The Art of Replacing A Manager

Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho’s recent clashes have been interesting to say the least. Accusations. Lies. Jokes. Accusations again. Except this time, Benitez’s wife started the mess. Regardless, they have brought us to discuss an intriguing topic: managerial takeovers. Not all managerial takeovers, but the high profile ones at big clubs. Where the stakes are high. Where “cleaning up messes” from the previous coaching administration is no easy job.

The modern game is filled with different classes of managers. Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti are regarded as the top managers in the game due to their exploits in the Champions League (and a bunch of other silverware, of course). Diego Simeone, Manuel Pellegrini, Jurgen Klopp, Louis Van Gaal and a handful of others fall a notch below, but still qualify as world class managers. Below them? There are relegation prevention specialists like Felix Magath. ‘No tactics’ lovers like Tim Sherwood. Then every once in a while, a certain Luis Enrique turns up and wins a treble with FC Barcelona. Now, who would have predicted that?

The Art of Replacing A Manager

All good managers brand their own style on a team. Even a player’s manager like Carlo Ancelotti is no fool; he stamps his mark on his sides, but takes more time to do so, allowing the players to transition smoothly into the system. Radical changes don’t always work.

When a manager leaves a club, and is replaced by another manager, different issues crop up. Philosophical changes, motivational problems, transfer policies etc. A change in vision is inevitable. Coupled with it are the aforementioned side effects. Replacing one manager could be easier than replacing another.

It all boils down to a few things:

  • How good was the previous manager? Was he a master of micro-management? Did he have a special connection with the players?
  • How good is the current manager who replaced him? Unless there was a fallout in the dressing room, can he win over the players? Does he bring in new ideas that can improve results? Will he win over the players?
  • How large is the difference between your past and present managers? Are you replacing a possession lover with a manager who only parks the bus? Are you bringing in a manager who always prepares for defeat for one who had a strong winning mentality?
  • What legacy did your past manager leave behind? This is on the lines of the previous point, but deserves a mention. Will the new manager solve any issues or continue the success of the previous manager? Or was the predecessor’s legacy too large to live up to?

With those factors in mind, lets examine some high profile replacements.

David Moyes Succeeds Sir Alex Ferguson 

Who? What? Answered in the title

When? Announced on 9th May 2013

Why? Moyes was seen to have a knack for building teams, and had the advantage of being a Scot of similar background to Ferguson. Stability with long-term planning was desired, and the United administration (and Ferguson) believed that Moyes was fit for the job.

How? Moyes’ Everton contract was set to expire at the end of the 2012-13 season. United signed him on a 6 year contract.


In hindsight, it seemed to be a little too obvious. A like for like replacement. Scottish blood for Scottish blood. Longevity for longevity. Ferguson himself recommended Moyes to be his successor, what could go wrong?

Everything went wrong.

Transfer Market- Moyes and Ed Woodward (new chief executive) were unable to accomplish much transfer business, with Wilfried Zaha (signed by Alex Ferguson) and Marouane Fellaini (played under Moyes at Everton) being the only signings of the summer. Zaha endured an unconvincing debut season while Fellaini was bought for 7 million pounds more than expected because of United’s delays in their approach.


Everything that had to go wrong went wrong

Preseason- Accusations of Moyes’ overtraining methods and a genuine lack of trust emanated from the United training bases. Robin Van Persie was injured. Wayne Rooney was unsettled by Chelsea’s interest. 3 defeats in 7 preseason games against relatively low-key opposition, Sevilla aside, spoke for themselves.

Premier League- After victories in the Community Shield and against Swansea in the league opener, things looked promising. Temporarily. United drew blanks twice against Chelsea and Liverpool, then embarked on a run of inconsistency. A heavy 4-1 thumping at the Etihad as well as a home loss to West Brom was complemented by a victory over Arsenal. Back to back wins at home? Preceded by back defeats at home. To Everton and Newcastle. Despite the signing of Juan Mata; defeats to Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Everton and co meant that Moyes was fired on 22nd April, with 4 games left to play.

Cup Competitions- The FA cup saw United lose to Swansea City in their first real test of the competition. A more respectable League cup followed, but United lost to Sunderland on penalties in the semi-finals. Europe was a minor source of redemption as United bowed out in the quarterfinals after a defeat to defending champions Bayern Munich.

