Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Meet the New Boss, Same As the Old Boss?

It's starting. Despite the season only being seven games in, speculation on which English Premier League manager will be fired first has begun in earnest. The favorite right now would have to be Steve Kean (1/2 odds on Skybet), whose Blackburn Rovers were recently demolished by Manchester City, but he is far from the only one in the hotseat. While it is only natural that fans tend to blame the manager for the team underperforming, I can't help but wonder if fired coaches are the victims of overreactions. After all, replacing a coach mid-season generally requires that you replace him with someone currently out of work, not usually the best pool of applicants. Also, despite the influence the manager has, it is the players who most determine success on the field. Do teams that fire their coaches mid-season tend to do better after the firing? To help answer the question, here's a look at the four teams last year who fired their manager during the season (Blackburn, Liverpool, Newcastle, and West Brom) and how they fared under their new manager.


Blackburn started the season under Sam Allardyce, famous from his Bolton days as using very defensive tactics, but doing so effectively. His teams typically were content to let the opponents have possession and hit them on the counterattack when they lost possession. His Blackburn team was very similar: they had the ball just 40.8% of the time, yet were not badly outshot. Moreover, a high percentage of their shots on goal went in the net (Finish Rate of 38%, compared to a league average of 30%) because most of their opportunities were fast breaks, which typically yield a higher Finish Rate. Overall, under Sam Allardyce Blackburn average goal difference was -.28 and they averaged 1.22 points per game, on pace for a finish in the middle of the table.

Blackburn fired Allardyce in the wake of a 7-1 loss away to Manchester United. They replaced him with his assistant Steve Kean. Blackburn attempted to be more attack-minded, increasing their share of possession to 43%, but this did not help their fortunes. Their average goal difference dropped to -.40 and they averaged 1.05 points per game the rest of the season, barely avoiding relegation. The big difference appears to be that they didn't generate high-quality opportunities, as their Finish Rate dropped to 31%.


It was the first and only season for Roy Hodgson at Liverpool. Liverpool had missed out on the Champions League in the previous campaign, but the expectation was that they would qualify in the 2010/11 season. Liverpool were underwhelming during Hodgson's tenure, though he was definitely unlucky as well. His stint in charge of Liverpool coincided with the start of Torres' goal drought and as such, Liverpool had a negative goal differential despite outshooting their opponents.

Liverpool eventually replaced Hodgson with their legendary former manager Kenny Dalglish. Combined with significant investment in the transfer market (Suarez and Carroll), Liverpool greatly improved in the second half of the season and were unlucky not to finish fifth. Liverpool SOG differential improved by .6, their goal differential improved by a goal a game, and they averaged almost 2 points per game. However, a lot of the difference was that shots started going in the net. Under Hodgson, 25% of Liverpool's SOG went in the net, and 35% of their opponents' did. Under Dalglish, those numbers were reversed, leading to much better results.


Newcastle were the surprise package last season, starting out incredibly well (making me some serious money in the process). The winners of the Championship the year before, Chris Hughton's team averaged over 50% of possession and were particularly good at limiting opponents' chances when they had the ball, though this good defensive work went largely unnoticed because they allowed 40% of their opponents' SOG to go in the net. Still, Newcastle were in the top half of the table and had a goal differential around zero. For a newly promoted team, that was a significant accomplishment.

Chris Hughton was fired after a 2-1 home defeat to West Brom.The angry reaction to his firing was vociferous indeed. Personally, I can't help but wonder if the firing was racially motivated, as Hughton was the only black manager in the EPL and gave no cause for Newcastle to fire him. He was replaced by Alan Pardew, who produced almost exactly the same results yet retained his job: 1.19 points per game compared to 1.18 points per game. They finished safely in mid-table, nowhere near relegation, but also nowhere near Europe.

West Brom:

Roberto Di Matteo started the season in charge of the Midlands club. As with Newcastle, West Brom were a promoted team that started the season very well. They played very open football that often led to their downfall, as teams hit them on the counter a lot, leading to a very poor opponents' Finish Rate of 40%. They were on the relegation bubble, averaging 1.04 points per game, which would have left them just short of the 40 needed to ensure safety.

Following a 3-0 loss to our beloved Manchester City, Di Matteo was fired and replaced by the recently-discarded Roy Hodgson. Under Hodgson, West Brom stopped playing so expansive (their share of possession dropped from 50% to 46%) and were rewarded with a huge boost in efficiency, going on to record a positive goal differential and averaging 1.67 points per game.

So, what is the lesson here? It seems as if the results have been mixed; sometimes changing the manager has a very positive impact, sometimes it has a negative impact, sometimes it has none at all. I would say that this emphasizes the importance of having a good replacement. Liverpool knew they had Dalglish who could do the job if Hodgson failed (of course, this made it more likely that Hodgson would, in fact, fail), West Brom fired Di Matteo because they could get Hodgson. The teams that did not have an able successor were unsurprisingly not better after their coaching switch.

Of the teams that are currently mooted to be considering firing their manager, only Blackburn appear to have a suitable replacement for their manager Steve Kean: their former manager Mark Hughes, who since went on to an underrated spell at Manchester City followed by a short, but sweet stint at Fulham and is currently out of a job. As such, I would urge patience for Bolton, Sunderland and Arsenal fans: it is too early to judge a manager and often replacing him is not the best answer.

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