The Managerial Merry-Go-Round Has Just Started to Spin

Bayern Munich are looking for a new manager, and a number of other uber-wealthy clubs will soon be doing the same. But will any of this even matter?

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On Sunday, Bayern Munich euphemistically “parted ways” with manager Niko Kovac. The day before, Bayern suffered an early red card to Jerome Boateng, then lost, 5-1, to Kovac’s former club Eintracht Frankfurt and slipped down to fourth in the Bundesliga table. Here’s what club CEO Karl-Heinz Rumennige said

The performance of our team in recent weeks and the results have shown us that there was need for action. [President] Uli Hoeness, [sporting director] Hasan Salihamidzic and I had an open and serious conversation with Niko on this basis on Sunday, with the consensual result that Niko is no longer coach of Bayern. We all regret this development. I would like to thank Niko Kovac on behalf of FC Bayern for his work, especially for winning the double this past season.

And Kovac:

I think this is the right decision for the club at the moment. The results, and also the way we last played, made me come to that decision. My brother [and assistant] Robert and I thank Bayern for the last one and a half years. During this time our team has won the championship, the DFB Cup and the Supercup. It was a good time. I wish the club and the team all the best.

Per reporting from Raphael Honigstein for The Athletic, the process of Kovac’s departure began the moment he arrived. Much like what happened under Carlo Ancellotti two managers before him, Kovac’s struggles seemed to stem from the fact that he wasn’t Pep Guardiola (or Jurgen Klopp or Julian Nagelsmann or Diego Simeone or Thomas Tuchel). As Honigstein writes:

The players barely hid their frustration with Kovac’s focus on fitness and off-the-ball positioning, which they considered unbefitting for a possession style that had been honed over the best part of a decade. At other clubs, the team might have acquiesced in their coach’s rather hum-drum approach. But the bulk of this Bayern side had witnessed the immense attention to detail and relentless perfectionism of Pep Guardiola.

Others had worked with the likes of Jurgen Klopp (Mats Hummels, Philippe Coutinho), Julian Nagelsmann (Serge Gnabry, Niklas Sule) or Diego Simeone (Lucas Hernandez); all coaches with a clearly defined game-plan and a strong record of improving both players and teams. Kovac was never in the same category.

Unlike his predecessor Jupp Heynckes, he also lacked the natural authority to get his charges onside on an emotional level. The 74-year-old’s success in his fourth stint in Munich indirectly set up Kovac’s downfall. By his own admission, he was only appointed as the “B option” in spring of 2018, after Uli Hoeness’ futile attempt at convincing Heynckes to stay had seen high-calibre candidates such as Thomas Tuchel run out of patience.

And so, Kovac departs with an absurd-looking record for a failed manager: 45 wins in 65 games, and just eight defeats. Bayern won the Bundesliga last year by only two points, but their expected-goal differential was twice as large as any other team in the league. This year, Kovac departs with Bayern atop the league by xGD once again, although at a significantly lower performance level: plus-1.06 per game, compared to plus-1.52 last season. He also dressed like a more realistically proportioned Everlane model and, along with the late Tony Sparano, is one of my two head-coaching style icons. TBD whether that deserved more consideration from the Bayern board.

At Bayern, Kovac won two-thirds of the Bundesliga games he managed -- pretty damn good in a sport where the betting favorite only wins around 50 percent of the time. Except, from the beginning of this decade up until they hired Kovac, Bayern had won around 75 percent of their league games! They’d won six Bundesliga titles in a row before Kovac’s arrival, so grabbing the domestic championship is essentially the bare minimum of what a Bayern manager can do. He’s expected to compete in the Champions League -- which didn’t happen last year, as Bayern went out in the Round of 16 with a limp performance across two legs against Liverpool -- and he’s expected to thoroughly and proactively dominate all phases of the domestic game like Guardiola did. In Pep’s three years with the club, the team’s goal differential never dipped below plus-62 goals. In a 34-game season, that means the average outcome of a Bayern game was roughly a two-goal win.

That’s an impossible and unsustainable standard, but that’s just where we are with European soccer right now. The richest teams have so thoroughly distanced themselves from the rest of the competition that the benchmarks for success are starting to either disappear or float up into outer space. A Champions League trophy is the one cure-all to a club’s ills, but no matter how good your team and your coach is, it’s still a crapshoot. Based on current odds per Fanduel, even the best team, Manchester City, is only about a 26-percent favorite to win it all. No healthy club is making significant decisions based on Champions League.

And so, Kovac is gone. Neither of the managers at Real Madrid or Barcelona seem to be on solid footing. The over-under on managerial changes between Arsenal, Tottenham, and Manchester United between now and the beginning of next season should probably be set at 2.5. Counting Bayern, that’s six of the 10 richest teams in the world. The managerial merry-go-round is just starting to spin.