Replacing a man of Sir Alex Ferguson’s caliber is difficult in more ways than one. The media hype surrounding Moyes’ smallest decisions didn’t help him. Nor did his attempts to live up to the media’s expectations. Sporting decisions were questionable. Tactics on the pitch too, like churning 50 crosses through in a game.


The 2-0 defeat to Everton sealed his fate

Many pointed to United’s decaying squad and poor transfer business. But the reality was more than just that. A decaying squad in Moyes’ hands is a title winning squad in Ferguson’s. Ultimately, Moyes was unable to motivate his players in the same way as Ferguson did.

A roller-coaster preseason, coupled with poor transfer business brought about a poor start to the season. Then Moyes succumbed to media pressure, got his tactics wrong and was unable to steady the ship. A poor start affected the entire season.

While Moyes was similar to Ferguson in many ways, he fell terribly short in the psychological aspect of management. As the Scot grew increasingly insecure, his team flattered to decieve. Moyes’ problem was fundamental. He was too absorbed in his predecessor’s legacy, trying too hard to be the ideal manager in the eyes of the media and neglecting his own common sense as a result. Which resulted in his failure.

This is an example where the quality of the predecessor engulfed the quality of the successor. But Ferguson was unique. The circumstances of this managerial takeover gave us an understandable but rare result. The closest thing to a similar takeover would be if and when Arsene Wenger leaves Arsenal. In the next decade, perhaps?

If there was one man Ferguson believed to be superior to himself, it was (and still is, mind you) Jose Mourinho. The Portugese tactician’s nomadic tendencies give us more information to work with.

Jose Mourinho and the Scorched Earth Policy

The ‘Scorched Earth’ policy. Not the prettiest name. But an adept one, it describes the Special One’s impact on a club he leaves very well.

Where do we begin? When Jose Mourinho joins a club, player turnover takes a prominent role. The Portugese demands very specific types of players. Players who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause, follow Mourinho’s instructions, fight for victories, stay defensively resilient and still produce flair and creativity when necessary. A rare breed.

Usually it takes more than a single summer to overhaul a team into Mourinho’s image. Which is why his second season is usually his best one. That is when hunger, passion, vision and football combine. For great results. Mourinho won his treble with Inter, semi-treble with Porto and league title with Real Madrid in his second season.

Mourinho’s players are known to have extreme loyalty towards him. Including some he never recruited. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a prominent example. This loyalty, and motivation, enable him to motivate players in a way like none other.

In essence, Mourinho’s best seasons are times when his group of loyal players go to their physical (and mental) limits, perfectly follow his game plan, and succeed. That is usually when Mourinho chooses to leave. That is precisely when his scorched earth policy kicks in.

The Scorched Earth policy is nothing more than a name for Mourinho’s tendency to leave clubs on their knees, when they need him but he no longer wishes to continue. For various reasons.

At Porto the season following Jose’s exit wasn’t a disaster, but they failed to win the league. At Chelsea his team reached the Champions League final that season, but Carlo Ancelotti was the only manager who won a league title between the Portugese’s stints.

Inter Milan had the worst withdrawal symptoms. After winning the treble and going through a World Cup, the players were understandably tired. Physically depleted rather.

Mentally, they still missed Mourinho. Rafael Benitez inherited a fatigued squad that required motivation that he couldn’t provide. Benitez attempted to steady the ship- he continued with a 4-2-3-1 with the motto of ‘not changing anything’. As Mourinho termed it, in 6 months Benitez destroyed the best team in Europe. Whether it was entirely the Spaniard’s undoing is another question entirely.

What to say of Real Madrid? An extremely unique club based upon a business, not sporting model. Instilling a damaging (and to a certain extent, successful) siege mentality to defeat Barcelona, the Portugese splashed the cash and built a team. Mourinho’s second season was his best as expected, winning a league title in truly magnificent style. But the players never really bought into Jose’s system and ideology, as they fell on penalties to Bayern Munich and collapsed entirely in his 3rd season in charge. There were dressing room rifts, yes. But the feeling was that Mourinho needed to leave, and didn’t succeed at Real Madrid.

When Mourinho takes over at a club, he well and truly changes it. Moulds it. Into his vision. When he leaves it on his terms, the club well and truly collapses in his shadow. Not as large a fallout as at Manchester United, but a big one nonetheless. Then comes the question, do great motivators always cause such as a rift?

