Are manager changes a deceptive gamble?

What is now an annual rite of passage as the money associated with Premier League membership has exploded, four struggling clubs have recently sacked their managers in the hope of turning around seasons that are arrowing toward relegation.

Crystal Palace did away with manager Alan Pardew, Bob Bradley, who got the axe at Swansea, Mike Phelan relieved of duties at Hull, and most recently, Claudio Ranieri, who was sacked after taking Leicester from Champions towards the Championship.

Palace are currently sitting in 18th place – the first of two of these teams in the dreaded drop zone – (the other being Hull), while Swansea and Leicester are two points and a couple of places above that, clinging tenuously to safety.

While you can explain away these situations in a vacuum – Bradley being a panic hire after the departure of Guidolin, while Phelan always looked underexperienced for this role, especially with a squad bereft of PL talent – the overall thought of canning a manager in order to avoid relegation seems fairly misguided.

If you explore the phenomenon of “new manager syndrome” you will basically find no statistical significance to a mid season managerial change when it comes to a team’s subsequent performance. Any short-term gains (say, the first five matches after the change) were a product of regression to the mean, often with lighter fixtures helping a team perform closer to its true longer-term level.

That doesn’t stop a good number of clubs from trying to change their fortunes midseason, though, and with so much money at stake and it being so difficult to get back up from the Championship if you do get relegated, it’s hard to blame them. That said, recent evidence backs research conclusions.

Lets take three Premier League seasons (2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14). There have been 13 clubs that were in reasonable danger of relegation when they decided to make a managerial change (Fulham actually did so twice).

Of those 13, six ended up being relegated anyway, and only one club – Crystal Palace – really showed significant performance improvement, although Sunderland’s stretch run was very impressive.

Most of the survivors really were more beneficiaries of other clubs being worse than they were than any real salvage job having been done on their own. In the 2013/14 season, four strugglers survived after making a change, principally because only three teams can go down at once.


(seven changes; three relegated)


Paolo Di Canio▶Gus Poyet

An unexpected late surge took them from last place to safety.

Crystal Palace

Ian Holloway▶Tony Pulis

Went from last place when Holloway was fired to very safe, as Pulis had Palace playing at European qualification form.


Martin Jol▶Rene Meulensteen

The Cottagers looked better, but results didn’t really improve, and Meulensteen was then fired.

West Brom

Steve Clarke▶Pepe Mel

They scraped their way to safety thanks to a huge number of draws, and then Mel left.

Cardiff City

Malky Mackay▶Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Form never really improved and they were relegated.

Swansea City

Michael Laudrup▶Garry Monk

They stayed above the muck, which was the only consolation for a disappointing season.

Fulham (again)

Rene Meulensteen▶Felix Magath

A panicky move to an established “fireman” didn’t pay off, and the Cottagers were relegated.

Norwich City

Chris Hughton▶Neil Adams

Hughton was fired with five matches remaining, but Adams only earned one point from the final five matches and the Canaries were relegated.


(three changes; two relegated)


Mark Hughes▶Harry Redknapp

Hughes was canned with just four points from 11 matches. Redknapp didn’t do a lot better and QPR were relegated.


Brian McDermott▶Nigel Adkins

Reading were tied for last at the time of the firing and went on to be relegated.


Martin O’Neill▶Paolo Di Canio

The eccentric Di Canio kept the Black Cats in the Premier League … before getting fired early the next season.


(three changes; one relegated)


Steve Bruce▶Martin O’Neill

The Black Cats were two points above the drop when Bruce was fired, and finished in 13th place.


Neil Warnock▶Mark Hughes

Hughes took over when the club were a point above the relegation zone, and QPR survived relegation on the final day of the season thanks to results elsewhere.


Mick McCarthy▶Terry Connor

Wolves were in the bottom three when they changed managers, and Connor couldn’t salvage anything. They were relegated.

So what should we expect the rest of the season for Boro (who were forecast for 17th on boroform coefficients prior to the season).

Through 26 games, Boro and Sunderland have the least threatening attacks in the league. They rank 1-2 in fewest shots attempted this season. Hull are also one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to Shot ratio (the proportion of your shots attempted vs. your cumulative opponents’ chances); Burnley are fourth.

Overall, all the teams’ (excl. Burnley) expected goal ratios adjusted for fixtures place them very squarely in the relegation mix.

Some of these these managerial moves were made in advance of the January transfer window, so new managers had a chance to shop for reinforcements, but between misfires and overpaying for players, and with owners desperate enough to make a midseason move, they may have had the ability to make transfers that will actually end up being harmful in the longer run.

That’s the risk clubs are willing to take these days, though. The massive TV money (and prestige) associated with being in the world’s most lucrative league is too tempting a siren to ignore. What is being ignored, though, is the data that suggests that making a move like this really doesn’t help at all. We’ll see what happens at Hull and Palace, and given the number of strugglers again this season, we cant expect those four clubs to be the last ones to take this deceptive roll of the dice.


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