The managerial merry-go-round spins ever faster

We’re less than a quarter of the way into the season and the great managerial merry-go-round has already shed its first passengers. Swansea City's former manager Francesco Guidolin was the EPL’s first casualty and five EFL managers have been relieved of their duties. Sam Allardyce, the now former England manager, also terminated his contract last week following a Daily Telegraph investigation into his conduct.

Guidolin was Swansea’s manager for only 259 days. Roberto Di Matteo was removed as Aston Villa’s manager after 121 days. The longest serving of the recently departed was Tony Mowbray, who lasted under two years at Coventry City. Over the course of last season 58 managers were fired; the season before that it was 47.

It certainly feels like managerial tenures are getting shorter and shorter, but is this part of a long-term trend or a recent phenomenon of the money-spinning era? And does it really make much sense to frequently change manager?

Diminishing patience, at all levels

To answer the first question, I put together a dataset containing every manager of a professional English club (i.e. top four divisions) since 1950, and measured the total number of league matches that each of them managed1. I then aggregated the data into 10-year blocks and looked at the distribution of the duration of managerial tenures (measured in number of matches) within each block. The results are shown in Figure 1.

You read the plot in the following way: each line in the plot represents a certain percentile of managers leaving their jobs, from 10% (bottom line) to 90% (top line). For example, the solid black line in the middle indicates the number of matches by which half of managers had left their club. The top-most line indicates the number of matches by which 90% of managers had left.

Figure 1: The diminishing survival rate of managers in profession English football since the 1950s. Each line represents the number of matches (or seasons, right axis) by which a given percentage of managers, from 10% (bottom line) to 90% (top line), had left their post.

At the beginning of the millennium, 50% of managers would leave their job by the 80th league match since their appointment (roughly two seasons), and 90% had left after 200 matches (5 seasons). Or, to put it another way, only 10% of managers survived to see their 200th game.  Go back to 1970, and you see that at least 50% of managers were around long enough to oversea their 130th match in charge of a single club (3 seasons) and more than 10% of managers survived long enough to see their 300th match.

The duration of managerial appointments has steadily declined over time, to the extent that it has basically halved over the last forty years.  These days more than 50% of managers will not see out two seasons; 25% will barely last a single season. Interestingly, there is no evidence that the rate of managerial turnover has increased in the last twenty years. Given that the rewards of success and the costs of failure have been greatly magnified in recent times, I had expected to see that club owners have become increasingly less patient.

I don’t think that there is much evidence that changing manager is likely to lead to any improvement in a club’s fortunes – essentially you’re just rolling the dice again and hoping the next guy does better. In principle there is no problem with that, but in practice there can be big cost to starting over again.

The costs of changing manager

Football managers have an enormous amount of power at their clubs. Not only do they decide team selection, they oversee training, tactics, scouting, and handpick their own coaching staff. Crucially, they also decide transfer targets.

Clubs spend a vast amount of money on player recruitment. Last summer, EPL clubs spent a total of £1.3 billion on transfer fees and roughly the same the year before. They also spent roughly £130m on agent’s fees. Furthermore, when a new manager arrives at a club he is often promised a sizeable chunk of cash to bring in the players he wants. In the last five years EPL clubs have tended to spend considerably more when they have just hired a new manger.

But here’s the rub: new players are typically brought in on 4 or 5-year contracts. If only 25% of managers survive to the end of their third year, the players the manager brought in will invariable outlast him at the club. A new manager is then hired who will identify and recruit the players that suit his preferred way of playing, most of whom will then outlast him.

Taking this to its logical conclusion implies that clubs that frequently change manager may end up with an incoherent set of players, some of whom may be surplus to requirements under the next manager. Given the increasing cost of agent’s fees – not to mention the costs of buying a manager out of his contract2 – this seems like an inefficient method of running an organization. If the majority of managers leave by the end of their second season, maybe clubs should be more wary about allowing them to buy and sell as they please.

The key seems to be continuity, not in manager retention but in manager recruitment. Establish a style of play and then consistently bring in managers that will largely adhere to it. Although, as Swansea City are finding out, this is perhaps easier said than done.


While writing this I discovered two other blogs that have discussed the long-term decline of manager tenures (here and here).

[1] I removed caretaker managers though, which I define as any manager that oversaw less than 10 games.
[2] For example, Man Utd paid David Moyes £4.5m to leave, and Louis Van Gaal £8m.


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