The Axe and Managerial Pressure

‘Mancini under intense pressure’, roared the Daily Mail after Manchester City fell to a 2-1 loss at struggling Wolves a little over a year ago. ‘Manager fighting to reassert his authority after consecutive defeats and growing cracks at the club’. Substitute André Villas-Boas for Roberto Mancini and Chelsea for Manchester City and you are left with a plausible introduction to a tabloid story today. Despite last week’s disastrous defeat in Naples that has impinged on City’s prospects of Champions League progress, few are suggesting the appropriate response would be to dispose of Mancini. An undefeated start to the domestic season has given the Italian room to manoeuvre, a luxury not afforded to Villas-Boas who, despite a promising run which saw the Blues lose just one of their opening eight Premier League games, has witnessed his Chelsea side slump to fifth in recent weeks.

The fact that Villas-Boas is under scrutiny is no surprise, for it is what we have come to expect from the inexorably ruthless nature of England’s top division, where a couple of narrow reverses can undo all the credit accumulated from a treble-winning campaign. Granted, the challenge of steering an ageing, laborious team through transition whilst retaining the support of Roman Abramovich is not comparable with guiding Porto, who have won twenty-five Primeira Liga titles in their history, to success, yet Villas-Boas is the same man today as the one who was hired by the Stamford Bridge outfit in the summer. Patience is a virtue.

As the sports writer Patrick Barclay once observed, even if each Premiership club was managed by a Sir Alex Ferguson, three would still be relegated. The tendency to respond to a handful of defeats by removing the manager remains strong: the average tenure of bosses in England’s top four divisions is just 1.4 years according to figures published last year. This lack of equanimity is not only irrational but also incompatible with the organisational structure of football clubs within this country. If chairmen are to insist on changing the manager with such frequency then the entire institutional framework of clubs, as well as the traditional perceptions of individual roles within them, must be markedly permutated.

It is clear that managers are generally afforded little time by demanding, pressurised owners and, in the more high-profile cases, a sensationalist and ubiquitous media, yet they are still treated as short-term, prepotent despots until they are inevitably sacked. The manager’s sovereignty is sacrosanct and defended to the hilt by pundits who lament the meddling of impertinent owners into the business of ‘proper football people’. The obtuse British suspicion of Directors of Football, for example, is misplaced: the knee-jerk culture that continues to exist can create uncertainty and such directors offer stability in the face of constant change. In their brilliant book ‘Why England Lose’, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski cite Lyon as an example of a successful organisation; having previously identified wage expenditure as the principal determinant of success, the pair recognise the French outfit as a side that have outperformed the expectations set by their spending on emoluments. Notwithstanding three French cup victories in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Les Gones were, at best, a mid-table top division side before Jean-Michel Aulas’s takeover in 1987. Aulas restructured the club’s management and reorganised their finances, with the steady evolution culminating in an unprecedented seven consecutive title triumphs from 2002 onwards.

The configuration established by Aulas produces a very different type of manager, or ‘head coach’ as they are more regularly labelled on the continent. The head coach is undoubtedly an essential component, but his employment does not interfere with the club’s comprehensive foundations and his departure need not effectuate a considerable upheaval. Indeed, transfers are debated by a group, which includes Aulas, technical directors and the manager of the day, an arrangement significantly disparate to the near autonomous dominance of transfer policy traditionally enjoyed by bosses in England. Not only was £99 million spent in removing managers by Premier and Football League clubs last season, the true cost of such a practice is usually much higher: upon taking over, a manager will customarily seek to put his own stamp on the team by signing players he feels are well-suited to his favoured system and style of play. If this manager is sacked and replaced two years down the line, the new incumbent will seek to do the same, often selling on previous signings at reduced prices if they do not fit his vision for the future, a vision that will rarely be fulfilled.

