At the beginning of last season, the average tenure of a manager in the Premier League was 2 years and 2 months. This is comparable with the tenure of managers in Serie A and La Liga, and slightly less than the tenure of a coach in the Bundesliga. What this means to a soccer fan of a top flight club is that your team, no matter where the club is in the table, has a good chance of turning over management every three years. If you’re a fan of a yo-yo club, this could be even worse. What soccer clubs need is instead a model based off a popular TV show.
Manchester United currently is a poster child for the downside of the new turmoil in the managerial ranks. Alex Ferguson was a stabilizing force in his years as manager – Manchester United staff, players and fans knew what was expected of them, the style of play, and the kind of player he wanted. With his retirement came David Moyes, who began to implement his own style but when results didn’t go the team’s way immediately, he was unable to mold the club in his strategic vision. Out he went and in came Louis van Gaal, who is scrapping the old formations and again remaking the club in his 3-5-2 image. Three years, three visions of the club, three reboots of a club that was a title contender every year. The turmoil can be even worse for clubs that do not have the financial clout of a United.
When a club sacks a manager, in all likelihood they hire someone with a different strategic sense and loyalty to players. While it is not necessarily a total reset, clubs lose time and money placating the new coach’s style and replacing the old. New players have to be acquired to fit the coach’s tactics and players who don’t fit this vision need to go. This costs time and money. When the difference between staying up and going down can be a point, or the Champions League and Europa League is a win, this turnover has a massive impact.
Let’s switch to a different form of entertainment – television. The show “Doctor Who” has been on television for decades with only a few interruptions but has remained incredibly popular. How can a show survive for decades? It focuses on the structure and not the character. The Doctor, regardless of who plays him, has a few basic rules that define who he is. He is a “timelord”, he must have some kind of companion to translate his actions to the audience, he has to travel in a Tardis, and he has to occasionally fight the Daleks (among other rules). As long as The Doctor follows these rules, he can be played by people of different ages and backgrounds. Peter Capaldi works as The Doctor even though he is replacing a man roughly a generation younger than him.
What does this mean for soccer? As Barney Ronay noted in his book The Manager, we have entered an era where the manager is an all-encompassing personality. This means when a new one is hired, teams accede to their demands as long as they are within reason (or they are Jose Mourinho). Clubs should shift the calculus and establish a structure for their club that can work with new managers or staff with minimal disruption.
What does this look like practically? Maybe the best example is Barcelona. The club has a sense of pride in its player development and builds its entire apparatus around playing its tiki-taka style. When a manager leaves, one of his many protégés takes his place. When a player underperforms, they know the kind of player they need to replace him. Whether they do so successfully or not is another matter, but no matter what happens the team moves forward.
Few teams have the vast resources and worldwide support that Barcelona has, but clubs can implement a system regardless of their size. Imagine if Crystal Palace decided they would play a style based around an impregnable defense and speedy wingers that can spring a counterattack. No matter who leaves and who replaces them, those replacements need to know this system and be bought into it. It can be modified as tactics evolve over time and tweaked to meet the club’s needs, but consistent principles allows minimal disruption when a manager leaves.
The principle sounds implausible but that is primarily the result of a modern worship of the genius of the manager. If we had the clubs themselves define their strategies, in the long run it would be more beneficial to their bottom lines and management. After all, if a TV show about a guy flying in a phone booth through time can last decades, it must be on to something.
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