The current situation at my favourite football club makes me bury my head in the sand and ask myself how far can some people go. Last year, a plane rented by fans to fly above the stadium with the now-famous “Wenger Out” message was the icing on the cake. This story reminded me of a comment I saw a couple of months ago at the bottom of an article on The Guardian, where a storm was about to come over Zinedine Zidane, after a defeat in La Liga:
”It does make me smile when the white hankies come out at the Bernabeu, as if thousands of people, many of whom are probably no better than ordinary at their jobs, have some divine right to see perfection out of their football team.”
Nowadays, this is something that has started to become ordinary and perhaps the youngest among us are in the assent to the decision to regularly sack football managers, which has almost become a routine when things go bad at a football club. But the rest of us, who have watched enough football in our lives, can only ask ourselves: does sacking managers actually helps football clubs? Does it make a difference? Of course, there are a few examples that show that they do: Sam Allardyce rescued Sunderland from relegation while Tony Pulis did the same for Crystal Palace and he was also a guarantee of keeping The Baggies up. Sacking Nigel Pearson and bringing in Claudio Ranieri was a good idea. Ranieri won the title in his first season. But where is Ranieri now? Antonio Conte proved to be a massive success at Chelsea and won the title last year. But who knows where will Conte be one year from now?
Most of the times, newly employed managers do not add value in the medium or long term and fans only get deceived. Statisticians have demonstrated that once the manager is sacrificed, the team performance improves only briefly for a short period. Results will resume to normal after a period of time. The problem is not only that the new football managers bring good results in a short term, but also that club owners make a several huge mistakes which will cost them later.
Club owners say the decision to fire a manager is a much needed shock created in the dressing-room. We heard this too many times. The truth is some of the most talented players are becoming more and more spoiled and capricious. Some of them work their socks off only when they’re in the mood or even worse, when their agent tells them the manager is ok. What happened to Leicester last season or especially to Chelsea two years ago demonstrated this.
A new manager wastes money and in a lot of cases he does things solely to please the fans. Only a few managers are not making drastic changes after being hired. As a routine of modern football, newly employed managers want to put their mark on their new teams and they do this by transferring their “own” players. The next step is to get rid of some of their predecessor’s transfers. Frequently, these players are being sold cheaper than their actual market value only to avoid having them around the dressing room. In 2003, Ranieri’s Chelsea transferred Juan Sebastian Veron from Manchester United for £15 million. The Italian left at the end of the season and with Jose Mourinho in charge, The Blues transferred two central midfielders chosen by the Portuguese: Tiago and Essien. Veron no longer had a future at Stamford Bridge and for the next seasons he went out on loan in Italy and Argentina, before permanently leaving Chelsea on a free, at the end of the contract. This scenario is very often encountered nowadays in football: a new manager is allowed to buy and sell on the pretense that he is reshaping the club for many years to come, even though in practice he almost always leaves pretty rapidly. A recent example was the appointment of Paolo di Canio at Sunderland in 2013. In the thirteen gameweeks being in charge, “The Black Cats” spent around € 20 million on transfers, brought in fourteen new names and allowed fifteen to leave. When the Italian was sacked, he left his successor, Gus Poyet, a team almost relegated, at the bottom of the Premier League. Look at the current status of Sunderland. Did it worth the change?
While above there are only a few examples of poor decisions taken by clubs after sacking their managers, we must also look at the root problem which comes with the way clubs hire the person which they believe is the right person to manage the club.
In the book “Soccernomics”, Simon Kuper revealed that after talking to headhunting experts, he found out that an average search process for a top manager takes four to five months. However, football club owners usually find their new managers within a couple of days after firing the predecessor. History proves that a rare slow hire in football became one of the most inspired choice of the past decades: Arsenal’s decision to hire Arsène Wenger in October 1996. The Frenchman, who was working in Japan at Nagoya Grampus, was not available immediately. Wisely, Arsenal Football Club waited for him and put Pat Rice temporary in charge.
After sacking the managers, clubs turn their attention to some people because they are able to start work immediately, being out-of contract. In other cases, clubs turn their attention to managers because they achieved good results in the short period prior to the appointment. Many club owners ignore the fact that the new managers are available as a result of just having been sacked by their previous clubs. In 2006, many of us were intrigued that Steve McClaren was named England manager only because Middlesbrough had some good performances at home in the UEFA Cup where they reached the final. His team also managed to avoid relegation just as the English Football Association was considering who should be picked. By the time Sevilla FC beat Middlesborough 4-0 in the final, the decision was already made and Steve McClaren already had the contract signed.
Another mistake made by club owners when deciding it’s time to change the manager is the fact that the new man is only briefly interviewed. In any other sectors, anyone who wants an executive role must write and present a business plan, undergo several interviews or pass other tests. Liverpool FC had a similar approach in 2012 before Brendan Rodgers was hired, but usually, in football, the recruiting process is simple: the club director calls the manager or his agent and simply offers the job. Gheorghe Hagi was appointed by Bursaspor in 2004 with no club-level experience just because he was the biggest player in Turkey’s League history. It’s no surprise that he left the club after a few months.
Once the managers are released, the newly employed ones have the same characteristics. Some clubs hire managers which don’t have professional qualifications. In England’s lower divisions the UEFA Pro Licence course is unnecessary. However, statistics show that managers with the Pro Licence won significantly more matches than managers without it. Statistics also showed that experienced managers regularly outperform novices, however in football, experienced managers are being sacked and the new manager is expected do miracles. Qualifications and experience are understood in almost every industry except football.
Another uninspired criteria taken into consideration when choosing the new manager is the fact that he is generally appointed not specifically for his alleged football knowledge or managerial skills. These are important but it seems people’s perception of him counts a bit more. That’s why after sacking a manager, clubs appoint a “big name”, a tough guy, someone who is also expected to impress the fans and the media. This is how last season, Tony Adams took over as coach at the Spanish club Granada in an attempt to get a reaction that will save the side from relegation. At the press conference where he was presented, the former Arsenal defender said he joined the club to “kick them up the arse”.
Sadly, both clubs and national football federations continue to sack managers and this tradition does not seem to stop. Five managers have been fired by the Argentinian Football Federation in less than seven years after Edgardo Bauza was recently sacked. The decision was made after only eight games in charge. This is as many as they had over 30 years from 1974 to 2004 (Cesar Luis Menotti, Carlos Bilardo, Alfio Basile, Daniel Passarella and Marcelo Bielsa). Also, during the 2016-2017 English football season, a total of 46 managers have been sacked. Few of their replacements brought instant success and even less will be in the same position one year from now. Some of them have been already fired. It’s like a roller that cannot stop, an ugly side of modern football.
Fans and media want to see things happen, want changes at football clubs, want their Facebook and Twitter feeds full with news. This is the current state of modern football and while sometimes changes are good, seeking immediate results has priority over stability and good long-term plans. With these changes, clubs lose money and all these amounts could have been more usefully invested in other areas. As Simon Kuper wrote in his book Soccernomics, “Football’s human sacrifice is a sign that the sport still isn’t very clever”.