The extraordinary event this week of the manager of Manchester United, Louis van Gaal, being sacked the day after his team won the FA Cup – one of the four trophies available for the year and Man U’s first trophy win since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 – raised several issues. What does a coach have to do to be regarded as ‘successful’? How much of ‘success’ is due to the coach? And how long does a ‘success’ last before a coach is given the bullet?
I’ll use the English Premier League as the example, as it is followed globally, but the issues are exactly the same in most professional sport, most leagues, most countries now.
What are the chances of coaching success?
Let’s look at it statistically first. From the 20 competing in the EPL, only one team can win. So, if ‘winning’ is ‘success’, then there are 19 losers and only one winner. (Man U finished 5th.) Three teams are relegated each year and their coaches are almost automatically sacked, usually before the season even ends!
But how many teams actually think they can win the league? Each year Chelsea, Arsenal, Man U, Man City and Liverpool expect to win, but each year one or more teams succeed against the odds. This year it was Leicester at 5000/1, but Tottenham came very close and last year Southampton threatened, so there are at least 6 teams each year expecting/hoping to actually win. So the chance of winning is only 16% – at least 5 losers out of even this elite group.
In 2015-16, only Arsene Wenger, the manager of Arsenal which finished 2nd, survived from the big five. All the others were sacked! Coming second or third is apparently not sufficiently ‘successful’. How galling when a team of no-names from nowhere coached by a relatively unsuccessful coach (Claudio Ranieri) wins against the odds (sorry Leicester, but we loved your win)! This means that, for the wonder coaches appointed to the big 5 – Mourinho, Guardino, Klopp, Wenger, Hiddink (still ‘interim’) – it is certain that four of them will fail even before the season starts. How many of these wunderkinder will then be sacked at the end of next season?
Other forms of ‘success’
There are other forms of success. Getting into the Champions League and then winning it is now the major goal of European teams. The top four teams from the EPL get into the Champions League so, for the big five, they have an 80% chance of being in it…except this year when Leicester and Tottenham shoved them aside. But winning it – against all the best European clubs is extremely difficult. The Spanish, Germans, Italians and French sides regularly outcompete here. This year Spain sides had 3 of the top 4 sides in the finals of Champions League and the Europa League (the 2nd division of the Champions League). Liverpool did make it to the Europa League final, but lost. Man U finished 3rd of 4 in its Champions League group and were eliminated in the round of 16 in the Europa League.
Then there’s the FA Cup and the League Cup. Increasingly the best teams don’t even field their best sides for these matches, so they are generally upset along the knockout way (lots of fun for everyone else). But a trophy is a trophy and they are all hard to win. However, Man U’s win here this week was not sufficient to save van Gaal, confirming the declining importance of these trophies.
In every league in every sport in every country, each team starts the season wishing and hoping. Some are of course better placed with talent, resources, coaching, boards, recruiting and some are lucky with fewer injuries (a much under-rated impact on overall performance of highly rated teams). Some are happy just to play, some are hoping to move up towards eventually glory, but many hope at the start to be winners. Our cult of seeing ‘success’ as only belonging to the winner means most teams (90% in a ten team league, 95% in a 20 team league) end as ‘failures’. (Ask yourself who came 2nd in whatever league you follow and you will see that second is not ‘success’.)
Who wants to be coach?
Who would be a coach then? You have a 90% chance of failure, whether or not it is in your control. You need to succeed immediately, this season. If you don’t succeed, you probably won’t be given the dignity of resigning at the end of the season, but will be ignomiously fired, sacked. And you will then have to repeat this process every year in a different location, swearing what a wonderful team/ club/organisation you have.
‘Sack the coach’ is just like ‘sack the manager’ in an organisation which isn’t performing well. A wish, a hope that a single move will change the outcome, forgetting that performance is the combination of many, many factors (including its culture), that performance outcomes are generally long-term, while coaching and sporting success is a one year issue – will we win this year?
Clearly coaches must be dumb or stupid to take on these odds, knowing what the outcomes will be. So clubs, fans, be wary of your club planning for ‘3 premierships in 6 years’ or other unachievable goals. Succeeding at the top – even briefly, once –is ephemeral for almost every club. Every team has a ‘plan’ for success but, ulike businesses, where the goals of competitors can be quite different, it is simply not possible in sport for all these plans to succeed. Long live the coach!