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The View from Great Britain: Do football (soccer) managers really make a difference to a team’s performance?

by Gabrielle Pickard

22 December 2013. Cheshire, United Kingdom. Here in Manchester the football elation that concluded last season’s jubilant Manchester-team triumph that saw Manchester United top the table, followed by Manchester City in second place, has been abruptly faltered. The smug cheers of ‘we are the champions’ have been replaced by alarming unease that maybe this won’t be Manchester’s season. Of course the big difference at Manchester United is that the club’s legendary managing maestro has been replaced by a much less-known figure in the cutthroat world of football management.

With United not getting off to the best of starts this season and, it has to be said, playing some pretty dismal football, ruthless calls for David Moyes sacking have been hogging the sport’s pages’ limelight. The press has been having a field day publishing merciless polls titled ‘Sack Moyes if United are 5th by Jan – Yes or No’, much to the delight of the United-despising fraternity, as well as many United supporters who only want to see their team start scoring goals and being in their typical top of the table position.

After a 1 – 0 win over arch London rivals Arsenal in early November, United managed to scrape themselves to fifth position on the table.  Two ties, two losses and two wins later, they’re holding eighth. Is it the players who are struggling or is it the manager’s coaching style to blame? In short, how much of a difference do football managers really make to a team’s performance? And does it make statistical sense to sack a manager?

Sacked without a fair trial

We’ve seen it so many times, all hopes being pinned on the appointment of a new manager at a badly performing club, several loses and a few boring draws later, the manager is forced to leave, his ego bruised and battered, with his tail between his legs. Perhaps the most memorable example of this in the English premiership was Kevin Keegan’s sensational sacking in 2008.  Keegan was elevated to heroic status at Newcastle in the 90s when he managed the club, winning promotion as First Division champions in 1992. Under Keegan’s lead the club finished second in the Premier League in the 1995/96 season. When Keegan returned to St. James’ Park in 2008 as manager the emotional comeback was short-lived. Following an eight-month reign as coach Keegan was sacked by the club’s owner Mike Ashley. The pair had reportedly clashed over the club’s transfer policy and the decision to try and sell the controversial midfielder, Joey Barton. Newcastle’s dreams of Keegan returning the club to its former glory were brought to an abrupt end all too soon.

The club’s fate didn’t improve after Keegan was hastily sacked and in 2008 -09 Newcastle was relegated from the Premier League, for the first time since 1989.

The cold-bloodedness of this example highlights exactly how ruthless and ‘business-like’ modern football has become and the fact that Newcastle United’s performance neither improved nor worsened during Keegan’s short-lived return also questions the magnitude of a football manager.

Talking about the affect changing manager has on a club mid-season, Dutch economist Dr Bas Ter Weel told the BBC:

“Changing a manager during a crisis does improve the results in the short term. But this is a misleading statistic because not changing the manager would have had the same result.”

Ter Weel analysed managerial turnover in the Dutch premier division over 18 seasons taking into account clubs that had sacked their managers when the going got tough and those who stood by their manager to ride out the storm. The research found that both the clubs that stood by their managers and the ones that sacked them, experienced similar patterns of declines and improvements in performance.

Ter Weel states the findings of his research is not confined to the Dutch football league but that other big European football nations follow a similar pattern – if a club shows an unusual slump in form it typically bounces back before too long, regardless of whether the manager is fired or not. The Dutchman’s theory could be applied to goings on in the English Premier League last season. Birmingham club Aston Villa had been struggling to find form last season. Instead of rashly sacking their manager, Paul Lambert, the club showed some faith, hung on to Lambert and experienced a significant turnaround in their performance.

It has to be said that the pattern of football clubs experiencing declines and improvements regardless of whether they sack their manager or hold on to them, suggests that the weight of a team’s performance is not so much hung onto a manager but rather the players.

Not just a European trait

Every year without fail Premier League managers are mercilessly discarded by the club’s owners. In fact so certain is football managerial sacking in the English league that betting companies take bets as to which manager will be the next to be sacked. Although it has to be said that this ruthless sacking of football managers is not just a European trait.

In America there is a similar tendency for calls to fire the coach to emerge if a team does poorly. In September this year Mexico sacked manager Jose Manuel de la Torre and replaced him with Luis Fernando Tena after a home defeat by Honduras dented their 2014 World Cup qualifying hopes. The sacking caused controversy with supporters of Jose Manuel de la Torre believing he had been sacked unnecessarily.

“And what happen when Vela doesn’t attain the results everyone is expecting? It might just be the squad, they have such little chemistry at times it amazes me,” posted a Yahoo News reader.

It does seem that around the world too much weight of a football club’s performance is placed on the manager’s shoulders. As for Manchester United, it is not unusual for them to start the season badly; in fact it could even be argued that is almost expected. David Moyes certainly began his career as Manchester United’s manager a little precariously, but as the club has etched its way into fifth position on the league table and begins to show signs of last season’s ‘Sir Alex Ferguson- departure high’, surely we’d be mad to sack Moyes. Just yet.

Gabrielle Pickard is a freelance journalist based in Cheshire, United Kingdom.

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Posted on: December 24, 2013, 1:23 pm Category: The View From Here Tagged with: , , ,

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