Does changing manager work?

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We are not halfway through the current season, and yet a quarter of Premier League teams have decided the only way to save their campaign is to change their manager.

Tottenham Hotspur, West Bromwich Albion, Fulham, Crystal Palace, and Sunderland have all judged that to maintain their existing management structures and personnel would risk significant underperformance in, or more drastically an exit from, the Premier League. They have done so despite allowing those individuals to spend, or be involved in spending, tens of millions of pounds on new players just four months ago, and despite the fact that in doing so, they are likely to incur an additional financial penalty for severing a contract early.

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The churn of Premier League managers is now a well established characteristic of the English game – the average tenure for a top flight manager in this country is now around 26 months when both sackings and resignations are taken into account. So given most clubs (the notable recent exceptions being Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton) regularly decide to take the gamble of changing manager, there must surely be good evidence that doing so will positively impact team performance?

There are certainly examples where it appears to have paid off. Roy Hodgson’s appointment at Fulham in 2007 almost certainly saved the West London club from relegation, and soon after led them to a major European final. Likewise, there can be little doubt that Harry Redknapp’s appointment at Tottenham in 2008 had a demonstrable, positive effect on the performance of a team previously sinking to the bottom of the table – although this may reflect the underperformance of Juande Ramos as much as anything else.

However, a closer look at the data suggests that these instances may actually be the exception to the rule, rather than the norm. Analysis in the first part of this series indicated that the biggest factor by far in determining team performance is the amount a club spends on wages, with the manager ultimately having a marginal, if potentially crucial, impact. When we look at historical managerial changes therefore, perhaps it is not surprising that making a change is just as likely to have no discernable impact whatsoever on team performance.

Everything changes, yet stays the same

Conventional wisdom says that upon being appointed last season, Mauricio Pochettino dramatically reversed Southampton’s fortunes after Nigel Adkins’ sacking. It tells us that two years ago, Roberto di Matteo rescued a faltering Chelsea side from oblivion under Andres Villas Boas, before guiding them to Champions League success. And it tells us that in 2010, Newcastle United sacked Chris Hughton and replaced him with Alan Pardew, who transformed the Magpies and took them to within a whisker of Champions League football in his first full season in charge.

Each of these narratives appears initially compelling. On the one hand, a sophisticated foreign coach arrives to replace an inexperienced former physio, improves their style, and leads the club to survival. On the other, a club hero returns to replace a novice who is out of his depth, and inspires his ailing former teammates to Champions League glory. And in the third instance, a likeable but naive man is replaced by a hardened experienced professional who takes control of the dressing room, and returns his side to European football.

But dig a little deeper, and the picture is more complex. Mauricio Pochettino has undoubtedly imprinted his style on Southampton, and few who have watched them this season could argue that his appointment has brought improvement to the South coast side.

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But it will surprise many to learn that last season, if you compare the 16 games overseen by the Argentine, to the last 16 games of the Adkins era, the record of the two managers was all but identical. Each won four, drew seven and lost five games. The only difference? Adkins’ Southampton scored one, and conceded two, more goals than Pochettino’s. The style may have changed, but the results on the pitch did not.

Nigel Adkins vs Mauricio Pochettino (2012-13)

Poch v adkins

At Stamford Bridge, Roberto di Matteo did something that the many more experienced managers (including a World Cup winner!) who had preceded him could not – deliver the Champions League trophy for Roman Abramovich. But did he really improve Chelsea’s performance levels beyond what Andre Villas Boas was achieving? Chelsea’s form had deteriorated immediately before AVB’s sacking, but if we look at the league points per game he had achieved in his 17 games in charge, we find that at 1.70 points per game, it is nearly identical to that achieved by his replacement (1.64 points per game). Chelsea’s Champions League campaign may have gone from strength to strength, but their general level of performance stayed the same.

Andres Villas Boas vs Roberto di Matteo (2011-12)

AVB v RDM

And in the North East of England, when Mike Ashley pulled the trigger and fired Chris Hughton, he surely anticipated a tangible improvement in results to follow.

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In his first full season in charge, new manager Alan Pardew did lead the Magpies to fifth in the table, but once again, when we look at the immediate impact he had on team results, there is a different story. In 17 league games up to that point, Chris Hughton had recorded five wins, four draws and eight defeats, accumulating 19 points. In his first 17 games in charge of the Toon Army, Alan Pardew amassed five wins, seven draws and five defeats – a difference of just three points.

Chris Hughton vs Alan Pardew (2009-10)

hugh v pards

Conclusions: there is no silver bullet to improve performance

Each of these examples reflects the limited impact a manager can realistically be expected to have given the importance of financial might, and player quality, to team performance – particularly over the short term. They are by no means the only instances we could cite – Brendan Rodgers has an almost identical win % ratio to that of Kenny Dalglish during his final spell in charge at Anfield (50% vs 48%), and despite his notable period of success, Sir Bobby Robson won roughly the same percentage of his games as Graeme Sounness and Glenn Roeder, the two managers who followed him (47%, 45% and 46% respectively – each a drastic improvement on the Dalglish and Gullit eras at St James’ Park).

Although doubtful, it is ultimately impossible to say whether Andres Villas Boas would have led Chelsea to triumph in the Champions League had he remained in charge. Likewise, we cannot know whether a Nigel Adkins Southampton side would look as impressive today as one led by Mauricio Pochettino. And in the case of the Argentine, and that of Alan Pardew, one could make the case that a managerial change was made to re-direct the longer term future of each club.

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What we can say, however, is that despite the cliches that continue to plague the game about a “short term bounce” that new managers provide clubs, often, this uplift is extremely brief, if it exists at all. This should not come as a surprise. Analysis indicates that the biggest factor by far in determining team performance is the amount a club spends on wages, and the quality of player that this affords them. This is a situation that can only really change between seasons, not during campaigns, and may also depend upon the arrival of new owners or investors in the club, or at the very least, the adoption of a new approach to the transfer market.

So any manager may bring with him a new style, or motivational techniques to his new club, but the fact remains that he is working with the same group of players as his predecessor, with the same strengths and weaknesses. As set out in the previous article in this series, some managers’ are capable of transcending the financial context they find themselves in. But these are special managers, that very few clubs can hope to identify, or employ.

Instead, each of these instances should sound a warning to fans of those clubs who have already sacked their manager this season. Poyet, Pulis and Muelensteen may all go on to improve their sides. West Brom and Spurs may yet have successful seasons. But a new man in the dugout brings absolutely no guarantee of an improvement on the pitch.

Interested in reading more? Click here for more analysis exploring the importance of managers in the Premier League.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Part two: Changing manager offers no guarantee of improvement […]

  2. […] Yet it is far from clear that sacking a manager significantly benefits the club in question. Every situation is different, but for many, such as Reading in 2012/13, it yields no significant improvement in performances. […]

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