A manager of a football club - sounds like the perfect job for many of us, right? The reality is, it's probably one of the most vulnerable job positions in the world. It's fair to say, in today's climate, a manager is potentially only 5 or 6 games from the sack. Job security is pretty much non-existent in this business, and a poor run of results could see managers packing their bags and heading out the door quicker than they can say David Moyes.
So why is there such a high staff turnover for managers? Is the impact of getting a new boss in significant enough justify the sacking of the old one? Does it make statistical sense? Let's investigate.
Football writer Chris Hope claims that there is a 'trapdoor' for football managers; a bottom level of average points per game that when fallen below, results in the termination of a manager's contract. Data taken from manager changes at Tottenham Hotspur from 1992 - present suggests that in recent seasons, there is less of a dip in points (average per game) before a Premier League manager is dismissed, meaning that the 'trapdoor' zone is easier to fall into than managers would hope. The data also showed that an expected dip in form that leads to a manager's sacking is typically followed by an improved run of results under the new boss. This is referred to, by Hope, as 'the honeymoon period.'
The 'honeymoon period'
More often than not, when a new manager comes in, so do the points. This can be due to several reasons, but in general, player performance simply tends to improve, both in training and on the pitch. Not knowing if they're in the managers plans or not, each player will fight for a place and strive to impress the new coach. This in turn triggers a positive response form the team and a consequent uplift in results. Moreover, change in itself can be very effective in football. The new man in charge, in addition to bringing a fresh set of tactics and way of playing, may be the charismatic leader that the struggling team needs to boost morale, motivation and the overall desire to win games.
Back to square one?
Using similar data of previous Spurs managers, we've also seen that although the 'honeymoon' period has an immediate positive impact, after it reaches its peak (around 6-12 games), the average points per game returned to a similar, if not worse level than it was before the previous manager was fired. Interesting. Further evidence to support this was provided by Dutch economist Dr Bas ter Weel, who conducted a statistical analysis of club performance following manager turnover across multiple leagues over a period of 18 seasons. He found that changing a manager during a slump in form tends to improve results in the short term, but the stats suggest that a club's long-term league position would've stayed the same if they'd stuck with the struggling manager.
David Sally, co-author of the football statistics book 'The Numbers Game', made the comparison to water, and how it seeks its own level. Similarly, numbers and series of numbers, over time, will move towards the average - towards the ordinary after the extraordinary. In simpler terms, it's likely that things will pretty much stay as they were. This in mind, Sally went on to claim "a short -term decline in performance is not a good enough reason to sack your manager".
Some recent examples
Take two bosses from the Premier League - Bob Bradley and Alan Pardew. Swansea were sat in 17th position when they gave Francesco Guidolin the boot. Off the back of three consecutive defeats, the board decided enough was enough and replaced him with American coach Bob Bradley. This came as a bit of a shock appointment to many, and the qualms over Bradley being the right man to take Swansea forward haven't exactly been eased with his side's unconvincing performances thus far. The 3-0 defeat to Middlesbrough at the weekend certainly won't help his case. Many have tipped Swansea as being one of the favourites to go down - in hindsight, maybe sticking with Guidolin, who had a 36% win ratio, would've been a better option for the Swans come the end of the season. 17th is better than 18th after all.
Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew has been under immense pressure lately after a bad run of six straight defeats and an average of just 0.71 per game in 2016 - the lowest points average of any team in the English leagues. Unsurprisingly, a number of Palace fans have called for his head, but the chairman has faith in the former Newcastle boss to get the Eagles out their current rut. Before losing their last two fixtures to Chelsea and United, Palace had won and drawn, suggesting there may be a miraculous recovery on the cards. In a situation where the majority of clubs would have given Pardew the sack and replaced him with someone new, Crystal Palace may be set to prove that actually sticking with the seemingly crisis-bound manager might just turn out to be the best long-term solution to the short-term trouble. Slaven Billic's apparent revival of West Ham's shocking form may also go some to support this theory. The issue is, club boards panic, and pull the trigger as soon as they think the ship is sinking.
But what if a manager loses the dressing room?
Although the stats may suggest that sacking your manager during a dip in form isn't exactly the best solution in the long-run, sometimes it just has to be done. We see it often in football - players get to a point where their relationship with, and will to play for, the manager has clearly diminished; Jose Mourinho's last stint as Chelsea boss was being the perfect example. When this happens, it's very difficult to resolve. You can't exactly sack 11 players, but you can sack the manager, which is always going to be the most sensible course of action. When performances and results are consistently bad, and a team starts slipping down that table, it's the manager that will forever be held accountable - which is why so many of them lose their jobs before they get a chance to rebuild.
Nowadays, despite the hefty fees clubs have to pay to buy out the remaining years on manager's contracts, owners and chairmen simply don't have the patience for rebuilding; they can't risk it. They need that honeymoon period back, that instant lift in performance - so it's out with the old an in with the new. Mourinho was given a £9.5m compensation payout for his dismissal, which is actually below the average amount owner Roman Abramovich usually pays out to departing managers (£10.1m per sacking). Now, with his Chelsea side sitting top of the table off the back of 10 straight victories, Abramovich's decision to replace the special one with Italian tactician Antonio Conte has, for now, proved to be an excellent one. That £9.5 million may just be repaid in championship glory under the new boss.
So, stick or twist?
Though it may not make statistical sense to change managers, it must be noted that the decision to sack or not to sack, is all relative to the club's situation at the time. After all, we don't know what's going on behind the scenes. Teams sitting at the bottom of the table with a relegation battle on their hands and without a win in 10 games, yeah, maybe it's time for a new captain at the helm. The important thing is ensuring you have the right man for the job, but this may take some time before finding the man that's going to bring sustained, long term success to a club.
It's the clubs that chose to pull the trigger during a minor blip in performance as opposed to a sustained decline that are the very reason we have these stats in the first place. So it must also be noted that the expected benefits gained from managerial replacement may be less significant than clubs anticipate. Will Guardiola smash Pelegrini's last season finish of 4th? Will Mourinho beat Van Gaal's 5th? Only time will tell, but it's interesting for sure.
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