The Not Altogether Unserious Case For a Managerial Transfer Window
Does the football season really begin before clubs start playing managerial musical chairs? The gap between those two start dates is minimal. Notts County fired Kevin Nolan, who led them to League Two’s playoffs, five matches into the season. After two matches (three if you’re generous), Jose Mourinho and Manchester United began spinning their inevitable uncoupling. West Ham saw the last few season’s tensions return before the first international break of the season. Sam Allardyce’s name has already been connected to just about any footballing entity with “club” in its name.
This is madness. Judging a manager on the first few results of a season puts undue emphasis on finishing luck and scheduling. That should not be enough to sway a club’s managerial assessment l — either from what they saw last year or during the hiring process for a new hire. This form of madness is hardly novel. Many clubs now do little more than, well, bounce from one managerial bounce to the next. While this strategy is sometimes accompanied by promotion or survival (causality is too often inferred here), it also results in the misallocation of funds, the squandering of player potential, and miserable football.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Football authorities could — but won’t, if we’re being honest — do something about this by implementing a cognate to the player transfer window. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call it the Managerial Replacement Window.
The basic idea here is simple: Clubs can only sign new managers in prescribed periods. Outside of those windows, clubs only promote their existing employees to the role of manager. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Managerial Replacement Window would be open for much of the summer and the first twenty days of December. This particular configuration would allow managers to bring in new players and be able to use the pre-season and, in applicable leagues, the mid-season break to implement their ideas. For good measure, this configuration roughly bifurcates most club seasons.
Consider the player transfer window. Its main benefit, the Premier League’s own website explained in 2017, is “that it enables clubs and managers to plan for a set period of time, knowing the players they have at their disposal.” That is somewhat self-serving, but the transfer window does serve as a bulwark against the chaos of players coming and going at all times. The vision of planning the Premier League describes is largely at odds with the reality of managerial hiring. On average, managers now last little more than a year. They come and go throughout the season. Some clubs have structures to ensure a consistent vision amid managerial changes, but it’s still relatively common for new managers to be sorting through players from five previous short-term visions. There can be no set planning of the sort the player transfer window envisions without the barest modicum of managerial stability.
The Managerial Replacement Window puts some mild limits on this madness. It insists that managers come in before transfer windows and remain for the months that follow. While there’s only so much that can be done to save a self-destructive club from itself — in England, the only real regulation is that owners must pass the “fit-and-proper-person test” — this limits the chaos of relegation-threatened clubs frantically shuffling through players and managers for a few years before falling off a cliff, Road Runner-style, as the incoherence of their assembled parts suddenly hits home. Stats Bomb editor Mike Goodman justifiably calls this the Sunderland Vortex. The vortex, beyond bad results, is an awful financial problem that causes players to be splurged upon only to be quickly dropped. This cycle would not fully be addressed through the Managerial Replacement Window, but the deliberate pacing of managerial changes would at least attenuate it.
Limiting managerial changes to specific windows, more broadly, is an attempt to force a structured system for thinking about these moves on clubs. Before the summer window, they’d have to consider whether, based on the available months of information, they believe in the incumbent is up to the task. Dithering through the player transfer window and into the season would come at a much higher cost: You could be stuck with Gus Poyet for months. This wouldn’t necessarily lengthen managerial tenures. Instead of dithering, teams might just cut managers inside the windows. Yet this structured churn would at least force teams to make their cuts based on more than panic. Moreover, new hires would have a better chance to prove their merits. A few games is not enough time to disentangle structural problems from blips that’ll be solved by regression, yet that’s how long into the season before games currently become must-wins.
In the name of fairness, it’s worth noting that managers sometimes prove themselves unfit for their jobs in very short periods of times. These cases tend to have more to do with temperament or process than results. A manager who offends all their players or picks starting XIs based on astrology, is manifestly not up to the task. Teams that currently fire such managers as quickly as possible are behaving reasonably.
The logic of the player transfer window, mind you, is that teams should have to live with their mistakes. If Everton is dumb enough to sign Davy Klassen, every team should get to face him or the reserve who takes his place. If only the spirit of consistency, why shouldn’t this apply to managers? If a team is dumb enough to hire Tim Sherwood, every team should get to face him or the first-team coach forced to take his place until a proper replacement can be secured. Such consistency with how football currently works would at least be entertaining.
Institutionalizing that sort of buyer’s remorse may sound like mean-spirited entertainment, but it’s really an effort to create a greater cost for teams that don’t think through their decisions. The Managerial Replacement Window is unlikely to be implemented. Outside of American sports, where mechanisms like the Stepien Rule seek to limit teams’ decision-making powers, teams can do as they wish with their money and assets. Without attaching greater costs to bad processes and decisions, though, it’s likely the current system of firing managers at inopportune times with questionable evidence will persist. Smart teams may avoid the Sunderland Vortex, but panic is a strong motivator. If we can’t have a Managerial Replacement Window, can we at least get a ban on hiring Tim Sherwood?
Header image courtesy of the Press Association