Football has a funny way of reflecting larger events.
Earlier this week, no less than three Premier League clubs – Aston Villa, Wolves and Bournemouth – were looking for a permanent manager, as Britain was set to have its third prime minister in less than two months. If you’ve managed to avoid any jokes about how the next Prime Minister Sam Allardyce should be or comparing the political situation to the managerial flux at Watford, congratulations on not using social media.
Last week’s front page of The Economist, summarizing the turmoil in British politics, simply said ‘Welcome to Britaly’. Where once Britons scoffed at the revolving door at the top of Italian politics, it is now commonplace here.
But the same comparison already applies to English football. Not so long ago, Serie A and Premier League clubs had entirely different approaches to managerial tenures. In The Italian Job, an excellent book published in 2006 by Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti on the differences between Italian and English football, the differences were described concisely.
Taking into account a period between 2000-01 and 2003-04, Vialli and Marcotti found that the average Italian club in the top two divisions had 4.7 full-time managers in those four years, significantly more than the 2, 8 in England. The 12 clubs relegated from Serie A to Serie B during this period had all changed managers, compared to 50% of relegated English clubs. Vialli and Marcotti have criticized the Italian game for “its impatience, its obsession with the here and now”, while suggesting that “English managers are as sure as civil servants”.
Sixteen years later, that is no longer true. Italian clubs still regularly fire managers, but the English system has also moved towards this approach.
Of the 92 clubs in the Premier League and English Football League, Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta is the 13th longest-serving manager, which seems absurd given he’s been in the job for less than three years. If you were appointed before February 23 this year, you are among the top 50% of managers in the top four divisions in terms of time spent in your current position, while 24% of clubs have already changed managers this season. The turnover is breathtaking.
On the one hand, managers became more disposable because most clubs moved to an Italian-style system of a first-team coach, rather than an old-fashioned chief executive who controlled everything. On the other hand, owners are more sensitive to the trigger.
But it’s not just the owners. Fans also appear to be less patient than ever; more likely to want a manager fired and more likely to say so in an extreme way at a relatively early stage.
Take Steven Gerrard’s move to Aston Villa, for example. Few would claim that Villa were achieving good enough results or playing entertaining football. But, on the ground, things were not yet disastrous. In fact, at a time when Gerrard had just one game to save his job, Villa had ‘won’ four games in a row in terms of expected goals, against Southampton, Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Chelsea.
The supporters, however, had already turned. Rightly or wrongly they wanted Gerrard gone and let him know throughout the next game, the fatal 3-0 defeat at Fulham. Some taunted him singing the old chant about him ‘sliding on his ass’ against Chelsea in 2014. And by then Gerrard’s position was untenable. Even if it was possible to mount a defense against him, the support was gone, and soon enough so was it.
A similar situation is occurring at Leeds, another club which has had a difficult start to the campaign. Talk to supporters and you’ll find that support for Jesse Marsch is incredibly low.
Leeds are in the relegation zone but have had the best of two of their last three games, against Arsenal and Leicester. Also, only five points currently separate the entire bottom half, so a lucky win or loss in a relatively small 12-game sample has a huge impact on league standings. And yet, some Leeds supporters were chanting “sacked in the morning” at Marsch last weekend. Like Gerrard’s song, it’s something you expect from rival supporters, not a club’s own supporters, and in the past that level of dissent only materialized after a surprisingly bad run.
Why do fans seem to turn on their club manager more quickly? Surely the answer has to do at least in part with how football is now non-stop consumed. Once upon a time, you went to the game once a week, watched game highlights, read a few newspaper articles about your team, and chatted with a few friends, but that was about it. You were then detached from the game.
Today, if there is a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the manager of your club, it is possible to be inundated with reminders of his setbacks several times a day, via various sources. Fans can, if they wish, have continuous access to the opinion of other supporters on the manager’s difficulties.
In their book Wiser, Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie – two academics renowned for their interest in behavioral economics and decision making – showed something interesting about groupthink. They demonstrated that if you form a group of people who all have a similar initial view on a controversial topic and get them to discuss it, by the end of the discussion the group emerges with a consensus that is more extreme than the original point of view. departure of any individual participant. .
This is certainly important in terms of following football online, especially via social media. If most supporters think a manager is doing a really bad job and there are forums where they can constantly discuss it online, they’ll probably end up thinking the manager is working absolutely disastrously, rather than just pretty poor .
And the opinion of the supporters counts. The period of football behind closed doors was significant in this regard, for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, football without fans was bleak, so fans were praised like never before; their status was enhanced.
Second, amidst all of this, there was the most significant display of fan power imaginable when fan protests shut down the European Super League move days after it was unveiled. “I would like to apologize to all the fans and supporters of Liverpool Football Club for the disruption I have caused,” said Liverpool owner John Henry. “The project was never going to stand without the support of the fans.” Other owners repeated a similar message.
Thirdly, and most importantly, there was a major impact that no one was able to voice their disapproval of a club manager. OOnly four Premier League managers have been sacked all season. That compares to seven the previous season and 10 last season. This is the lowest figure since 2011-2012.
After 11 games this season, we’ve already seen five Premier League managers leave (although let’s say four, since one caused the other – Brighton didn’t want to lose Graham Potter to Chelsea). It wouldn’t be a surprise if it was seven or eight o’clock on Christmas.
This season of few dismissals has demonstrated the power of supporters – once back on the pitch – to get their manager out. In a way, it’s quite democratic.
Of course, it is not the supporters’ responsibility to be reasonable and rational. They pay more and more expensive tickets and are entitled to express their opinion on the ground or online. And it’s the board’s job to have a more balanced view.
But, all things considered, you can’t blame owners for being impatient with managers, while insisting that they listen to the fans.
(Top photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)