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Why Sacking David Moyes May Not Break Manchester United's Losing Streak

23/04/2014 08:00 BST | Updated 22/06/2014 10:59 BST

A scientific study of the impact changing football managers has on team performance suggests that Manchester United may not benefit as much as is currently expected, by changing their current manager.

The study, published in the British Journal of Management, examined UK football team performance over 12 years, and found long incumbent manager tenures are associated with team performance far above the average. This seems to echo the situation of Sir Alex Ferguson's reign at Manchester United.

However when the research examined soccer team managerial changes, contrary to expectations, the investigation found that changing manager, in the short term, leads to only a brief reprieve in poor performance. Football team performance deteriorated again in the long term.

This is because the authors of the investigation, Mathew and Paul Hughes (Durham University), Kamel Mellahi (Warwick Business School) and Cherif Guermat (University of the West of England), argue underlying weaknesses in teams and organisations, once again take hold.

If their research applies to Manchester United, it suggests that the once all-powerful team may be entering a period of longer-term decline that won't be shored up by sacking David Moyes, as much as the fans and the board may believe.

The authors of the study point out that sometimes changing managers appears an obvious fix, but it might also mean that a club won't properly appreciate that poor management may not be the only source of problems. It could be that sometimes managers too easily take the blame for deeper underlying structural problems. It might become easier, for example, for players to under perform if they see a manager taking the blame, rather than the finger being pointed at them.

It is possible that the clean out of other staff below David Moyes points to Manchester United seeking a deeper analysis of what went wrong. However it is also possible that scape-goating one individual is too simplistic an analysis of a large complex organisation.

The authors of the present study point out that managers remain important because previous research has found that sports teams with better individual player talent quotients are regularly outperformed by teams with similar or worse total flair capacity. A winning team is more than just a group of good players.

Managers' particular knowledge of team talent and the specific context in which certain players flower, appears to enable superior long-term performance.

Another problem is that after a long tenure, as in the case of Sir Alex Ferguson, maybe a team or management board doesn't fully grasp what they are losing when they change manager. It might be the years of accumulated wisdom and full understanding of an organisation, is under-estimated in terms of the impact of its loss. It could be that any new manager would have difficulty compensating for this deficit.

The new study, entitled Short-term versus Long-term Impact of Managers: Evidence from the Football Industry, reveal what the authors describe as 'the illusion of a short-term reprieve'. The study indicates that Manchester United may face longer-term consequences of this illusion after the departure of their current manager.

The authors of this study argue that unless a manager receives more time at the helm to address the deeper underlying causes of poor performance, disruption and increased organizational instability following changing managers can trigger a vicious circle of decline.

The authors also quote research into Dutch football leagues which found that team performance would have improved more rapidly had clubs retained, rather than replaced their managers.

The investigation examined the English Premier League from its inception in 1992 through to 2004 when the average tenure of football managers was approximately 1.38 years, amounting to about 70 games.

The study found that lower frequency of manager changes seems to be compatible with higher performance. The three top teams had only one managerial change among them, during the investigation, while the bottom three teams had five changes.

During the 10 matches before the managerial change, the study found that the probability of losing increases by almost 10%, while the probability of winning decreases by about the same. In the short term, following the managerial change, the marginal effect is small but goes in the opposite direction with about 2% lower probability of loss and approximately 2% higher probability of winning.

But the long-term effect sees a reversal in performance. The probability of a loss increases by 4.51% compared to normal times, while the probability of a win decreases by 4.56%.

The short-term reprieve, in team performance, of brief marginal improvement following the initial change of manager, the authors argue, creates an illusion that fools the manager into believing that organizational problems have been addressed. The manager learns information at the start of their tenure that then has little long-term value, thereby necessitating a longer learning curve; or, the learning process must restart again, as the manager recognizes that much greater problems are endemic in the organization.

The authors conclude sacrificing managers may be a mistake for two reasons: (1) although short-term performance does not worsen, it does not greatly improve either; (2) in the long term after change, performance deteriorates again.

The authors decide that their data suggests the efficiency of manager dismissal versus manager persistence is therefore questionable. Some deterioration in performance is inevitable over time for various intrinsic reasons but these findings suggest that, in general, in defiance of what fans and boards may think, the hard evidence is that manager change compromises recovery in a football team.

Ironically the successor to David Moyes may do well for a while simply because they are not David Moyes, and fan expectations are now so low after the recent disastrous run.

It's important to remember what Moyes inherited in terms of massive anticipations, having to follow in the heels of Sir Alec Ferguson. Perhaps most prudent managers may have declined that poisoned chalice. The fact Ferguson himself was apparently allowed to anoint his own successor could have compounded psychological problems already inherent in the succession.

Potential candidates might now be more willing to consider managing Manchester United, as Moyes has provided a buffer between Ferguson's legacy and the present day.

If anyone had taken the role just after Ferguson, and had continued Manchester United's success, it's also possible that they may not have been given credit for unremitting triumph. The plaudits may have continued to flow towards Sir Alex's legacy for creating a winning machine.

That may not be the case now.

In other words, David Moyes has perhaps allowed Manchester United to widen its scope of possibility in terms of who the next manager is, than before he arrived.

If so, he may have played a more valuable, if sacrificial role, after all, in the future of Manchester United, than he might ever be given credit for.