We are often told that football is purely a results business for the men who stand in the dugouts. That the best and most-loved managers at Premier League clubs are said to be at risk every week that their teams slide further down the table. Patience wears thin and chairmen grow restless. In 2017, Crystal Palace sacked Frank de Boer after just four games. Earlier this season, Watford did the same to Javi Garcia, who had taken them to an FA Cup final just four months earlier. It seems as though the situation is getting worse and worse. Watford are perhaps among the worst offenders – Garcia was their first manager to last more than a full season since 2013.
But it is worth pointing out that managerial replacements are often undoubtedly correct decisions. Following de Boer’s sacking, Palace hired Roy Hodgson, and few would dispute the benefit of this in the long term, with the club now sitting in 8th after a strong start to their record-breaking seventh season in the top flight.
One of the major managerial changes of this summer was the loss of Rafa Benitez at Newcastle and the hire of his unglamourous replacement Steve Bruce. However, with eight games played this season, the club has eight points. At the same stage last year, with Benitez at the helm, they had just three. But neither Bruce nor Hodgson seem to be case studies of the stereotypical ‘new manager bounce’. The former was hardly greeted with enthusiasm and optimism in the North East, and the latter began his reign at Palace with successive 5-0 and 4-0 losses, albeit to the Manchester clubs.
Both members of the managerial oldguard have slowly and meticulously implemented their style on their clubs. Of course, Newcastle are by no means safe this season, but if Bruce turns them into a difficult club to beat with a knack for grinding out results, it should be a surprise to very few.
With this in mind, it may seem logical that safe choices lead to stability. However, the appointment of Graham Potter by Brighton this summer was something of a departure from this mentality. With only one full season spent in England managing Swansea to a mid-table Championship finish, he could not be more unlike a figure like Bruce. Yet early signs are broadly positive. Brighton sit 14th in the table after a mediocre start, but it should be remembered that they finished last season with just three wins in twenty-three games.
Perhaps even more bold than Potter was the appointment during last season of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United, following the steady decline in popularity and results of previous manager Jose Mourinho. This time, the boost to results was immediate. United won his first six games, and went on to win eight away games in a row. This was a vintage case of the ‘new manager bounce’ as United’s season slowed down and the team finished in 6th, the same position they were in when Solskjaer took over.
Over the summer, United were widely praised for strengthening their back four with the acquisitions of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, for record fees. But ironically, after eight games this season, they are positioned far below the two clubs from which they made these signings; four places lower and four points worse off than they were at this stage last season, and hearing United fans calling for Solskjaer to be replaced has been a common theme of 606 and TalkSport this season, a curse that Mourinho became all too familiar with. Additionally, despite spending £587million since Alex Ferguson retired, with several injuries amongst their strikers, and Alexis Sanchez out on loan, the team were left in the position a couple of weeks ago without reliable forwards to fall back on, an oversight which surely Solskjaer should take the blame for.
It is, of course, an important point that many of these managers simply inherit teams from their predecessors. They manage players which they are not personally invested in, nor have a longstanding relationship with. Of the current managers in the Premier League, only a handful can point to their starting eleven in the full knowledge that they have built the team which they pick each week. However, Solskjaer has had a summer to at least make his mark. This is often key to those arguing for his removal. It seems to many as though he has simply run out of ideas. In some ways, this was why Chris Hughton left Brighton at the end of last season. Having taken over when the club was threatened by relegation to League One, he built a successful team which held onto Premier League status. He remains an extremely popular figure at Brighton, yet the decision to terminate his contract was predominantly met with feelings of sympathy rather than outrage.
No figure can rival Frank Lampard in personal popularity. As a club legend, he gains an extra period of grace. Furthermore, with the transfer embargo currently imposed on the club, it looks like he will be given at least to the end of this season before he is expected to begin challenging for a title again. His was an appointment for the long term, where Solskjaer was drafted in as a caretaker and only appointed permanently several months later.
It appears very much as though supposedly general trends of ‘new manager bounces’ and ‘making a mark’ on a team cannot truly be applied consistently to different situations. Clearly, if a team has stagnated then even just the announcement of a new manager can change the mood completely. Who could forget the barely-concealed antagonism surrounding key players and executives at United in the last days of Mourinho? Yet the idea of abandoning what is safe and taking a leap of faith into the unknown is enough to maintain managers’ job security. The longest serving managers in the league, notably Sean Dyche and Eddie Howe, often oversee periods of inconsistency. Burnley finished last season eight places lower than the season before, yet there was rarely a suggestion that they might look to a new manager.
Overall, the success of Potter and Solskjaer remains to be seen. Manchester United have had their worst start to the season in thirty years, garnering only nine points and sitting in twelfth position on the table. There is nothing to say that any potential replacement of Solskjaer would improve results in the long term. Football clubs are run as businesses, and value stability just as highly. The turmoil at United which has been ongoing largely since the departure of Alex Ferguson, for all the club’s money and transfer pull, has left this as the one attribute out of the club’s reach. This ideal should perhaps be the priority when considering managerial replacements. Some have argued that players should be held more accountable, and with United spending their highest wage bill ever this season, at a time when footballers are paid more than ever, many would be inclined to agree.
The time required to make a team a manager’s own, however, is often longer than their chairman’s patience. Until this imbalance can be addressed, it seems highly unlikely that United will invest the necessary time and money into a manager who can build a team from scratch. It does not look like Solskjaer will be given this benefit, his days seemed numbered almost from his permanent appointment in March when the tide of results turned against him, yet this model is surely unsustainable. Ferguson was given four years before his first major piece of silverware, nowadays his successors are lucky to get four months before pressure begins to mount.
Overall, managers are a highly mobile commodity in modern football. As much as many clubs would value stability and long term appointments, it is hard not to be sympathetic to United fans calling for change. However, they must acknowledge that another rash appointment will not have a long term benefit. Only when choosing a manger who will be given a chance to clear the existing dead-wood and bring in their own players can that person be held fully accountable by the fans. Clubs like Watford must also acknowledge this, or risk forgetting just how precarious the position of any supposedly-mid-table club is in the Premier League. For any club, regardless of their position, papering over individual cracks with managerial changes can only work for so long, before clubs risk complete collapse.