Premier League

Sacking a manager mid-season: How often does it work?

The Football Finance Times team have looked at whether changing coach after a bad run works out in the Premier League

8:00am on Tuesday 11th August 2020
Football Finance Times

Nigel Pearson's sacking at Watford with just two games of the season remaining raised some eyebrows, because even by Premier League standards, the timing seemed bizarre.

Sacking a manger at any point during the season, let alone in the final two games, is always more of a risk; these days most of the organisation is set up to follow a single philosophy and so changing the coach threatens the continuation of that process.

The Football Finance Times team have analysed 54 in-season Premier League managerial sackings that have occurred since 2009/2010. What was the end result of these changes for the teams involved?

⚽ Since 09/10 five Premier League managers on average have been sacked during the season, every season.

⚽ As expected, teams in danger of relegation are most likely to make changes, with 39 of out the 54 (73.5%) dismissals coming from teams in and around the bottom.

⚽ After sacking a manager in-season, there is a 53% chance of surviving relegation.

⚽ At the opposite end of the table, the stats show that if an established team is struggling, the manager should be replaced. On the 15 occasions they have fired their managers 12 can be judged as 'successful', while for the remaining three the change has come too soon to make a verdict.

1. Of the 54 Premier League managerial sackings from September 2009 – June 2020, 39 have been under the threat of relegation, while 11 are cases where an established top side are deemed to be below expectations. The remaining four occurred due to other circumstances, such as the Venky's taking over at Blackburn in 2010/2011), a change in approach (Leicester City 2018/2019, Newcastle United 2010/2011), or personal issues (Watford with Marco Silva and Everton in 2017/2018).

2. Of the 38 'relegation' sackings, 22 (57.8%) saw their league position improve from the then until the end of the season, and in 21 (55.2%) cases the team stayed up.

Nigel Pearson is the 39th and we don't quite know Watford's fate yet, though they were bottom at when Pearson took over so, at the very least, he improved their position, whether they stay up or not.

3. In 16 cases where the incumbent could not avoid relegation, on 12 occasions (75%) the club were in the bottom three at the time of change.

In only six instances did the incoming manager take the club from outside the relegation zone into it (16%).

Fulham’s double sacking of Slavisa Jokanovic and Claudio Ranieri in 2018/2019 when the club was 10th following Jokanovic’s last game, but eventually finished 19th under Scott Parker, and Cardiff City’s replacement of Malky Mackay with Ole Solskjaer, following which the club fell from 16th to 20th in the 2013/2014 season, are the most notable examples of this.

4. Of the 16 cases where the incoming manager took over a club in the relegation zone, on six (38%) of occasions did the new man guide the club to safety.

Tony Pulis’ appointment at Crystal Palace in 2013/2014, taking them from 19th to 11th, Roy Hodgson’s reign at WBA in 2011/2012 where he improved their position from 16th to 11th, Sam Allardyce at Sunderland in 2015/2016 (19th to 17th) and Francesco Guidolin at Swansea in 2015/2016 (15th to 12th) as the best examples of this.

5. In terms of the other 15 non-relegation threatened sackings, based upon an individual assessment of each club's performance both within the season of the sacking and over subsequent seasons, 12 such sackings could be considered 'successful' in terms of achieving the objectives of stabilising the club, qualifying for Europe and/or building a foundation for long-term success.

In the remaining three examples - Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, Carlo Ancelotti at Everton and Jose Mourinho at Tottenham - no conclusions can yet be made.

Should clubs sack a coach mid-season?

The answer to this question relies upon the circumstances in which the club finds itself.

If you are relegation threatened it is unlikely to harm your chances of staying up and in more than half the cases (53%) it results in survival.

In the context of underperforming 'bigger' clubs, each sacking could be considered a success with the medium-term objective of stabilisation over the course of 2/3 seasons.

This is obviously subjective but in no cases did the club's league position fall lower. Rafael Benitez joined Chelsea in 2012/2013, in a move which wasn't received well by Blues' fans, but he ended the season in third position and won the Europa League.

The main limitation of the analysis is the lack of the counter-factual (i.e. where would the clubs have finished if the sacked manager was allowed to finish the season). On this point, it is worth noting that in the book Soccernomics it is argued that managerial sackings often come after a run of bad luck, and club results will eventually regress to the mean.

So it is a reversal of luck, or something more?

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