by Rory Smith
The Premier League season was only a few weeks old when, in the middle of a quiet Saturday evening, Watford revealed that it had fired its manager, Javi Gracia. He would be replaced, the club said, by his countryman Quique Sánchez Flores, who had himself been fired by Watford three years earlier.
This was, in the eyes of most observers, the madness of modern men’s soccer boiled down to its very essence. Gracia had, only a few months earlier, led Watford to the FA Cup final. He had, it was broadly agreed, done a reasonable job at one of England’s top-flight makeweights. Watford — owned by Italy’s Pozzo family, and operated according to a model in which the manager is just an employee, not some sort of all-powerful medieval potentate — stood accused of short-termism, shortsightedness, and doing things in a conspicuously foreign way.
Watford fans were quick to point out the flaw in the argument: the team had, in fact, been drifting for almost a year. It was not just that recent results had been poor, but that they had been a continuation of a slump that started months ago. Some supporters found the decision painful, some less so; some thought it was correct, and some did not. Few, though, thought it was inexplicable.
The Premier League does not do short-termism quite the way it used to: Gracia remains the only manager to have been sacked so far this season. Given that we are almost a third of the way through the season, and have endured two international breaks — traditionally the best time to make a change — that is significant.
And so, too, is the fact that last year was not an especially uncertain one for Premier League managers. Ordinarily, these things run in cycles: a year of widespread change tends to be followed by a period of stability, as the new recruits are given a chance to breathe.
Last season, though, was relatively calm: eight teams changed their manager, though two of those were resignations (Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United) and one, Maurizio Sarri’s departure from Chelsea, was mutual. In the last 12 months, only Manchester United, Leicester, Southampton, Watford and Brighton have fired a manager; Fulham fired two, and was relegated for its trouble.
The Premier League seems, at long last, to have learned patience. Managers still face times of strife — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United, Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, Everton’s Marco Silva and, now, Arsenal’s Unai Emery — but it is telling that all have survived. When Southampton lost by nine goals at home to Leicester last weekend, the first thing the club did was tell its players and staff that Ralph Hassenhuttl, the team’s Austrian coach, was safe.
This is, broadly, a good thing. Constantly changing managers does not work. The clubs that thrive are the ones with a clear vision and consistency in their methods. Often, a poor run of form will rectify itself — regressing to the mean, people cleverer than me call it — without the intervention of the HR department.
But I do wonder if there is an element, here, of one thing that soccer will never free itself from: faddism. Standing by your manager is now considered best practice, proof of the all-important long-term vision, the overarching philosophy, that no self-respecting club executive would operate without. Loyalty is a valuable trait. Blind loyalty is a perilous one.