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Don’t sack your football manager after a World Cup exit

Headed in different directions. Ettore Ferrari/EPA

As the group stage of the World Cup draws to a close, while it’s the joy of qualification for some, it’s the crushing disappointment of an early exit for others. And, in the post-mortem which inevitably follows hopes dashed, a search for blame takes place. Everyone from players to match officials and domestic governing bodies can be scrutinised. But it’s perhaps managers who are held most accountable for their team’s failings.

Already we have seen the managers from Italy, Iran, Côte d'Ivoire, Honduras and Japan fall on their swords after their teams' failure to enter the tournament’s knockout stages. And, the fates of both English and Spanish managers were hotly discussed in their respective countries before confirmation that both would continue in their roles.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini referred to this quest to understand just what went wrong as a process of Cutting off Rejected Failure (CORF), compared with the Basking in Reflected Glory (BIRG) which fans engage in when a team is doing well. A key distinction is that when things go badly for a team we tend to externalise ourselves from this: “They” are to blame, whether players, referees, managers, governing bodies. But when it goes well we internalise and consider ourselves part of this: “We were the 12th man.” Or: “Our support really drove the players on.”

Perhaps in this process, and externalising blame, it is not unsurprising that attention turns to the role of the football manager, as the team leader with ultimate responsibility for their performance. So what do we know about the role of football managers? What is there to gain or lose by making a change of manager and what benefits are there in holding our nerve and sticking with a longer term strategy, even in the face of a disappointing tournament outcome?

Research into leadership theory splits into different views on the role of the leader in organisations in general. Some schools of thought believe that the success of the organisation is less about the leader, whoever that may be, than it is about contextual factors such as the quality of its people, its resources and so on. In the World Cup context, this perspective would suggest that, whoever is in charge of the national team, performance will be more or less what you would expect given the quality of the players at the managers’ disposal.

There are also theories that highlight how different types of leadership approach are required for different situations. This raises the possibility that some styles of leadership may be better suited to succeeding in tournaments such as the World Cup, compared with succeeding as a club manager.

Alternatively, there is “individualistic” leadership thought. This is the belief that a visionary or transformational leader makes the difference. A leader who is passionate, good at spotting talent, skillful at managing and motivating his team, can raise the level of performance. Early individualistic approaches took quite simplistic views that particular characteristics made a difference. Research has largely quashed these ideas, but it is interesting how the vestiges of this debate linger in the belief that someone who is an extrovert and leaps around on the touchline is necessarily a more motivational leader, than a more introverted, considered, strategic leader, who might already be mapping out the next steps for the team.

No ‘i’ in team

Of course the reality is that no single style of leader is necessarily the right one and that the teams which the manager leads also comprise individuals who may need different approaches to get the best from them. But here are a few things which leadership theory tells us which might help us at the current stage of the World Cup debates and recriminations over managers.

First, sporting data from across a range of sports from baseball to football has long told us that there is an element of truth in the belief that team performance is hugely dependent on the quality of players. This is shown comprehensively in football in Syzmanksi and Kuper’s book, Soccernomics.

Second, the instability that results from changing manager means performance does not always improve just by changing the person at the helm. Sometimes we observe a “honeymoon effect” or upturn for a period of games after the switch. We often make a switch after some form of blip in performance, which acts as a trigger. In English Premier League football this “S” shape period around the change of manager is often quite marked, but the long-term benefits of the switch are debatable.

Third, as explained by Chris Hope, there are other reasons for dips in performance of teams and these include “rebuilding” or changing the status quo to introduce younger players and build for the future. So, if a blip during a tournament is because an ageing team is being refreshed by the next generation of players, changing manager would be very counter-intuitive and might disrupt a plan and vision. Panicking too soon, and in a knee-jerk way, might mean poor performance in the next tournament, rather than being a temporary pain for longer term gains.

Tournaments vs league campaigns

It’s also worth highlighting that managing at a World Cup may well require a different set of skills and have different challenges to those needed for club management. Blips often happen in the cycle of a season, but in a tournament like the World Cup, where within three games, or in the case of England, just two, it’s all over, there is no margin for error.

A squad of star players, but a squad who may rarely get the opportunity to play together and gel into a team has little time to become a unit which can challenge the world’s best. Even chance plays a role. So, if one of those England chances in the first game against Italy had gone in, and England had taken a point, would the eventual outcome of the group stage have gone differently?

Of course “what if” will not change the feelings of disappointment and our urge to purge now. World Cup 2014 will go down as a disappointment to England, Italy, Spain and many others. The debate about who is to blame for poor performance will continue, in some cases with change of manager and those in governance, and in others with a continuation of the status quo.

The real challenge, and the real learning for those teams should begin with analysis of what happened on the pitch, to understand performance in the context of the nature of this “blip”. Our disappointment may incline us to seek out scapegoats: “they” were to blame. But once the initial emotions calm down, then and only then should we try and work out how best to move forward.