On Sacking the Manager

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On Sacking the Manager

So far, there seem to be two opposing camps when it comes to Leicester City’s decision to sack Premier League title winning manager and all around nice guy Claudio Ranieri, with some settling somewhere in between.

The first camp believes the decision is a “felony,” unfathomable, horrendous, evil. Here is the man who led little Leicester City to the summit of club football, who helped weave a sporting fairy tale known the world round. Despite the team’s struggles this season, sacking him now is an unconscionable act of cruelty.

The second camp doesn’t see what the big deal is. Leicester had won a Premier League trophy only to face a relegation battle a year later. It was Ranieri’s job to ensure the club continued its remarkable run, if not in the Premier League than at least in Europe. He failed to do his job, lost the dressing room, and was sacked. This is football, twas ever thus. We should thank him and move on.

In other words, it’s loyalty and romance vs the bottom line. But neither of these views address the core question: was sacking Ranieri the right decision for the club, not just this season, but the next one and the one after that?

This ‘debate’ reflects our atomized, short-term thinking when it comes to football. Amid all of our outrage, no one has stopped to ask whether LCFC have a replacement lined up yet. Perhaps it’s a case of “that’s a question for later,” but the answer directly relates to the wisdom of Ranieri’s sacking.

There are, for instance, some rare but instructive examples of clubs that caught grief for a ‘cruel’ sacking only to appoint someone demonstrably better. The universal condemnation of Southampton’s decision to fire Nigel Adkins a few years ago comes to mind. Drunk on newly-acquired top flight cash, they went out and picked up some Johnny Foreigner named Mauricio Pochettino.

Of course no one knew then that Saints had done their homework well in advance of Adkins’ departure by doing what most competently run businesses would consider to be basic due diligence: they kept a file on appropriate and realistic candidates that would actually fit in with and improve the team.

Perhaps Leicester City have had a panel of candidates lined up for months now, each specifically vetted for their experience, their stylistic preferences, and their football philosophy. However it’s equally likely Leicester, like most football clubs in 2017, regard sacking the manager as a tabula rasa. Their criteria for Ranieri’s successor will be limited to, “Do we know their name?” and the ever crucial element of Premier League experience.

There is, to be fair, yet another possibility—that Leicester City were so bad that the club had no choice to sack Ranieri, even with the risk of making things even worse. Sure, their slump in form might have been bad luck, but how can clubs possibly tell the difference?

It turns out there’s a half-decent method that’s been on the books for some time now, as Bobby Gardiner pointed out on twitter today, if a little simplistically:

One might argue that even if Leicester were underperforming this season, the players couldn’t know this. They may have already lost faith in Ranieri, making it harder for them to bounce back. This may be why, as Chris Anderson notes, football is a game of vicious and not virtuous cycles; losing often begets losing, but winning does not beget winning.

But this is just more reason for clubs to learn and understand the influence of luck on football results, if only to shore up hurt egos and frustrated players; “Hey, you guys don’t suck as much as you think, it’s okay, keep on keepin on.”

All of this is to say that it’s not evil per se to sack a manager, no matter how beloved. But there should, at the very least, be a sound reason and a sensible plan. Without that, any question of the rightness or wrongness of sacking a man as accomplished as Ranieri is utterly moot.

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