“What does he know about the Premier League?” Two decades on from Arsène Wenger’s arrival from Japan it remains a sneer posed as a question whenever an unknown overseas manager comes to England. Paul Merson and Phil Thompson’s visceral reaction to Marco Silva becoming Hull City manager in January was hardly unique.
Lawrie McMenemy had the same response when Mauricio Pochettino took over at Southampton. It barely matters that under Silva’s watch Hull have a fighting chance of staying up or that Pochettino rapidly proved himself far superior to the man he replaced, Nigel Adkins. Many in English football cling to the notion that British is instinctively a safer option.
Perhaps that is understandable but while we assume that a deep knowledge of the English game matters, new research by John Goddard, a professor of financial economics at Bangor University and a world-leading expert in the economics of professional sport, suggests otherwise.
Goddard has a database that records the success, duration and nationality of every managerial appointment from the late 1960s and when I asked him to crunch the numbers from 1992-93 to the end of last season a startling headline figure emerged.
The average league points per game for overseas managers in the Premier League is 1.66 – while for their British and Irish equivalents it is only 1.29. The difference equates to a staggering 14 points over a 38-game season.
The obvious question is whether this is down to managerial talent or merely the higher propensity of the strongest teams in the Premier League – with Champions League experience and ambitions – to appoint foreign managers. It is not easy to untangle one from another and both certainly are important. Interestingly, however, the overseas-manager effect is also seen lower down the leagues. In the Football League the average points per game works out at 1.36 for British and Irish managers since the 1992-93 season, and 1.49 for foreign managers. In other words, a six-point improvement over a 46-game season.
Another thing that is worth stressing is that the preponderance of foreign managers among the top six Premier League clubs is a relatively recent phenomenon – between them Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Spurs were managed by a British or Irish manager for more than half (54.9%) of games from 1992-93 until the end of last season. The success of overseas managers is not purely down to the recent dominance of the Big Six.
In his research, Goddard also examined all the instances in which British and Irish managers were replaced at the same club by a foreigner to see whether that was reflected in improved results. Again the results were intriguing. The average league points per game were 1.42 for the home managers – and 1.58 for their overseas successors. Half of that difference is down to Wenger’s better performance over 20 years than that of his predecessor Bruce Rioch, says Goddard. Even so, there is still a notable gap favouring the successors.
You might think that would lead to overseas managers lasting longer. However, the opposite seems to be the case. Between 1992-93 and 2015-16, there were 1,170 managerial spells by 544 different British and Irish managers in English football, with the average spell lasting 86.3 matches. Over the same period, 115 spells were completed by 80 foreign managers, with the average duration only 58.2 matches.
One potential explanation for this is that English club chairmen tend to set the bar higher for foreign rather than British appointees – and act more quickly and ruthlessly in dispatching a foreign manager whose team are underperforming relative to enhanced expectations.
This is not the first time, incidentally, that Goddard has dispelled popular myths. More than a decade ago his research with Stephen Dobson showed the ‘new-manager bounce’ phenomenon is inaccurate because improvements in form after a sacking tend to be just regression to the mean. Why? Well, dismissals usually follow a poor run of results – but those defeats are often down to random bad luck, injuries and a tough run of fixtures, which tend to even out. And when they do, those frustrating defeats and draws suddenly become wins.
Despite that research, clubs are more trigger-happy than ever. And Blake Wooster, the co-founder of 21st Club – a football consultancy that works with many of Europe’s leading teams – does not expect Goddard’s latest work to change everyone’s views. “Our minds are programmed to make us feel that familiarity with any task is important,” he says, pointing to one club he worked with recently who put experience of English football as one of their red lines in finding a new manager. “Experience feels safe. Yet the data tells us that, at least in football, having previous knowledge of the league is often overvalued. In other words: football is guilty of what we call ‘experience-bias’.”
Of course a manager’s talent, playing style and skill in bringing through young players matter more to most clubs than their nationality. Even so, Goddard’s research is perhaps another reminder of the paucity of talent among the current number of British and Irish managers. And as the eras where Sir Alex Ferguson dominated the Premier League and Terry Venables and Sir Bobby Robson won league titles abroad fade further into history, would it be any surprise if more English clubs looked overseas for their next manager?