As Arsène Wenger stepped out at the Emirates Stadium last Tuesday as his Arsenal team faced Galatasaray it marked an astounding 18 years at helm of the Gunners and one is left to wonder whether we will ever see another managerial tenure in elite football quite like this one. Since he took over in 1996, there have been 207 different Premier League managers with major clubs in Europe following suit with generally shorter-term managers. Have times just changed and the days of managers being with their club season after season are over? Does changing the manager have any impact at all – if the players remain the same, things can’t be too different? If not the manager, what makes up the winning formula?
A longer tenure will ultimately lead to stability, but does stability lead to success? In Arsenal’s case, after a trophy-laden start, the recent success came off the pitch rather than on it, by guiding Arsenal consistently to the Champions League each year, Wenger secured millions in television revenue and this was used largely to finance the move into the Emirates Stadium. But success on the pitch is what matters to most and it is unlikely that another club at the top of the league would have granted their manager so much time to try and secure some silverware – the fans were more relieved than overjoyed at a top four finish most years.
Managerial stability provides a basis for long term planning at the club, attracting transfer targets can be easier if you can make a promise that the manager will remain, but this can be taken care of by a director of football or a commitment to hire managers that play a similar brand of football – Swansea are a prime example of this, from Rodgers, Laudrup and now Monk they remain competitive and tactically similar in style – perhaps more important than the actual individual that they bring in is that they share similar ideas about how the game is played. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for keeping the same man in the job however, it signals that the players themselves and style of manager is more important than the individual.
Money talks however, and with 19 managerial changes between them, Chelsea and Manchester City are not adverse to making a switch at the top. It is hardly coincidental that in terms of ownership, billionaire investors are not the most willing to wait and grow a club, preferring to force through immediate results on their vast investments. That last bit is key, vast investments, buy world class players and pay them enough money and you will find yourself with a team that can always compete and fight for the big trophies, regardless of the manager. It works in the other way too, put a proven winner like José Mourinho in charge of a struggling relegation contender and it is most unlikely that they will win the league that year. It doesn’t take a genius to correlate success to great players and great players to big price tags and for those truly elite performers, assuming managerial instability takes a little off their game, they tend to be good enough to sort themselves out on the pitch most weeks – papering over the cracks a little perhaps.
Is it not a little sad that there nothing to be said for a club sticking with its manager for years and years anymore? One only has to tune in to the odd radio football phone-in to hear fans call for the sacking of their club’s manager, believing that it is the man in the dugout rather than the 11 on the pitch that will pull the team up the league table. A study by Sheffield Hallam University showed that a team faced with relegation is more likely to stay up if they change their manager once things start to turn sour, but for teams comfortably in the middle of the table, changing a manager does not seem to consistently boost them higher up the table. Not good news for those managers currently fighting the drop.
Rather than bemoan the fact that a tenure like Arsène Wenger’s may never be repeated at the top of the game, it is nicer to think of it as a rare occasion where a club and manager just fit perfectly. Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, a remarkable man who did a truly astounding job, let us not forget that even Sir Alex was not immediately successful when he took over. The difference is that today, with expectations higher than ever and huge ticket prices not easing the demand of the fans, managers at the very top really have to hit the ground running or find themselves out of the door all too quickly – remember David Moyes? There is more to success than stability then, money and ultimately players have a huge impact, but the sacking culture is hardly one to foster and develop a younger manager in and with many questioning the lack of top English managers to lead the national team – is that not the biggest problem of them all?