Across the pond from Germany, Manchester United and Chelsea prepare for the Consolation Cup, i.e., the FA Cup Final this weekend. Both clubs are looking for a positive way to end what for both was a moderately disappointing season. However, an additional subplot is the fate of manager Antonio Conte, whose time at Chelsea seems to be coming to an end.
In this column we have talked about the absurdly short tenure of the average manager in a top flight league; depending on the league eighteen months is a generous average. Chelsea, as many know, sit on the end of the bell curve. “Win now” may as well be Chelsea’s creed, for as soon as they hit a bad spell and the manager complains, it is time for him to clean out the office.
In this vein, Conte faced the media Friday to discuss tactics but more importantly to the press his fate after the match. It is widely speculated he will be sacked after the match unless he wins the club’s eighth FA Cup. When asked about his he pushed back against this theory.
“There are people to judge your work,” he told the press, “but it doesn’t depend upon lifting a trophy or winning a league.”
He went on to point out that sometimes a manager is sacked even after winning a trophy, so one match is meaningless to determine a manager’s fate even if it is a final.
Factually his argument is correct. In fact, one need only look across the pitch to see the man who Manchester United hired to replace Louis van Gaal immediately after he won the FA Cup. Many BVB fans are pining for Thomas Tuchel who left after a great on-the-pitch achievement. Football is a cruel game to the men on the touchline and all winning is not the same. Sometimes a cup victory is nice, but when your club is expected to win the bigger, better cup, one match can unfortunately determine your fate.
Is this fair though? If we take the scenario that there are times when a manager’s fate with a club is determined by a final match, say a cup final or league-clinching match, is it fair to judge him or her based on this one result? This is particularly relevant with a World Cup upon us, where many managers’ fates or reputations are based on the outcome of a match.
We have to acknowledge how foolish it is for anyone to make a definitive judgment on one match, although the temptation is there. We tend to think of football as a game of Stratego or Risk, where two men (or women) position their players a certain way, make adjustments throughout, and the smarter strategy (and hence manager) wins. But as books like Why England Lose and others point out repeated, there is much luck in football that sometimes overrides strategy. A shot on goal goes just wide after skimming the post when on another, drier day is accelerates enough to stay inside the post. One referee decides to enforce the rules tighter than another, leading to a red card an an entirely different strategy. In a sport where only one score is common, a lucky break or bad break can make the difference, sometimes regardless of strategy.
So should managers be sacked because of one match? No, but often that one match may be an excuse for a larger issues between club management and the manager. That’s why Tuchel was sacked after maybe his most impressive victory as a manager and why Conte could lift a trophy but clean out his office the next day.