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Stop sacking managers

Photo: Aleksandr Osipov

Photo: Aleksandr Osipov

Sacking managers is expensive – just ask the folks over at Manchester United, who have reportedly paid at least £12 million to be rid of José Mourinho. Now that the dust has cleared a bit, I want to make a somewhat unpopular point: sacking Mourinho was a mistake. Here’s why.

Hiring a top manager in soccer is never easy for a big club. Once the executives think they know the person they want, they lose all their bargaining power. That’s because a top manager usually doesn’t mind too much where he coaches.

Mourinho has been happy in Portugal, Italy, Spain, England… next he could go to France, Germany, Russia, China, or even the United States if the money were right. He always has lots of options, and options equal bargaining power. By contrast, after a laborious internal selection process, how many candidates do you think were on Manchester United’s short list when Mourinho got the job? I’m guessing it was a number between zero and two.

So to get their preferred candidate, big clubs typically end up offering a huge salary across a multi-year deal. On one hand, this greatly increases the likelihood that the clubs will have to pay their managers a severance fee. On the other, the long contract will entitle the club to compensation if the manager wants to leave. But who’s going to leave Manchester United voluntarily? Where would they go?

These long contracts sure seem like a raw deal for the big clubs – just another symptom of how they’re getting gouged. To fight this problem, they could negotiate with several managerial candidates at once when seeking a new boss. But there’s another way to improve the situation: don’t fire the manager so easily.

Let’s recall why managers get sacked these days. Sometimes it’s for a run of poor form in the table (which can mask better underlying performances – just ask Frank de Boer). But increasingly, it’s because a manager has “lost the dressing room” or is taking a battering in the media. Players now feel that if they don’t get along with a manager or dislike his style of play, they can get him fired. And some journalists may be starting to think the same way.

For club executives, this is a dangerous situation. In the journalists’ case, people with no stake in the club’s success are trying to impose their agenda. In the players’ case – even worse – employees of the club are actively and often publicly working to eliminate a fellow member of staff at a huge financial cost to the organization. This would not be tolerated in most companies.

The only way to stave off these threats is to stick with the coach. Ride it out. Let the players and journalists see how much influence they really have, then see if their behavior changes. Don’t come out with statements saying that the board backs the manager – in fact, don’t comment on the manager at all. Just leave the manager in the job. It may be painful, especially if the squad’s form dips further. But sometimes a little pain is necessary.

This is what game theorists call signaling. By its actions, the club is sending a message to the other actors involved in the situation. And the more painful it is to send the message, the more the other actors will have to take notice. It’s a way to demonstrate commitment and the strength of the club’s belief in the message. It’s saying, “Yeah, we’ll endure the quarreling and poor results until the players realize that it’s the manager’s club and go back to focusing on their work.”

Yet some clubs end up sending the opposite signal. Mourinho was fired after a match in which he benched Paul Pogba, the club’s larger-than-life and apparently unhappy midfielder. The manager was undoubtedly trying to send a message about who was in charge – that he would not tolerate challenges to his authority. Now that Mourinho’s gone, how much authority do you think the next permanent manager will have at Manchester United?

Mourinho isn’t an ideal example for my argument, because his execrable actions during his second stint at Chelsea should have disqualified him from any job until he made sufficiently contrite and genuine restitution. Having hired Mourinho despite his actions at Chelsea, Manchester United’s executives would have known that they’d secured one of a small group of elite coaches in the world. He had already won two trophies for the Red Devils, and few would have bet against more arriving had his tenure continued.

By sacking him, the club may have elicited sage nods from short-sighted journalists and high-fives from self-serving players. But the long-term cost to the club may be much more than a measly £12 million.