Football Managers and Shelf-Lives — Rising Stars, Imperial Phases and Diminishing Returns

Data Beats join forces with Paul Tomkins from the Tomkins Times to examine management achievement in Europe.

Is the notion that managers get a decade at the top true? We thought it was worth further investigation. And while there are always exceptions to any rule (Alex Ferguson’s success at Manchester United spanned more than 20 seasons; Joe Fagan’s at Liverpool was a brief and brilliant flourish), it seems to hold some water.

For the purposes of this study we looked at all of the most successful managers of the past 40 years, focusing purely on football within Europe. We set specific criteria that not everyone will agree with. We focused on the elite of European club football, and that means no inclusion of South American achievements, for which we apologise, but the project needed to be viable. This gave us a list of 38 managers.

The chosen criteria meant the managers had to win at least two major trophies in the last 40 years to be included. The definitions of major trophies (and minor ones) can be seen below.

Major = Champions League, or a League Title in Top 5 League: England, Spain, Germany, Italy and Holland (up to 2008; until then, Holland had clearly been superior to nations like France and Portugal, before Holland fell off the map somewhat). Plus, World Cup and Euro Championships.

Minor = Europa League, FA Cup, League Cup — in the aforementioned leagues — and any of the minor European cups (Europe League, UEFA Cup, Cup-Winners’ Cup, etc). Does not include any Supercup games, World Club, Community Shield, etc, where it is essentially a one or two game showpiece play-off system. If you think these are important, fine. (But they’re not.)

Of course, some hugely influential coaches — such as Marcelo Bielsa, now at Leeds(!) — have won nothing that qualifies them here, but still made an impact.

We can argue all day long about the true value of achievements, as everyone has different budgets, different players (even if they have some of the same players they will be at different ages) and different time constraints.

For example, Bayern Munich winning the Bundesliga as their own wealth grows (and as they raid their rivals), pales compared to when Dortmund won back-to-back titles with Jürgen Klopp, just before Bayern’s “close rival asset-stripping” schemes started.

And how good was Zinedine Zidane when winning European titles with Real Madrid’s mega-squad? Jürgen Klopp taking Liverpool to the final this year, as 40–1 outsiders on a fraction of the budget, is a far greater achievement, relatively speaking. But you also can’t criticise Zidane for continually reaching finals.

For now though, we’ll have to agree that a major trophy remains a major trophy, and not add any caveats (adding financial components isn’t feasible here as we don’t have it!)

From all this data we can see how long it took managers to become successful at an elite level, how long that success lasted, and how it then (usually) tailed off; including all those seasons in the wilderness trying to rebuild a reputation, or in the “retirement home” of international football.


What is an Imperial Phase?

To borrow from popular music, there is a quote from a few years ago where Neil Tennant of the band the Pet Shops Boys described the point in which an artist is regarded at their commercial and creative peak simultaneously as its “imperial phase”*, and this term seems fitting for football managers too.

(* From Wikipedia: “The phrase was coined … to describe the period between the release of their album Please in 1986 to the release of the single Domino Dancing in late 1988. After a sequence of number one singles it only peaked at number 7. Tennant later said: “…it entered the charts at number nine and I thought, ‘that’s that, then — it’s all over’. I knew then that our imperial phase of number one hits was over.”)

To us, the imperial phase in football is simply the greatest clustering of trophies, with priority given to major ones over minor ones. But we haven’t used a fancy algorithm to find that phase, but a combination of data visualisation (“Now You See It” as Stephen Few might say), and our knowledge of the managers careers to define a period we class as the imperial phase. You may not agree with that period. Which is fine. It’s a game of opinions.

So, for example, even though Alex Ferguson’s trophies were spread out fairly evenly from 1993 to 2013, there was a slightly greater cluster from 1993 to 2001 than after that point, which included a few more fallow seasons.

Finally, any manager who wasn’t working at any given time is listed as having “no trophy”, even though they may have been inactive for an extended period (like Kenny Dalglish) and thus unable to win trophies.