As outlined by Christoffer Johansen, over the last 10 years, the average managerial stint at the 10 richest clubs (Juve were in the top 10 at the beginning of 2018, but Tottenham edged them out last year) lasts for about two years. Only two of the clubs currently have managers who have been around for at least three full seasons, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the two best teams in the world: Liverpool and Manchester City.

The Elo rating system is the most prominent, publically available historical system for rating the strength of soccer clubs, and the current model not only rates Liverpool and City as the two best teams in the world, but two of the 10 best teams of all time. However, both of their trajectories didn’t really take off until the beginning of last season, or right when new managers at Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Paris Saint-Germain took over.

Per Elo, both Klopp and Guardiola are two of the most effective managers of all time, as they’ve both seen the Elo ratings of their teams rise at various clubs after their arrivals. In fact, Guardiola is the highest-rated manager ever according to Elo, and Klopp isn’t far behind in third.

Most managers don’t significantly improve their team’s results over the long term. At Bayern, an average manager means more ho-hum Bundesliga titles; at Arsenal or Manchester United, that means more underwhelming scraps at fourth place. And yet, two of the managers who have shown the ability to tangibly improve their teams are also locked up at two of the clubs with the kind of top-down, everyone-on-the-same-page, front-office-to-the-field approach that seems like it would only amplify the effect of a value-added manager. The result has been a steady rise above everyone else.

Meanwhile, everyone else can afford any manager they want; it’s just that they also can’t get two of the guys everyone would want. And so, the current managerial market is starting to feel a bit like the player market used to when Ronaldo and Messi were in their primes: two untouchables, but almost everyone else can be had for the right price. 

There are plenty of potentially appealing out-of-work options. The end of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal tenure looks better and better with every game Unai Emery presides over, Marcelino has an impressive history of helping his clubs outperform their wage bills, Masimilliano Allegri brought Juventus to two Champions League finals in the Messi-Ronaldo era, Luis Enrique -- if he’s ready to get back into coaching -- coached the best club team I’ve ever seen, and Jose Mourinho -- well, he hasn’t exceeded his resources at any club in a long time, but it’ll at least be great content wherever he ends up!

Except, the searches aren’t going to be limited to free agents, either. Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure with Tottenham seems like it has an expiration date reading “May 2020”, and despite this season’s struggles, he’s overseen Tottenham’s rise to perennial Champions League qualifier, and per data analysis from the consultancy 21st Club: “Pochettino’s average boost to the club turns out to be greater than that of any other coach in elite football.” RB Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann rates highly according to that same analysis, and he should be on the radars of every club out there. Borussia Mochengladbach’s Marco Rose and his replacement at Red Bull Salzburg, Jesse Marsch -- might someone take a chance on either of them? Guardiola’s assistant, Mikel Arteta, has been a rumored target for a number of top jobs. It seems like only a matter of time until Ajax’s Erik ten Hag is coaching one of these 10 or 11 teams -- I’m making an executive decision and calling them the “Big 11” for the rest of this newsletter -- and Honigstein reported that he’s one of Bayern’s two main targets. The other? Ralf Ragnick, who’s currently the head of sport and development for Red Bull’s entire network of clubs.

Ragnick, who coached Leipzig last season while the club waited for Nagelsmann to finish up his final season with Hoffenheim, isn’t really as well-known as he should be. He might be the most influential coach/director who’s still working in the game at a high level. At least half of the head coaches of the teams in the top half of the Bundesliga worked under Ragnick at some point. As Ben Lyttleton wrote earlier this year for the Guardian:

Rangnick is a pioneer: at Hoffenheim in 2006, he was one of the first coaches to use video analysis. His methodology is a forerunner of gegenpressing: that the best chance of winning back the ball is within eight seconds of losing it, and most goals are scored within 10 seconds of regaining possession. RB Leipzig scored 60% of their goals like that last season. His teams play with a high tempo and always look to play vertical passes – just like those Bundesliga teams coached by Rangnick disciples.

That, however, doesn’t seem like it’ll quite fit at Bayern. One reason, per Honigstein:

Rangnick would have to agree to work under sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic and modify his transition-based approach; to complicate matters, the 61-year-old might also have other openings in the Premier League soon.

And a second reason, per Ragnick himself in the interview with Lyttleton:

I am happy where I am but if any club wanted to speak to me, the question would have to be: ‘Can I be somebody who can influence areas of development across the whole club?’ Otherwise you are only getting half of what I am capable of.

Two years ago, five of these Big 11 clubs changed managers. Come the start of next season, I suspect that at least that many will have new faces prowling their sidelines. And while it’s rare, I also wouldn’t be surprised if we see multiple managers get poached from jobs they’re currently in. However, as Ragnick said about City and Liverpool, “They have their identity and know what they need to develop, and so it’s no coincidence that they are dominating the league.” Most of these other clubs are in search of new coaches because they haven’t figured any of that out. If they do, then some of these inevitable new hires will end up succeeding. If they don’t? Well, mark your calendars. We’ll be having this same conversation in about 24 months.