlier, almost everyone was being played out of position, which affected the confidence of the team.
Even those who were playing where they wanted to had to deal with Paunovic. The coach was on the touchline all game, barking instructions throughout the 90 minutes. It’s nice to see a coach that cares and is involved in proceedings, but the constant yelling must have gotten on the nerves of certain players.
His commands didn’t even make much sense. Paunovic would want his wingers to track back at all times, but would then get upset if they were tired before fulltime. It was a similar story for those up top, who were expected to drop deep and get in behind at the same time.
At the back, Schweinsteiger was the only defender who was comfortable with the ball at his feet, but Paunovic insisted on playing out from the back anyways. You know how that turned out.
Paunovic didn’t help any youngsters grow either, which was especially strange since he was a world champion at the youth level. Instead of giving academy products a chance in the team, Paunovic would rely on older and more experienced players. It sometimes worked in terms of winning specific games, but it really hurt the club in the long term as no one developed properly.
However, the worst thing about Paunovic was his famed “doghouse”. Whenever a player would do something that the manager was not a fan of, they would see themselves benched for weeks on end. It could happen to anyone at any time, and it didn’t matter how important they were to the team.
Aleksandar Katai was Chicago’s most dangerous attacker to start one season, but he found himself on the sidelines for an extended period after Paunovic chewed him out for not tracking back. Djordje Mihailovic was one of the teams brightest young players, but as soon as European clubs came calling and his head was turned, Paunovic decided to take him off the field and stunt his development.
The David Accam storyline was even stranger. A star with the Fire early on, he was one of the best players in all of MLS.
That year Paunovic was set to coach the All-Star team since Chicago was hosting the contest, which meant he was allowed to pick most of the roster. Shockingly enough, Paunovic didn’t choose Accam, who then spoke out about how he was hurt by the decision. To make things worse, the player was then benched for the remainder of the campaign, and was ultimately sold the following offseason.
Those are just a few examples, as so many players were put into Paunovic’s doghouse that Fire fans started to lose count. In the end, the coach eventually lost all control of the dressing room, which led to his firing.
He’s somehow ended up getting the Reading job, but if history is any indicator, then fans of the Royals are in for a few tough seasons ahead. Best of luck, everyone.