March 16, 2016

LINSEY | Rafa Benitez and the Midseason Manager Swap

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Liverpool F.C. famously came back from three goals down to win the 2005 Champions League in Istanbul. Other players from that team, such as Steven Gerrard, are more memorable, but Rafa Benitez was the man who orchestrated the historic Liverpool team of that era as the manager. The legendary manager has also coached Valencia, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli and Real Madrid. However, the transition periods between his times at these clubs were not smooth. He often was fired mid-season and picked up another job a few months later. Mid-season coach firing has negative effects on teams and players, and it should be curtailed.

In the most recent case, Benitez was going through a series of tough results at Real Madrid. The club’s owner, Florentino Perez, is known to have little patience with managers and decided to let Benitez go in the winter after only hiring him the previous summer. After a few months out of work, English club Newcastle United recently hired Benitez to try to save them from relegation. This type of mid-season coach transaction is seemingly increasing in frequency.

Managers can be fired for two main reasons: on-field performance or a disagreement with the ownership. Firing managers for off-field scandals or disagreements is a completely logical reason to sack a coach. Yet, clubs should resist the urge to fire their coach at any random point in the season when the team is struggling. Because coaches can be hired or fired at any time, the available coaches fluctuate in terms of skill; if a coach is fired, sometimes there are no better replacements available. Oftentimes, new coaches struggle to fix the problem or the team fails to adapt to an entirely new coaching staff. A third reason for clubs to hold on to a low-performing coach is to at least keep the club stable; firing many coaches in a short period of time leads to instability for the players, which brings worse long-term results than the short-term negative effect of retaining a struggling coach.

To fix this problem, I suggest copying the mid-season player transfer window. This is the idea that there is one month (January) during the season in which players can be signed from other teams, both domestic and foreign. In other months, teams must refrain from making signings. This system could be applied to managers. Clubs could hire or fire managers during January or the summer months but would be required to hold onto their manager (barring misconduct or another extreme reason) during the season. This would have a number of benefits for clubs and leagues.

This “manager-change window” would allow for mid-season manager changes to be managed. It would prevent constant media speculation about the future of managers. It would standardize the manager market; teams wishing to fire their manager would likely do so at the beginning of the month. Then, all teams could see the available candidates, interview those of their choice and make a hire towards the end of the month. This change would have the most positive effect on club stability. It would reduce instability caused by concern over the manager’s job security. A manager could be clearly associated with a club for a set period of time, which placates sponsors and fans.

While I have made this change sound 100 percent positive, unfortunately it will probably never be implemented. Those holding power in soccer are those with the money; that is, the club boardrooms. They would never agree to give up their power to hire and fire managers as they wish. An idea such as this would have to go through FIFA. Yet, I would argue that it is an issue that should be examined by FIFA. Rapid hiring and firing of managers such as Benitez is harmful to clubs.