There are some within the confines of Scottish football who cannot wait to stick the…
Around this time of the season, it’s not unusual for fans and chairmen to get a little spooked. Whether you’re vying for the title, battling for European qualification or merely trying to survive: if you’re falling short of expectations at this point of the season then the board can get itchy feet and seek a change.
The wisdom behind these decisions is often justified by the ‘new manager bounce’. Most fans are aware of this, and it’s something that seems to happen often. After all, how many times have you seen a club struggle, sack their manager then dramatically improve?
This got us thinking. Is there really such a thing as a ‘new manager bounce’? It’s one of those apocryphal football truisms that’s oft-repeated, but is there any truth behind it? Below, we delved into the numbers to see what the data says.
The above graph shows the change in fortunes for teams that decided to part ways with their manager during the season over the last three campaigns. Each coach’s first five matches are compared to the last five fixtures under the previous regime. What we can see is that in thirteen out of twenty instances, changing manager does lead to an upturn in form.
So, in the short term at least, the theory holds up. Results, regardless of the club’s position, will improve 65% of the time. This means it’s almost twice as likely that replacing your boss will result in more points on the board – something that at this stage of the season is in short supply, with all the Premiership’s clubs desperate for every single point gained.
Craig Levein’s appointment this season, for example, looks like a particularly prudent move from Anne Budge by this metric. Hearts were averaging just 0.8 points-per-game before his appointment, then that figured doubled to 1.6 during Levein’s first five games. Likewise, Dundee’s decision to part company with Paul Hartley last season reaped immediate rewards – Hartley lost each of his final five games, then Neil McCann was appointed and Dundee averaged 1.4 points-per-game.
But what happens when we take a slightly longer view? This time, we extended each manager’s points-per-game ratio to their first twenty matches to try and gain a clearer insight into whether or not such a decision is beneficial to clubs over a longer timeframe.
This time, the results are a little less cut and dry. Only 50% of appointments resulted in tangible improvement, while 45% of the time the team actually suffered. In one instance, a club collected the exact same number of points that they did under their previous manager – last season, when Graeme Murty took over from Mark Warburton at Ibrox. To put that another way, Warburton’s dismissal had zero impact on the amount of points Rangers gained subsequently under Murty.
What this tells us is that long-term improvement has no relation to whether or not a manager is sacked or kept on. It’s a coin toss – only half of the time will a team’s results actually improve. Sure, the data says that there will likely be an increase in points gained in the short term – this is undeniably true, more often than not – but over the long term, there’s no guarantee that players can maintain that level of performance.
Let’s look at McCann’s appointment again, to illustrate this point. Over his first five matches, Dundee’s improvement was dramatic. But when we examine his first twenty games and compare them to Hartley’s last twenty, the improvement is about as marginal as can be – McCann’s points-per-game is better, but only by 0.05. Or in other words, an extra point every twenty matches.
Even Murty, widely considered to be an improvement on Pedro Caixinha, is in reality only a slight upgrade on the Portuguese. Murty averaged two points per game compared to Caixinha’s 1.9 over their first/last twenty games – again a narrow increase, but not an especially significant one. Although the problems may run deeper than the manager.
So what does all of this mean then? Are clubs who are desperate for points right to move a manager on, or is it a fallacy of the modern game? Well, it depends just how badly you need those points. If your club needs to move up the table rapidly, then it is the correct decision the vast majority of the time. However, there’s no real advantage over the long term – things could improve, but they’re just as likely to get even worse. Changing manager mid-season is often said to be a gamble – on this occasion, the pundits don’t know just how right they are.