It's time for managerial reform in football

Posted by Rory Smith

Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty ImagesEven The Special One has not been immune to a mid-season sacking, as evidenced by his September 2007 departure from Chelsea.

Let us consider the tale of Clive Whiteboard. Clive Whiteboard is a football manager. He is also an abstract, but one based on a true story, like The Da Vinci Code or CSI: Miami. But it is better that he remains in the abstract, because it precludes perception and prejudice, and this is an allegory, not a debate about what happened to poor, dear old Clive.

Clive Whiteboard was a popular appointment at United Hotspur FC. His track record was impeccable -- trophies in more than one country -- and, though some felt he had lost his way a little, he was welcomed by players and fans alike. Here, they thought, was a man who knew what he was doing.

It started well enough: results were encouraging, but after an unspecified period of time, goals dried up. Some blamed Clive's tactics -- "he's too cautious," raged one fan, Neil Bandwagon, to All Opinions FM -- but others suggested it was the rampant drinking culture afflicting United Hotspurs' players that was culpable.

Clive did what he could: He fined the players when they turned up late for training; he dropped them from his side. That just made it worse. Some instructed their agents to look for moves elsewhere. Others started to brief to the press that Clive had "lost the dressing room," a phrase that ONLY EVER means: "One individual player -- me/my client -- no longer likes the manager, ordinarily because I/he am/is not playing". The situation was unsustainable. Clive was sacked soon after.

There are two ways of interpreting Clive's story.

We could assume that a loss of discipline among players is the manager's fault, and thus it is he who, as the ultimate authority, must pay the ultimate price.

In most other walks of life, though, the opposite is true. If a manager has trouble with one, or a handful of workers, who continually disrupt life in their unit, it is not the manager who pays with their job. It is the workers who are abdicating their responsibilities; it is the workers who should be punished.

Football, almost uniformly, subscribes to the former view, not the latter. The manager bears responsibility. He is the commanding officer: he takes the blame when things go wrong. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. He is the gaffer, in England, and the mister in Italy and Spain. It is all on him.

This may be misplaced. Most players freely admit that the only reason managers are sacked so frequently when things go wrong is because it is cheaper and easier to get rid of one man than the 11 who are actually at fault.

The game's growing band of analysts, meanwhile, have estimated that the manager's impact may be more liminal than first thought: in Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski suggest that the greatest deciding factor in a club team's performance is its wage bill, which explains as much as 92 percent of league finish.

Chris Anderson and David Sally, authors of The Numbers Game, are rather more generous: They suggest that managers can influence 18 percent of outcome.

That may not seem like much, but football is a sport of tremendously fine margins. Having control over almost a fifth of fate is considerable power indeed. Perhaps football's lexicon, its ancient wisdom, was not so far wrong after all: Perhaps the manager really is a decisive, if not the deciding, factor.

But there is a dichotomy here: Because while football's vocabulary is unstinting in its reverence for managers, its institutions are not. For a game which spends a lot of time believing the men in suits are the high priests, it has a terrible habit of behaving like they're sacrificial lambs.

Take international football. At the risk of insulting your intelligence, games between nations are, basically, a test of that country's footballing prowess. It is the best of Spain against the best of Brazil, say, or everything Russia can produce against all that Australia have.

The players, of course, all have to hail from the country they are representing. In some cases, the link may be gossamer-thin -- a grandparent; a period of residence -- but there must at least be a connection of some sort. FIFA, certainly, get very unhappy when countries -- most notably Qatar -- try to flout that idea, simply by co-opting foreign players.

So why does the same not apply to managers? The English were uneasy when the job of national manager was handed first to Sven-Goran Eriksson and then to Fabio Capello, but that was an issue of pride, of an unwillingness to accept the idea that a foreigner might possess more footballing knowledge than a son of Albion.

Put that to one side for now, and ask quite how it is different having an Italian manager to an Italian striker. Are they not both part of the team? Do they not both contribute to the sum of its footballing prowess?

Or, more pertinently, the transfer window, why is it that players are permitted the job security of knowing that, once signed in the summer, they have guaranteed employment for a year -- as long as they survive a potential January cull -- but managers are not afforded the same courtesy?

Clubs would doubtless argue that it is imperative they retain the right to sack their manager during the season, if things are going wrong, or if the players have stopped responding to his methods.

Yet data shows that the idea of dismissing one manager and replacing him with another improves results is an illusion; teams, generally, revert to the mean after a poor period of form. As for the players, perhaps they would respond rather better if they knew they, too, might take the blame for a poor period of form; perhaps they would not be so blase about their performances if it was not easier to sack one man than 11.

It would not be hard to enforce. Simply restrict managerial changes to the summer and January; that would have the added benefit that the new man coming in, mid-season, might actually have time to affect change. It is too late for Clive, of course. But maybe it is time to show his successors the respect we seem to think they deserve.

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