This is because — unless voluntary — most managers will be out of work because they are no longer valued, rightly or wrongly. A lot of hitherto highly-rated managers eventually end up at clubs where there is little chance of winning things, but this in itself is in some way reflective of their diminishing powers (or one bad spell, and, like a movie star whose last film tanked, they are avoided like the plague by the big clubs who overlook them)


Imperial Phase and Shelf Life

On average using our data, managers take around 7–8 years to enter their imperial phase, which then lasts another 7–8 years, followed by 11–12 years falling to the periphery, with the occasional burst of brilliance.

The manager with the longest imperial phase according to our analysis is Vincente del Bosque. He bookended his imperial phase by winning La Liga and European Cups with Real Madrid (and then getting harshly sacked) and winning the European Championship and World Cup with Spain. Although the middle period did see failure at Beşiktaş.

The second longest is who had two excellent spells at Juventus which included every single trophy he won — six league titles, a minor cup — and ended with the World Cup triumph with Italy in 2006.

The viz below delves deeper into the managerial careers and is ordered by success as measured by total trophies.

click for interactive viz

If one manager sums up the imperial phase concept it’s clearly Arsene Wenger, he almost invented the term. A build up to a clear phase on top, with a clear long-term decline, punctuated by some minor silverware, resulting in fan disillusionment and resignation.

At the top of this viz is Alex Ferguson with an incredible number of trophies won and a career that finished on a high with a major trophy. His longevity was unique, but he retained consistently strong financial backing (compared to, say, Wenger, and the fallaway in Arsenal’s finances with the new stadium), and in addition to the money, Ferguson’s inspired refreshing of his coaching staff (compared to, say, Wenger) kept him at the top with the input of fresh ideas.

At the other end is of the trophy count is Arrigo Sacchi, but who pioneered the high pressing defensive work that so many managers (including Rafa Benítez , Pep Guardiola’ and Jürgen Klop) have been influenced by. He had four great years at AC Milan, and within four more years had taken Italy to runners-up at the World Cup. So, including a bright two years with Parma, whom he got promoted from Serie C, he essentially had an outstanding decade, even if the first part isn’t listed as an achievement here, as it falls outside our parameters.

His successor at Milan, Fabio Capello, retained Sacchi’s tactics and went on to win four Scudetti in five seasons and the 1993–94 Champions League. And another Sacchi disciple, Spanish coach Rafael Benítez — won the UEFA Cup and La Liga with Valencia, the UEFA Champions League and FA Cup with Liverpool, the FIFA Club World Cup with Internazionale and the UEFA Europa League with Chelsea. Although this is unlikely to continue at Newcastle.

It’s, of course, difficult to ignore Jose Mourinho and Pepe Guardiola. Mourinho is a serial winner, and he’s got a chance to overtake Ferguson in the number of trophies won. But are his best days behind him? We are suggesting it is. Yet he certainly has the resources at his disposal to create a second imperial phase.

Guardiola is eleven years into his imperial phase, and with no sign of stopping just yet. After this years dominate title win by Manchester City, he is certainly the most likely to break the notion that you only get ten years at the top as a manager.

Diminishing returns

According to football journalist James Richardson, “Reheated soup” is an Italian saying for bringing back old managers. But does it work?

Sacchi later failed at Milan upon his return in 1996, they finished 11th in the league. He moved onto Atlético Madrid, but did even worse, finishing 13th. He returned to Parma, and didn’t last long; his last managerial role. Kenny Dalglish did far less well second time around at Liverpool. Howard Kendall had three spells at Everton, each increasingly worse than the one before.

Jose Mourinho won the title in his second spell at Chelsea but also did less well overall than first time around, with a far lower average position, and fewer major trophies per season. Louis van Gaal won two La Liga titles with Barcelona in the late ’90s but then won just 16 of 30 games (hardly disastrous, but not great either) upon returning in 2002 before being sacked.

