Man Utd’s dilemma; short incumbencies and high expectations

TSN sportcaster and soccer commentator Kristian Jack is fond of reminding us that football managers of overly praised when things are going well and overly critized when things aren’t. Managers — for all their brilliance in shaping, galvanizing and organizing a squad— are, at the end of the day, a presence on the sidelines. Manchester United’s former manager, Louis Van Gaal, was against-the-grain when claiming that his contribution to the team was largely made and felt before the start of the match. And that, once the whistle blew, the game lied almost exclusively in player’s hands. This, I believe, is the most honest and closest-to-the-truth case for most football clubs. For 90 minutes, 22 players tackle and dribble while two onlooking managers exercise their considerable, yet limited, impact on the game. They may bask in all the glory or scrutiny, but they are rarely solely deserving of either.

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, cites various studies to make the case that CEOs, as company leaders, have dubious (if not tenuous) effects on comapny performance. One of these studies, by Texas A&M, concluded that most of the performance attributed to CEOs could actually be due to “chance events”: unexpected happenings bearing both positive or negative consequences. The head researcher of this study, Professor Fitza comments: “For example, a scandal at a major competitor can help a firm, while an accident at an important supplier can have negative consequences. Over a long enough time period such effects tend to cancel out (a phenomenon called ‘regression to the mean’), thus it is unlikely that a firm is consistently high performing just because of chance events." However, the average tenure of today’s CEO is only four years, leaving one’s tenure largely at the mercy of those “chance events”. The average incumbency is too short to allow for a clear regression to the mean, for the true abitilities of a CEO to become discernible and unambiguous. Which brings us back to soccer; the average tenure of managers in England Premier League is but 1.23 years. I repeat, 1.23 years. If four years isn’t enough to adequately judge the performance of business leaders, what chances does an average soccer manager have in being justly evaluated?

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For Manchester United, since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, three different managers have been at the helm of the club in a span of five years. Accustomed to Sir Alex’s legendary leadership in shepherding winning teams, another manager was brought in and expected to deliver the same quality performances in a short amount of time. If they didn’t deliver, they were out. Case in point, David Moyes lasted a year — regardless of actual qualifications, that is a quite small sample size to generalize from. The subsequent manager, Louis Van Gaal, lasted only two years. Manchester United, in short, embodies a big dilemma for soccer clubs: high expectations with short time frames. Short-term goals and evalutions, with little opportunity to discern a a regression to the mean.