Interim managers part one: Premier League clubs should follow Real Madrid and Watford’s example

Photo by Кирилл Венедиктов, via Wikimedia Commons

Real Madrid’s managerial mess

When Zinedine Zidane announced his resignation from his position as manager of Real Madrid, he set in motion what would be the most high-profile managerial shambles of this year.

Each of the big names that was touted as Zidane’s replacement were not available. Madrid’s top target, Mauricio Pochettino, was not interested in the position. Madrid began to scramble. In a knee-jerk decision, they appointed the Spain manager, Julien Lopetegui.

The announcement was highly surprising; Lopetegui’s Spain were due to kick off their World Cup campaign in merely three days. Lopetegui was already in Russia and had given no indication that he would be leaving after the World Cup. What’s more, he had been doing a decent job with the national team, but was hardly experienced with top club level management.

The ramifications were disastrous for both club and country. Lopetegui was relieved of his position with the national team almost immediately, preventing him from working at the World Cup. An underwhelming Spanish campaign ended in a penalty shootout against Russia, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, in the round of 16.

Real Madrid fared worse; Lopetegui didn’t survive the end of October. By the time of his firing, Madrid, the world’s most decorated club, were languishing in ninth in La Liga. They had gone eight hours of game time without scoring, just 12 minutes less than their worst-ever drought. A 5-1 loss to Barcelona drove the last nail into Lopetegui’s coffin.

And so, at the end of October, Real Madrid were back where they started — with no manager and no available replacement to match the stature of the club. As they searched for Lopetegui’s successor, in stepped their B team manager, Santiago Solari. Although his stint in charge was supposedly temporary, he immediately stabilised the team and led them to four consecutive victories.

Law in Spain states that a team cannot have an interim manager for more than two weeks. Two week’s into Solari’s reign, Real Madrid were no closer to finding a replacement. How could Real Madrid justify not hiring him? He had won each of the games he had managed. And so, Solari, a man with no first-team managerial experience had somehow landed arguably the top job in football.

Since then, his success has continued. Real Madrid have won eight of his nine games in charge. They have qualified for the latter stages of the Champions League and are five points behind league leaders Barcelona. Slowly, they are bouncing back. A football manager can never feel comfortable, especially when working for Real Madrid, but the early signs look good for Solari, a man in the right place at the right time.

Interim Managers and the Premier League:

Those who watch solely the Premier League will be unfamiliar with the two-week rule that gave Solari the permanent job. There is nothing like it in England. Instead, in almost every season a Premier League manager will be abruptly sacked after a bad run of form and replaced by an interim manager, usually from within the club, who will last weeks or months longer than initially planned.

Sometimes, if the interim manager inspires good results or the club is unable to find a replacement, he is given the job on a permanent basis. But still, these managers have never lasted for long. 

Perhaps it makes sense that interim managers rarely succeed. The reason they are only given the job on a temporary basis in the first place is that they are under-qualified.  It’s pure logic. Surely then, a two-week rule such as the one in Spain would be beneficial to Premier League clubs?

The Watford model – a solution?

A look at Watford’s recent history provides evidence for this. No Premier League team has a higher managerial turnover than Watford — they have burned through four different managers in three and a half years in the top flight. However, they will sack a manager only once they have a replacement ready.

Marco Silva, for example, was announced as Watford’s new manager only 6 days after Walter Mazzari left the job. When Silva was sacked, Javi Gracia was confirmed as his replacement within hours. Watford may be ruthless with their managers, but at least they are prepared.

And what’s more, it has worked for them. They are now in their fourth season in the Premier League and are in no danger of relegation, sitting 11 points above the drop zone.

Southampton took a similar initiative this week when they finally sacked Mark Hughes and announced Ralph Hassenhutti two days later. They had clearly waited until they had found a suitable replacement before giving Hughes the boot.

Given how interim managers have suffered in the past, it feels surprising that implementing measures to force clubs to give managers permanent contracts is rarely talked about.

Firstly, it would stop the hasty sackings that have made it nearly impossible to keep a Premier League job. Currently, the longest-serving manager to have worked solely in the Premier League is Pochettino, who has been Tottenham boss for four and a half years. Right now, half of the current Premier League managers have been in their job for two years or less. As the season wears on, that number is likely to grow.

Secondly, interim managers are clearly not working. They deny a club any sense of continuity. It not only hurts the club, but also hurts the interim managers whose first venture into football management consistently ends in failure.

Clubs should not necessarily follow Watford’s business model of regularly hiring and firing coaches, but they should take heed of how effective having a replacement ready before firing a manager has been for them. It gives managers more time to turn their fortunes around and if they cannot, it ensures that a qualified replacement takes his place.

Maybe then, clubs will stop wasting everyone’s time on interim managers.

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