“The club has to go in a new way where it is not on short spells, I think now they have to go into a new era of Chelsea where managers have more than one or two years.”
As Guus Hiddink embarked on his second temporary stint in charge of Chelsea at the tail end of 2015, following the termination of Jose Mourinho’s own second spell at the club, he offered a thinly veiled criticism of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s hire and fire policy.
Since Abramovich bought The Blues in the summer of 2003, he has appointed 14 managers, up to and including Frank Lampard, the current incumbent of the Stamford Bridge hotseat.
It is a policy that has been widely derided by an eclectic array of personalities from within the game, who are frequently seen in the tabloids every time a P45 is handed out, spewing vague soundbites about how the recipient deserved more time and didn’t have a chance to mould the team in their own image.
Yet what these critics can’t deny is that it is an approach that has led Chelsea to the greatest and most consistent period of success in their history.
Since the Russian took charge of Chelsea’s affairs, they have won 16 majors trophies, 18 if you include the Community Shield, at a rate of nearly one a season. It is a period that has seen them accrue five of their six league titles, five of their eight FA Cups, three of five League Cups and three of five European Cups, including their only Champions League win.
In short, of their 114 year history, Chelsea have won 75% of their trophies in a 16 year period. Not bad for a club with a supposedly misguided approach.
Two other significant events also occurred during that period though, as Chelsea’s long term rivals, Manchester United and Arsenal, also saw regime changes of a different kind. In 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson bowed out of football management after 27 years in charge of United while, five years later, Arsene Wenger, left Arsenal after 22 years.
Whereas Chelsea have generally reacted to each managerial change positively, only Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas departed the club without at least one major honour, United and Arsenal have floundered since their long term managers left.
In the six seasons before Sir Alex Ferguson retired, United won the league four times and finished second twice, adding two league cups and the Champions League to their haul. In the six seasons since, they’ve finished 7th, 4th, 5th, 6th, 2nd and 6th, adding two domestic cups and the Europa League.
Although Arsenal are currently only in their second Wenger-less season, they are already six points shy of the Champions League places and seem on course for their fourth consecutive season of failing to qualify for Europe’s flagship competition, having finished in the top four in each of the previous 20 consecutive seasons.
Two very different stories are being told here. The first is of a bohemoth, Manchester United, who allowed one man to run, manage and embody every aspect of their club for such a long time that, when he retired on a high having won another league title, it set an impossible benchmark for any successor.
What genuine chance did David Moyes have trying to impose a new methodology on a squad that were entirely conditioned to the whims of his predecessor, especially when Alex Ferguson not only handpicked Moyes but continued to watch on from the stands having ascended to the boardroom after his retirement? What kind of pressure does that create?
With Arsene Wenger, it was a slightly different story, though one that should remain just as cautionary to those tempted to indulge in bouts of long term managerial loyalty.
When Wenger departed north London the rot had well and truly set in. Unable to compete against the might of Manchester United and the new financial powers of Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsenal hadn’t won a league title in 14 seasons and the fans were growing increasingly restless.
Tired of Arsenal not only failing to compete but actively strengthening their rivals by hawking them their best players as they pursued a ‘money first, success later’ approach, the Emirates became an increasingly toxic environment. With the board reluctant to sack a club legend and Wenger, for a while, deep in the grip of denial over his expiry date, the club breathed a sigh of relief when he did eventually depart.
In his replacement, Unai Emery, Arsenal appointed a man who had spectacularly failed in his previous position at PSG although excelled in the role before at Sevilla, where he won three consecutive Europa League titles. Did they give him the job with the Europa League in mind? Probably not but it remained an appointment that fittingly symbolised their descent to the second tier of European football.
Whilst their long term spells may have ended in different ways, both Ferguson and Wenger left their clubs with the same question, after 20+ years of moulding the club in the image of a single, all-powerful leader, where do you turn when that figurehead departs?
In an age when the traditional managerial role is evolving from manager to head coach, when heads of recruitment and sporting directors share the burden of responsibility, there is increasingly less need for a single, dominating figure to rule the club with an iron fist and, as such, they are becoming obsolete.
As the football philosophy of the day shifts from tiki-taka to gegenpressing in the blink of an eye, how can top clubs stick with an individual who possesses just one gameplan when that gameplan becomes obsolete? Just ask Jose Mourinho, not so long ago the most in demand manager in the world but now, increasingly, yesterday’s man.
It isn’t just top tier clubs that have benefitted from the short term approach either. Crystal Palace have repeatedly got themselves out of trouble in recent seasons by changing managers when looking destined for relegation and Watford have also the method to great success, until this season at least.
There are two Premier League clubs who continue to thrive under the long term manager model in Burnley and Bournemouth, neither of whom could have dreamt of achieving Premier League stability before Sean Dyche and Eddie Hower took charge. Unfortunately, based on the examples of Manchester United and Arsenal, the true cost of that success won’t be apparent until their long term managers depart.