It would be mendacious to imply that owners abroad are all level-headed figures of tranquillity and prudence prepared to back their managers indefinitely, but the structural order that we are only just beginning to see in England – namely at Liverpool and Newcastle United – tends to be deeply embedded within their clubs. The longest serving manager in Italy’s Serie A is Attilio Tesser of Novara, who was only appointed in June 2009, with Sporting Gijón’s Manuel Preciado holding the accolade in Spain after taking the reigns in the summer of 2006. Lyon were guided to their seven titles by four different coaches and Barcelona, recurrently held up as a model of stability and top-to-bottom continuity that all clubs should aspire to, have had no less than five men in charge since the start of the century. At many clubs outside of England, replacing the coach is a fluid process that does not necessarily provoke a revolution; the coach is important, but his job is largely restricted to controlling the first team rather than dominating all aspects of the club. The resignation of Kevin Keegan from Newcastle in 2008, on the grounds of boardroom intervention into transfers would be absurd abroad: intervention does not exist, for the signing of players is a collective task conducted by various people who are all pulling in the same direction.

If the English footballing culture refuses to embrace such involvement from directors or executives, the clubs must show more patience with their managers. Although it is strange to talk in such terms of a side who have won three Premier League titles since Abramovich assumed control in 2003, Chelsea have been hampered by the short-term vision of the Russian oligarch, with managers increasingly becoming little more than ephemeral employees. As Carlo Ancelotti discovered last season, winning trophies at Stamford Bridge simply prolongs an unavoidable termination, a situation that makes long-term planning extremely difficult. Chelsea’s squad has regularly been one of the Premier League’s oldest because it has been impossible for a manager to look too far ahead: why sign a promising seventeen year-old if he will do little to boost your chances of extended employment? The management structure at Chelsea is perhaps the most chaotic and incoherent in the country, evidenced primarily by the bizarre decision last season to spend £75 million on Fernando Torres and David Luiz two months after influential assistant manager Ray Wilkins was axed in the name of cost-cutting.

In any case, there is no evidence that a change in the dugout leads to sustained improvement. Kuper and Szymanski found that, when a manager is sacked, the club in question is usually averaging around 1 point a game compared to the 1.3 expected normally. As the new manager comes in, there is often an initial improvement but crucially, the authors say, this would happen regardless of managerial replacement and generally lasts little more than a few games anyway. Averaging a point a game is the low point of a cycle that will inevitably pick up; moreover, there is no proof that the manager is the variable causing the slump, nor that his replacement is anything more than a beneficiary of the upsurge in fortune that would have occurred anyway. Although the duo’s view that a club could be led ‘by a stuffed teddy bear without [its] league position changing’ is hyperbolic, the data they have amassed does little to support the constant ejection of managers. In some cases, hindsight justifies the superseding of a coach, and clubs should not be encouraged to show blind loyalty to a deficient manager when better options are available, but exhibiting a little faith now and again will often help in the long-term.

It would be absurd, therefore, to get rid of Villas-Boas so soon into his Chelsea career. A comfortable 3-0 win over Wolves has eased the pressure ever so slightly, yet these are not the games that any Chelsea manager will be judged on and, if the Londoners were to crash out of the Champions League at home to Valencia or lose further ground in the title race in the next few weeks, the speculation will intensify. There is universal recognition that Chelsea are a side in transition and if Villas-Boas was identified as the man capable of overseeing the development just a few short months ago, he should be backed by Abramovich, who must surely realise by now that stable continuity is conducive to long-term success. The established practice in England is to run clubs as autocracies, with the manager given total control right up until the moment he is dismissed, when his replacement takes over as the extensive leader of the football club. This system is neither practical nor economical and, if English clubs want to maximise efficiency and cohesion, resisting calls to sack the man in charge once in a while could easily prove auspicious. Villas-Boas may not be the ‘Special One’, but he is clearly an intelligent and talented manager who will continue to learn and evolve as time goes on. For the sake of football, we must all hope that Abramovich bears this in mind over the coming weeks. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Greg Lea


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