Giovanni Trapattoni won six Serie A titles and a European Cup with Juventus in between 1976 and 1986, but then won none in a three-year return from 1991 to 1994, after five years at Inter Milan. But weirdly, he failed in a year at Bayern in 1994/95 and then returned in 1996 to win the Bundesliga title, moving up from a dismal 37% win rate first time around to 61% in his later spell.

Leo Beenhakker had no fewer than three returns to old jobs: Ajax, Real Madrid and Holland. He landed a title in both stints with Ajax, but his domination with Real Madrid was not repeated second time around in 1992. Indeed, his imperial phase lasted from 1980 to 1990; after that, just a single Dutch title was won in 19 years of management, while his first 14 years were totally barren.

Rinus Michels — arguably the most influential coach in football history (voted coach of the 20th century) — was another serial returner who, in 32 years, achieved little outside of his nine-year imperial phase. He gave the world “the Ajax way” and the glorious 1974 Holland team, and exported the Dutch style to Barcelona. He won four Eredivisie titles from 1966 to 1971, and a European Cup, before landing the La Liga title with Barca in 1974, the same summer as his trip to the World Cup with his national side. His second spells at Ajax and Barcelona landed nothing but the Copa Del Rey; but in his third spell with Holland he landed the 1988 European Championship — his one and only major honour between 1974 and his retirement in 1992.

(This tendency of diminishing returns is even worse outside the elite, so although he’s not included here, Radomir Antić’s for example in his three spells at Atlético Madrid dipped in terms of win rates from 52% to 29% to 13%. Talk about the law of diminishing returns!)

Perhaps Bayern are an exception on the reappointment of ex-managers, as Ottmar Hitzfeld had one successful season back there after four Bundesliga titles and the European Cup in his imperial phase, which started with two Bundesliga titles and the European Cup in his time with Dortmund.

And Jupp Heynckes is probably the ultimate re-heater, back again at Bayern and winning the double before retiring one final time.


Instant Success, Rising Stars, Imperial Phases and Diminishing Returns

The viz throws up (roughly) four types of managers: a few have instant great success (Joe Fagan), there are those slow-burning managers (Ottmar Hitzfeld — 300 league games as a manager in Switzerland before success in one of the major leagues); those that are intermittent-burning managers who dip in and out of great success (Jupp Heynckes); and many who burn brightly and then become largely burnt-out managers (Arsene Wenger, whose career — with a decade of relative stagnation — is almost identical to Brian Clough’s reign with Nottingham Forest)


The Best Managerial Imperial Phase?

Guardiola? Maybe. An amazing record, but a few years of relative failure. So for us it’s clearly Bob Paisley at Liverpool. He had a disappointing first season, but then won one of the two biggest trophies in each of the next eight years in a nine-year spell as boss — an unparalleled achievement, with not a single season between 1975 and 1983 where he didn’t win either the league or the European Cup.

We’ll never know if he could have gone on longer, or if the magic touch would have faded; but we’d argue that no other manager in the history of football has come in, done what he did, and then got out, before the standards slipped even 1%.


A much longer, more Liverpool focused article, is available here from the Tomkins Times. Note: that it is a pay wall site.


More on the Methodology.

We overlooked some great managerial achievements lower down the ladder, but those are all relative achievements; such as gaining promotions for clubs or taking a club on a low budget to 3rd in the table. To be on this list of 38 managers, managers have to be the elite, and that means winning two major trophies.

Anyone working in a lower league or a division that is not England, Spain, Germany, Italy and Holland, has no data listed; so Arsene Wenger’s trophies in France don’t count in this particular study, just as Sven Goran Eriksson’s in Sweden or Portugal don’t count — but any European trophies with those clubs are included.

(Note: for the purposes of this piece We’ve just used the end of the season date, so 1992/93 is 1993, and so on.)

Data was checked from a variety of sources, but mainly Wikipedia.

The data was manually collected on a spreadsheet and Rob used Easymorph to shape the data, mainly to unpivot and join the data, and then Tableau to visualise the data.