Each year, there are bad teams in the Premier League. It’s to be expected – someone has to lose for others to win. But there are some teams that, despite changes designed to improve the club, suffer year after year.
For example, what’s wrong with Sunderland? Its team is trash, you’d say, and you’d be right. At least that’s the TL;DR version. The slightly more detailed explanation is that it has hired a series of less than successful managers, each of whom has made the job of his successor more difficult by spending ludicrous money on lousy players. And this is not an affliction that is unique to Sunderland. The Black Cats are just one example of the institutional short-sightedness that leads to teams finding themselves in similar messes.
Teams like Sunderland, Aston Villa, and Hull have struggled because they’ve lived and mostly died by their managers. Sunderland’s spent the last 10 years giving pay packets and pink slips to Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Martin O’Neill, Paolo Di Canio, and most recently Gus Poyet, who will eventually see the latter. None of them built anything close to a successful Premier League team at Sunderland, and each successive appointment was less impressed by the team the last guy left behind. Much the same happened at Villa, where four managers have graced the bench since O’Neill took off in August 2010. Hull, meanwhile, plugged their dreams into Bruce, a man who’s done well to lead teams out of the second tier but has done fuck all in the first. Stability at the helm exists, sure, but the middling squad is dictated by the manager’s desire to build a team that conforms to his narrow tactics.
Meanwhile, clubs like Swansea and Southampton have achieved enviable stability simply by controlling for that same variable. The degree to which managers’ influence is over- or underrated is a debate that could drone on for ages, but even a conservative estimate of their impact would make the issue a significant one for clubs lingering in that happy realm between European qualification and relegation. If a good manager can turn a handful of draws into wins, and a bad one can turn those same draws into losses, then the discrepancy can easily account for a season-defining point swing. After all, a handful of wins is the difference between “cruise control by early March” and “shitting bricks right down to the last day.”
These sides, in particular, have sustained because they’ve stuck with a formula that works rather than be seduced by the allure of a big managerial personality. Although competing at different levels in the league, both clubs have similar structures, relative to their ambitions. Player acquisition is overseen by a director of football or head of recruitment, and players are brought in of a certain age, within a certain price range, who fit a certain profile, and who can be sold on eventually for a profit. This happens independently from the manager, who himself is appointed on the basis of fitting a particular profile: preferences that align with the club’s, and a willingness to work within the management structure, among others, presumably. In that model, the manager is just a cog in a machine, albeit an important one.
That’s not to say that mistakes won’t happen, as when Michael Laudrup got found out at Swansea. It’d also be foolish to imply that every club following this model finds success. West Brom has embraced the director of football role, but that sure didn’t help Pepe Mel. While the Baggies looked stable under Steve Clarke, the club ended up panicking, showing him the door, and handing Mel a side that fought against relegation until the last day. Alan Irvine was appointed in June, but he was sent on gardening leave in December. Now the Baggies have turned to Tony Pulis.
Perhaps that’s why some chairmen remain suspicious of the so-called European model of club hierarchy. Instead it’s better to appoint a big name gaffer like West Ham did with Sam Allardyce. But without an infrastructure in place that can survive beyond his tenure, what happens when the Hammers fans and club owners inevitably get bored with his “kick and rush” brand of soccer? Three years of rebuilding is what happens; and that’s only if West Ham is lucky enough not to get dropped into the Championship while that process plays out.
It’s all well and good if you can find yourself an Alex Ferguson or an Arsène Wenger, but there are only two of them about and one is drinking wine as a full-time job these days. Maybe Harry Redknapp turns out to be the right man at the right time to take your club from fighting relegation to challenging for European qualification. But if he’s not The One (spoiler alert: he’s not), then you’ve just fucked yourself by letting him bring in all his mates on silly wages. Similar experiences hurt Villa, but it’s finally seen the light and is appointing a director of football. Tim Sherwood is fun and all, but only an insane person would trust him to run a whole club.
So clubs that want to achieve the stability of Southampton or Swansea need to start by taking managers off the pedestal that English soccer has placed them on. Not all managers are well-equipped to run a club from top to bottom, and in the very likely chance that you hire one who is not, you best have a safety net.