A few days ago, Marco Silva stood in front of the Anfield away dugout, donning the expressions of a man who looked lost and defeated, and not for the first time that week. Silva seemed like he had resigned himself to his unpleasant fate after Everton so cruelly lost to Leicester City in the dying seconds of their match before facing Liverpool. He survived through that, probably because of how well they had played in that particular match, but the Liverpool match turned out to be a step too far. Not only was it a 5-2 humiliation in the Merseyside Derby, but it was also Everton’s ninth loss of the season after only 16 games, which also put them in the relegation zone.
Everyone knew what was coming. And sure enough, the breaking news next day was that Marco Silva had been sacked as Everton manager. I mean, it was as “breaking” as any news about a sacking is these days. This season the Premier League has already seen five sackings, and it’s only the start of December. Watford have sacked their manager twice in four months and could well sack their third before the season ends, judging by the way their manager recruitment is at the moment.
The general perception is that more managers are being sacked, and more frequently, in the modern game. A look at the archives suggests that the data supports this view. In the first season of the Premier League (1992/93), two managers were sacked in the entire season. From 1992 to 2000, an average of three managers were sacked per season. Even that number is slightly inflated by the anomalous 1994/95 season, which had eight sackings. Take that season away and the average falls down to less than 2.5 sackings per season. Just from the first four seasons of the Premier League in this decade (from 2010 to 2014), there have been more sackings than there were in the whole of the 1990s (30 compared to 25).
All of this is just Premier League data. I haven’t even included the data from before the Premier League began, which I am sure would have even lower figures for managerial sackings. Like I previously mentioned, everything points towards the fact that English top-flight teams are sacking managers quicker and more frequently than ever before. Sacking a manager was seen as the last resort in the past, but now it is increasingly used as the first response to a problem.
It took Alex Ferguson six seasons to win his first league title with Manchester United. His league positions before that were 11th, 2nd, 11th, 13th, 6thand 2nd. That is hardly consistent “progress” in terms of results. If everything stayed the same but the only difference was that all of this played out in the current era, Alex Ferguson would have been sacked by that third season. I mean, what more can you say about managerial sackings when Claudio Ranieri, the manager who won Leicester City the Premier League title despite their odds of winning being 5000/1, was sacked the following season after a string of below average results.
It looks cruel, odd, miscalculated and rash from the outside. It probably is at least one of those things in reality. But it is important to understand why managers are the first to fall at the first sign of trouble in modern football, and I believe there are a few possible reasons. Not all are present in each sacking, but I feel at least one aspect is prevalent in every instance in the modern game.
Lack of Patience
This might seem like an obvious point, but I do not mean a lack of patience in the general sense.
What I want to highlight specifically is a severe lack of patience by the board even when statistical data points towards the fact that the work being done by the manager is having a positive effect. Yes, your club might be 17thin the league table with only two wins out of 15 matches, but what if every underlying statistic shows that your club has been severely unlucky? This can be due to missed chances (which the manager has no control over), individual errors (same case here) and incorrect refereeing decisions (God bless VAR, eh?). Surely the wise choice would be to have some patience and trust that the process will triumph over luck eventually, and that results will soon converge with the underlying numbers. It is all the more baffling considering the amount of big data and analytics that is used in sports and football nowadays.
Two perfect examples of this are Everton and Watford this season. According to expected goals (xG) and expected points (xPTS) figures, Watford are 13thin the table. Everton are 7th(source: Understat). You can respond by saying that Watford are bottom and Everton were in the relegation zone when they sacked Silva.
But then again, the point becomes that all data points towards the fact that Everton and Watford are seriously unlucky to be where they are. And if a bit of bad luck is what gets managers sacked these days, then you can see what the issue is.
The flip side of this is Southampton, who are struggling in 18thposition under a very astute manager in Ralph Hasenhuttl. According to the expected points (xPTS) table, they are 10th(source: Understat). Clearly, Southampton realise that sacking the manager would be counterproductive. It would lay waste to months’ worth of a process that has clearly improved Southampton (albeit not on the face of it). There is also no guarantee that the new manager’s process would be better or even as successful as this current one.
