How Arteta made Arsenal successful
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By Tony Attwood
For football journalists and their media employers, “crisis” is the key word. “Crisis” means its all gone wrong, someone is going to get the sack, and someone else will arrive. In short the journalists have a story without doing any work.
Of course they do come up with articles, such as the Telegraph asking, “So which role would be more appealing to Europe’s most sought-after managers?” in comparing the job at Tottenham and the job at Chelsea.
But such headlines ignore the oddity of the Premier League. In its first season there was only one managerial change. This season 13 managers have gone already, and there are still 10 games left to go.
In fact these days when we do a list of managers it is hard to differentiate between caretakers and permanent managers because some caretakers get a permanent post while some permanent managers move out faster than the caretakers. But in adding the numbers across the whole of the Premier League’s history we find Chelsea have had 26 managers. Tottenham are on 25. Arsenal are on manager number nine. In all 50 clubs have played in the Premier League and they have had between them 280 managers.
Despite this clubs still often give quite long contracts to managers. Graham Potter at Chelsea for example had a contract lasting to 2030.
It is a measure of the failure of this policy of changing managers that only six clubs have been ever-present in the Premier League since it began in 1992, and of those founders only Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool look at all stable in terms of the management.
So why do clubs keep on sacking their managers?
Fortunately, there has been a very detailed academic analysis of managerial changes in the Premier League over a number of years which removes all sorts of odd situations and aberrant behaviour, to try and work out if changing the manager improves a club.
In their paper, the authors investigated the effectiveness of in-season manager replacements, across 15 Premier League seasons. They found that the effect of the change overall was “no difference”.
And even where the change brought success it related to “specific and highly unpredictable circumstances.”
The problem, they found, was that “performance after a managerial change is often better than before,” leading to a perception that the change was successful, when in fact if it was better, it was better by chance, and the improvement didn’t last.
So why do club owners keep changing their managers? The answer, the report argues, is so that the manager gets the blame for disappointing results, not the owner. Sacked managers are by and large scapegoats, that’s all. It’s the owners who really should be blamed.
Plus the fact that “many qualified managers are available, who are all willing to work in the EPL. This makes it rather easy for clubs to find a suitable replacement.”
In their conclusion the authors of the work state that they have found that performances develop irrespective of the manager in charge, which is in line with the doubts expressed by other researchers as to the actual influence of football managers. Thus they conclude that “extremely high salaries reflect the compensation for job uncertainty rather than the compensation for superior quality.”
However, interesting though that finding is, this examination does not consider the effectiveness of certain managers. It pains me to say it but Alex Ferguson was a successful manager. So was Arsene Wenger, certainly until the club moved to the new stadium and took on a huge debt – but even so he kept the club in the top four for longer than any other European club except Real Madrid and won the FA Cup a record number of times.
And it would appear that Mikel Arteta is a successful manager. And here’s the point: in September 2021 the media was awash with headlines such as “Two big names mentioned as Arsenal told to sack Arteta …” Indeed Mikel’s demise was predicted day by day by football journalists who it turned out had no idea what was going on (which really was no surprise).
So what’s the difference? Why did Arsenal keep Arteta while other clubs kicked out their managers? I think the data shows that it is because many of the managers are actually stumbling around without much of a plan. Arteta’s plan, as I’ve said so often, was radical, brave, and ultimately effective. It was to take the games away from the referees by changing the way the defence played. That meant buying in a new defence who could play in the low-tackle mode which is how Manchester City play. The club owners bought into that and Arteta delivered.
For those clubs that meander around sacking managers hither and thither, I suspect the reason is the manager either doesn’t have any sort of plan at all, or he has a plan that is vague or unworkable Either way the truth is not revealed by the media, because the football journalists are either too lazy or too stupid to work it out.
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