By Robbie Butler
Last week Dean Smith and Daniel Farke became the 4th and 5th English Premier League (EPL) managers to be relieved of their duties since the start of the 2021/22 season. Xisco Munoz (Watford), Steve Bruce (Newcastle United), and August Manager of the Month Nuno Espírito Santo (Tottenham Hotspur), had already had their contracts of employments terminated before Aston Villa and Norwich City announced the latest sackings.
The attrition rate of football managers is quite something. Between 1992 and 2005 the average managerial tenure within the EPL was just 2.5 years. During the 2015/16 season alone 54 managerial sackings occurred in the top four tiers of English football.
English football is not alone. Three managers have already been dismissed in La Liga this season. Paco Lopez (Levante), Michél (Getafe) and Ronald Koeman (Barcelona) all departed during October. In Germany, Mark van Bommel was dismissed by Wolfsberg last month, having only been in charge since July, while Hellas Verona, Cagliari, Salernitana and Genoa have all sacked their managers in Italy’s Seria A this season.
However, such is the job. Would-be managers will be only too aware that tenure is dependent upon results and could be short-lived.
Just ask Les Reed who lasted a mere 40 days with Charlton Athletic in 2006. Alan Shearer and Ian Dowie fared slightly better, and survived for almost two weeks longer than Reed (53 days each) in 2009 and 2010. More recently Frank de Boer was shown the exit door at Selhurst Park after just 77 days, with Crystal Palace dismissing the former Barcelona and Netherlands international in September 2017. The Eagles had lost their opening four Premier League games and had failed to score a goal.
While the sackings of De Boer, Bruce, Koeman, Espírito Santo and countless others have often come as little surprise, does the appointment of a new manager actually improve the team?
Almost 20 years ago Bruinshoofd and Weel (2003) decided to explore this for Dutch football. The two compared the performance of clubs that had been responsible for at least one of the 125 managerial sackings in Eredivisie between 1988 and 2000 with a control group of 103 performance dips where the manager was not sacked. Performance dips were periods when a club could have sacked their manager, after a string of poor results, but decided not to. The authors found that while new managers improved the performance of teams, the clubs that stuck by their managers (control group) performed even better once recovering their form.
For example, from the 15th of December 2019 to 1st of February 2020 Manchester United played 9 league games. The club experienced a dip in form winning just three times, drawing twice and losing the remaining four games. This was a return of just 11 point from a possible 27. There were renewed calls at the time for the dismissal of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The club stood by Solskjær and Manchester United won three of their next four league games before lockdown halted play. The return to football in June 2020 saw the Red Devils remain unbeaten, winning six of their final nine league games. Arsenal have had a similar experience with Mikel Arteta. Three defeats in the first three league games this season have been followed by an unbeaten streak, with six wins in the last nine games.
De Paola and Scoppa (2011) report very similar results for Italy. Examining sackings in Seria A from 2003 to 2008 the authors find a positive effect from managerial change. However, just like in the Netherlands, the effect disappears once controls are added with the authors concluding that changing a manager neither improves nor deteriorates performance on the pitch, when compared to sticking with the incumbent. A very recent study from Swedish domestic football supports the findings in Italy and the Netherlands, and concludes that sacking a manager during the season does not have a significant impact on the performance of the team in the short run.
To illustrate the point Flint, Plumley and Wilson (2013) used the example of Andre Villas-Boas. The Portuguese manager was sacked by both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. At Chelsea he survived for under a year. He fared slightly better at Tottenham, lasting 16 months. In both cases, Villas-Boas was replaced by a caretaker manager who themselves were sacked after less than 10 months in charge.
Of course, some managerial change appears to have an instant effect. Performances improve and the team goes on excelling for years into the future. The key is to understand when the manager, rather than other factors (players, board of directors, level of investment in the squad, etc.) is what is holding the team back.
Steven Gerrard has just become the 215th appointment in the EPL era and the 123rd person to hold the title of manager in the EPL. Should Aston Villa now improve, and climb up the league table, Gerrard will get the plaudits. Would recently sacked manager Dean Smith also have done this?. Evidence from other European leagues would suggest ‘yes’.
This Friday Kaori Narita, University of Liverpool will present "Managerial contributions to firm success: Who are the best managers in Europe?" at the ROSES Online Seminar Series.