A big aspect that is missing when analysing why clubs make certain decisions in modern football is game theory. Game theory is based on being in a “game” with your opponent(s). Each “player” has certain choices, with each choice (and outcome) intrinsically linked to the choices of the opponent(s).
Modern football is all about optimization and trying to get even the smallest edge over your opponent. This is how data analytics and microscopic attention to detail (the latter was brought to mainstream modern football by the likes of Mourinho and Guardiola) have become a crucial part of the game. It has gotten to a point where the smallest of margins are leading teams to the biggest trophies in football.
Just this April before Liverpool’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Barcelona, Liverpool assistant manager Pep Ljinders instructed ball boys at Anfield to throw the ball to Liverpool players as quickly as they could. The fractions of a second that this created for Liverpool directly led to the infamous “corner taken quickly” moment from Trent Alexander-Arnold. That moment resulted in Liverpool winning 4-0 in one of the greatest knockout ties football has ever seen.
Therefore, it is in this context that clubs now try to make decisions that maximise their output in this constant “game” against other clubs whilst also bearing in mind the decisions that other clubs make or will potentially make in the future. A hypothetical example of this would be Manchester United sacking Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, despite being happy with his work, simply because Mauricio Pochettino is available. The train of thought would be that hiring him would simultaneously strengthen them and weaken any rivals who could have hired him instead.
Managerial sackings start to make much more sense if viewed from this lens. The club that has perfected this model has been Chelsea under Roman Abramovich. The Russian owner has constantly been criticised for being too impatient and rash with managers, but it is this approach that has helped Chelsea win a staggering 16 trophies since 2003.
Southampton’s recent history also shows an example of the club making a tough decision based on marginal gains. Many felt they were making the wrong move by sacking Nigel Adkins, who was doing well that season, and replacing him with a certain Argentine named Mauricio Pochettino. What Southampton achieved under Pochettino proved that they received more than just “marginal gains” from this decision.
This point about clubs trying their best to gain any sort of edge over their opponents is even more pronounced this season considering the situation of the Premier League table. The league table has never been this concentrated before in December. After 15 games, this has been the shortest gap (eight points) between 5thand 17ththere has ever been in the Premier League. The average is 13 points (source: www.twitter.com/migueldelaney).
This is probably why clubs have been more frequent and impatient with their managerial sackings, considering that even the smallest of positive changes or shortest string of consecutive wins would lead to a drastically better position for the club.
It’s Business, Not Personal
As is the case with almost everything these days, financial considerations play a major part in decision-making. Football is no different. In fact, finance is probably the most important aspect for modern football clubs. The amount of revenue generated by partaking in competitions like the Champions League, and the huge downfall in that revenue when clubs get relegated, means that clubs now want to be as close to the Champions League and as far from the relegation zone as possible. Therefore, they do whatever they feel is necessary to make sure of that. Due to the financial context of modern football, they feel they cannot (literally) afford to persist with managers if results aren’t going in the desired manner.
There is also the fact that it is simply financially easier and more practical to replace the manager. In the age of superclubs and mega-contracts, it is financially foolish to fire players who are worth tens or even hundreds of millions of pounds. As for replacing players and bringing in fresh faces, it is far easier and less costly to simply change one individual (the manager) instead of putting yourself through a massive rebuilding process and changing four or five individuals (the players). That is the sad reality that resulted in Mauricio Pochettino’s sacking at Tottenham.
The Sad Reality
Regardless of why a manager is sacked by the club, it is important to hold decision-makers accountable for their managerial appointments. Whenever a club sacks a manager, a part of the blame goes to the board for appointing that manager in the first place. Unfortunately, neither the players nor the board are scrutinised as much as the manager when it comes to a bad run of results. The truth of the matter is this: modern football management is a thankless job in a fickle game.