What difference does a top manager make?

Last summer, Sir Alex Ferguson drew to a close the most successful football management career in British football history. In overseeing the transformation of Manchester United over more than quarter of a century, and winning a staggering 13 Premier League titles, two Champions’ League titles, and five FA Cups, Ferguson achieved virtually all there was to achieve as a football manager.

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As is well documented, Ferguson himself attributes his success to his ability to “keep control” at Old Trafford – for all key decisions to be his, and for his authority to always be absolute in the dressing room. He acted swiftly and ruthlessly should this ever be challenged.

In other words, he believes he was so successful because of the specific way he went about the job. As a result of his record, he is held as the greatest of his, and possibly any, generation, and is surely living proof that the role of football manager continues to dominate top flight British football.

But there is one school of thought, supported by data, that suggests the accomplishments of all managers, even the of the great Sir Alex Ferguson, should be treated with caution.

Pay better, play better?

Sports economists Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski demonstrated in their book “Why England Lose” that between 1998 and 2008, a Premier League or Championship club’s total spend on wages explained between 80-90% of the variation in its average league position come the end of the season.

On one level, this analysis is not revelatory. It essentially confirms that those clubs with the means to pay for the best players will rise to the top of the league. However, in examining a ten year period, Kuper and Szymanski show that this holds true regardless of who is in charge of a club at any given time.

Subsequent studies and other writers, such as Chris Andersen and David Sally, have since challenged these figures, but the fundamental link between a higher wage bill over the long term determining greater success on the pitch, over and above any other single factor, remains strikingly clear.

Average league position and wage expenditure relative to the average (Kuper and Szymanski)

League Position vs. Expenditures

To illustrate the point, over this decade, the clubs with the highest salary bills were, in order: Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. Their average table finishes were third, first, fourth and second. So, under Kuper and Szymanski’s analysis, Sir Alex Ferguson has merely succeeded in meeting the expectations of managing one of the world’s richest clubs.

Is stability overrated?

The implication of this analysis is that almost anyone could have taken Sir Alex Ferguson’s place during this decade, and it would not have interrupted United’s overall success rate. Although David Moyes’ early season form at Old Trafford perhaps suggests the folly of this idea, it is ultimately far too early to use the former Everton man to provide an insight into this issue.

The record of Chelsea, one of United’s big rivals over recent years, does however provide further evidence to support the view that the identity of any one specific manager may not be important. Infamously impatient with managers at the club, Chelsea’s Russian owner Roman Abramovich has sacked nine men during his reign – some experienced bosses at the top of their game, others inexperienced and seemingly out of their depth.

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Yet, while the Blues may have secured two fewer Premier League titles during the Abramovich era, in total Chelsea have won the same number (11) of major trophies as Manchester United during this period of turbulence at Stamford Bridge. Indeed, some would say that they actually exceeded United’s performance in European competitions, boasting a Europa League title to sit alongside their Champions League trophy, never mind the fact they have collected three more FA Cups than the Red Devils.

In and of itself, this comparison does not prove the assertion that just anyone could have stepped in to Ferguson’s shoes and continued winning. After all, in Carlo Ancelloti, Guus Hiddink and Rafa Benitez, Chelsea have employed some exceptional coaches.

But when one considers the sheer pace of change at the West London club against a backdrop of continuing success, it certainly indicates that no individual manager, no matter how special, is indispensable.

And when you add the fact that their Champions League victory came under the guidance of Roberto Di Matteo, whose only previous (relatively undistinguished) experience was at MK Dons and West Bromwich Albion, and who was soon dispatched following poor form the following season, it further strengthens Kuper and Szymanski’s case that financial might, not any one individual leader, is the key to success.

Conclusions: fine margins require fine managers

So, with ‘players this good’, could anyone really manage your club to trophy triumphs? Kuper and Szymanski’s analysis appears to suggest so, particularly when their wage analysis is aligned to the specific example of trigger happy Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea.

But it is not that straight forward. Even if the impact that a club’s financial power has over it’s ability to attract top players and compete for honours reflects 80-90% of their ultimate performance, there remains a critical 10-20% which is unaccounted for.

Accepting some of the remainder will be blind luck, there is still significant scope for the manager of a football club to have a decisive impact, particularly when one considers that in the Premier League, Manchester United, Chelsea, and other big clubs have competed so closely regarding the wages they are willing to pay their players.

To put it another way, as set out in the Hit Row Z Premier League Survival Guide, success in top flight football depends upon extremely fine margins – a chance taken or missed, a poor refereeing decision or three points won or lost from a possible 114 available can each be the difference between success and failure. These margins provide the unrivalled drama of the beautiful game.

Yet despite this, time and time again between 1998-2008 Manchester United didn’t just finish in the top four – they finished on top. Given how closely matched they were with their rivals in terms of wage budget, we must look for differentiating factors to help explain the extraordinary seven league titles they won during the period.

The abilities of Sir Alex Ferguson, the control he maintained and the breadth of decisions he took during his tenure at Old Trafford, must be at the top of this list of potential difference makers.

For fans of Manchester United, England’s most successful club for the last quarter century, the manager most certainly matters.


  1. […] Part one: Finances drive success, but can a top manager can make a big difference? […]

  2. […] This is largely just a case of observing the market economy in action. Kuper and Szynmanski’s analysis simply confirms that a club’s desire or ability to pay for the best players will be the overriding determinant on where they finish come the end of the season. Over the long term, the clubs with the best players will tend to finish highest in the league. This has significant implications for how we view the achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, and most recently, Roberto Mancini at Manchester City – as we have examined in more detail here. […]

  3. […] The answer is neither. Sherwood’s record is almost identical to Andres Villas Boas’ before him, even down to the sides’ capacity to capitulate in games against the top four. This should not be a surprise, given what we know of the marginal role most managers tend to have in determining team performance. […]

  4. […] Do Managers Really Matter in the Premier League? […]

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