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Managers And Questioning The Importance Of Stability

This is Roberto di Mattio drinking water.
This is Roberto di Mattio drinking water.

Recent research by Sue Bridgewater of Warwick Business School has found the average tenure of a football manager in Europe has been found to be seventeen months. As well as confirming that football management is indeed a tough business, it also goes to show that by and large, managerial stability doesn't really exist in football. Indeed, this year, 49 of the 92 teams in the Football League changed managers, perhaps indicative of the ruthlessness of club owners and board executives.

What it might also indicate is that the idea of managerial stability is by and large overrated. Just about every time a club is struggling, along with the calls for the manager's head, you'll undoubtedly hear calls for "stability". The image of trigger-happy chairmen is one too easy for the media to propagate, which means the vast majority of football fans now have the idea that it is unfair to sack managers when things aren't going well.

Sound familiar? It should, because it's the same, tired old narrative dragged out every time a Chelsea manager struggles or is sacked. Roman Abramovich has developed this image of the nasty, autocratic foreigner, in essence, the Bond villain of English football, after going through eight managers in eight years at the London club.

Abramovich has an obvious blueprint to follow at Arsenal and more evidently at Manchester United. Consistency is the key and the merry-go-round of managers at Chelsea will never bring sustained success.

The Sport Review

The above quote was taken from the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas, and yet Chelsea are one of the most successful clubs in football today, recently adding the Champions League trophy - as you may have heard - to an already burgeoning trophy room. That's definitely success, and it came at the expense of managerial stability.

On the other hand, we're somehow being demonstrated the notion that Arsenal have been successful as a result of keeping Arsene Wenger around for sixteen years. Firstly, let's separate Wenger out of the equation for now, and consider the proposition that Arsenal are successful. Seven years without a trophy, their last piece of silverware being the 2005 FA Cup which culminated with an ultimately unsuccessful run to the Champions League final. That's a damning drought, and considering that they used to be genuine Premier League contenders early in Wenger's tenure - going an unprecedented season undefeated - there's not much of an argument to suggest they have been successful in recent times. The question is not whether Arsenal are successful because of stability, but rather, whether they are unsuccessful because of stability. Wenger's teams are predictable, fragile and haven't genuinely threatened either domestically or continentally in the past seven years.

But there is one team that has continued to threaten in all competitions with a stable management structure, and that's obviously Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson. His record is inarguable - over twenty five years, he's won thirty seven trophies, including twelve Premier League titles and two European Cups. This is, of course, remembering the astonishing fact that Ferguson himself was apparently on the brink of facing the sack after four trophy less years. Here, there's no doubt whether he is successful - he's one of the greatest managers of all time - but does that then allow for his story to be held up as evidence to the cause of managerial stability? Every time a manager gets sacked, at least one journalist will trot out the inevitable story ruing the trigger happy chairman who wasn't willing to allow the manager to become the next Sir Alex Ferguson.

To me, this seems to imply that every manager is capable of becoming one of the all time greats. This, I am sure, we can all agree is a downright silly claim, and one we can comfortably ignore and move on. Perhaps Ferguson is the exception, rather than the rule.

On a broader point, perhaps it's best to consider the role of managers as a whole. Rather than considering managers as people responsible for the running of a football club - which is certainly no longer the case, given the prominence of Technical Directors and so forth - perhaps it's best to see them on a level footing to players, people fulfilling the needs of a club in terms of achieving the goal of winning. In this sense, managers have certain skill sets which are suited for different clubs at different times, as is also the case with players. Clubs identify strengths and weaknesses, and identify players and managers as such to give them the best chance of success. It's exactly the decision making process Chelsea has clearly adopted in the Abramovich era. If they needed a new centre back, they sold Alex and bought Gary Cahill. If they needed a manager able to re-motivate the players, they sacked Andre Villas-Boas and promoted Roberto di Matteo.

When you look at managers from this perspective, it doesn't seem all that bad that there's so much sacking and dismissing at clubs. Club priorities change all the time, and managerial changes should reflect that. Unfortunately, there's the widespread belief that this is an unethical culture which cannot succeed. That was certainly the way the media portrayed the sackings of Chris Houghton and Mark Hughes, two managers who were replaced by Alan Pardew and Roberto Mancini respectively, who have gone on to make big impacts at their respective clubs. In these cases, the club owners identified a need for change in terms of the managerial approach, and acted upon these needs. That's also exactly what Daniel Levy has done in sacking Harry Redknapp and replacing him with Andre Villas-Boas - he's identified that Redknapp has hit his ceiling, yet that decision has sparked utter outcry in the media, who claim that his record of success at Spurs is enough to justify keeping him on. As Kevin McCauley established in an excellent article over at Cartilage Free Captain, that's the approach Arsenal have taken with Arsene Wenger, and their ability to succeed has suffered as a result.

I think the evnetual problem stems down to the way managers are portrayed in the media. They are held up as pariahs, symbols of clubs, responsible for both success and failure. Football is moving away from this tired cliche, towards a more polycratic approach involving numerous staff working in different sectors of the club, underlined by the ever-increasing prominence of Technical Directors. When you start to see managers as the branch of the tree rather than the trunk, it becomes entirely more sensible to ignore the concept of stability.

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