It’s firing season.
The English Premier League has just seen four managers sacked in the span of a mere 17 days. It’s that time of year when it isn’t early enough anymore to write off poor results as a bad start or an adjustment period. But it’s also not so late that a new manager can’t make meaningful changes in order to right things.
And so Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Watford and Everton all decided they’d better go with a different guy. Or in Watford’s case, a different different guy, as they’d already made a switch in early September. Yet in spite of these five changes – just short of the six the EPL lived through last season, or the 10 in 2017-18 – there’s really no telling if it will do any good.
The strange and vexing thing about firing your manager is that it remains a high-stakes gamble. Setting aside the question over how much it really matters who your manager is – different studies come to different conclusions, although none seem to establish that it’s massively important – there’s see-sawing consensus on whether being patient with your manager is a best practice.
The example long held up has been Sir Alex Ferguson, who struggled significantly in his early years in charge of Manchester United before building several iterations of a juggernaut that swaggered through England and over the continent. But then the stakes are higher now, with the wide financial gap between the Premier League and the second-tier Championship rendering a relegation potentially ruinous.
For a time, patience seemed back in vogue. But now it’s most assuredly gone again, the pendulum swinging toward change at the first sign of trouble.
Yet the data on whether changing your manager actually helps remains thin.
Presently, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suggests there’s value in staying the course. After the Norwegian was appointed as Jose Mourinho’s interim successor last season, United went on a rampage which fizzled just as soon as Solskjaer was given the job permanently. This season, he seemed on the precipice of being fired several times, only to eke out just enough results to stay on. But he hasn’t lost an EPL game since Nov. 2 and is coming off back-to-back wins over a resurgent Tottenham and repeat champions and cross-town rivals City – away, no less.
Spurs, on the other hand, were completely revitalized by a managerial change. Mourinho has won as many times in the league in four games – three – as Mauricio Pochettino did the first 12 of the season. The Portuguese has also finished the job of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League with an emphatic 4-2 win over Olympiakos after going down two goals early.
Arsenal hasn’t yet seen much of a bounce since Freddie Ljungberg took over from the increasingly feckless Unai Emery two weeks ago, winning one, tying one and losing one. Everton has played only once since a 5-2 drubbing by arch rivals Liverpool finally ended Marco Silva’s shaky tenure, but in that game it upset Chelsea 3-1 under newly installed interim manager Duncan Ferguson.
And then there’s Watford. Poor Watford. It fired Javi Gracia early, after a winless start in four games, and replaced him with Quique Sanchez Flores for his second spell at the club. After a single win from 12 league games, he was fired too. In came Nigel Pearson, hardly an inspiring appointment – although he earned just the club’s ninth point of the season in his debut, a scoreless draw against Crystal Palace.
Last season’s evidence doesn’t clarify the wisdom in managerial changes, either. Fulham changed managers twice and was relegated anyway. Huddersfield dumped the beloved David Wagner and then went down. But then Southampton made a change, put its faith in Ralph Hasenhuttl, and managed to survive. While Leicester City sacked Claude Puel, a midseason hire just the campaign prior, and installed Brendan Rodgers, laying the foundation for this year’s soaring form and second place.
The season before that, Everton and Crystal Palace completely turned their seasons around after firing their managers, while several other clubs sacked theirs, too, to varying results.
The thing about firing your manager is that when you’re done, you have to appoint a different manager. And you’re never sure how it’s going to work out, exactly.
The “new manager bump” – the kind of placebo effect of having a fresh face in front of the team – seems to be real. And that can be a valuable and powerful thing. When relegation is often decided by just a few points, that little uptick in results before regressing back to the mean can make all the difference. Yet you can’t exactly compare a new manager’s outcome to that of the manager fired. You never know what the other choice would have produced.
The only sure thing about changing your manager is that, at the end, you have a different manager. It is effectively doing something just to do something. You make a change because you think that will improve things. But you don’t know.
Bringing in a new manager is a gamble. Just as sticking with your old manager is a gamble. Premier League teams like to gamble. But there’s no way to tell if they’re getting rich or going broke doing it.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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