Carlo Ancelotti:

The ultimate lotion for Mourinho’s rashes at clubs, Carlo Ancelotti is one of the coaches who has a knack for re-energising players after Jose’s exit.

At Chelsea he took a waning side to a league and cup double in his first season in charge. This was after the sacking of Luiz Felipe Scolari and the end of Avram Grant’s interim tenure post-Jose Mourinho. Chelsea had performed admirably in the Champions league in seasons past, but these were the first pieces of silverware they had won since the Special One’s departure.

The arguably more impressive feat was at Real Madrid. Ancelotti allowed president Florentino Perez to tinker with his squad (read: toys) at will, and established a system which won the famed La Decima (10th European Cup) and a Copa Del Rey. The treble could have been won as well, if it weren’t for a sudden collapse in the league. The reason for this feat being more impressive- it took place a season after Jose Mourinho left the dressing room in shambles.

How has Ancelotti proven to be so adept at steering Mourinho sides to the finishing line? Granted, he has only done it twice. Still better than most.

The Players’ Manager??

Ancelotti is the definition of a players’ manager. Great with man-management, building systems to suit the players and transforming players. The only criticism against him could be that he allows owners and presidents too much freedom in messing with his teams.

When Mourinho left his teams, he left them as just that- good teams. In a good system. However he took a lot with him, including the ability to make his units perform beyond their abilities. And his defensive straightjacket.

At Chelsea Ancelotti simply redesigned the system to bring the best out of his players. A 4-3-3 worked well enough. Regulars like John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba were given assured roles. Above all Ancelotti brought something the players hadn’t seen since Mourinho- a level of trust with the players. The calm dressing room served to charm the players. Even during defeat. Its telling that this was the last league title these players would win before the squad was overhauled by Mourinho again, only John Terry remained in the starting XI 5 years later.

Having a massive financial backing helps, but Carletto’s first season at Real Madrid was characterized by his ability to heal rifts between players and reinvigorate a side that looked broken at times during the previous season. Again, nothing radical. Ancelotti played a 4-3-3 and fit the BBC trio along with Angel Di Maria into what became an exciting side on the ball. Gareth Bale and Daniel Carvajal were integrated into the side, becoming crucial cogs.

But the impressive aspect was how he turned players’ careers around. Luka Modric and Karim Benzema looked to be down and out until the Italian turned them into 2 of the best players in the world in their positions. Ronaldo was kept happy amidst new signings. Sergio Ramos put his problems behind him, while Pepe was a disciplined beast.  The sudden calm in the media and dressing room was reflected on the pitch.


Ancelotti was loved by his players for the calm atmosphere he brought to the dressing room

The essence? Carlo brought the calm and trust to the clubs when they needed them, and built a system for the players (handily using Jose’s system when needed, like in the 5-0 win over Bayern Munich). A group of happy players would perform on the pitch, The recipe for success.

Tito Vilanova Replacing Pep Guardiola:

A final short section on an interesting swap.

When Guardiola announced that he was leaving, many players were distraught. Understandably. However, considering that his assistant Tito Vilanova would replace him, things didn’t seem so bad. Not at first. Sound like Moyes for Ferguson? Not quite. Vilanova was far more experienced in the hotseat. He was like Guardiola, just a little different. At first it sounded good.


Vilanova learnt a lot from Guardiola

A fundamental feature of Guardiola’s tenure at Barcelona was the attempt to beat the 3 year rule. He wanted to beat the decay and complacency that all teams faced at the end of 3 years. When this didn’t happen, he left.

Vilanova’s first season in charge brought a league title to  club, but nothing out of the ordinary. Domestic rivals in Madrid were in disarray after all. Otherwise? The side that had fallen victim to complacency fell deeper into the trap. Had Guardiola stayed on? The same results might have fallen in place. If one recalls, that season even Messi looked disinterested at times, while the squad as a whole looked in need of a revamp.

Moral of the story?

It took a massive rehaul of 200 million or more euros (rushed even) and a turnover of 2 managers (3 if you count Vilanova, but nothing he could have done in his personal situation) and a change in playing style (smaller changes but fundamental ones nevertheless) for Barcelona to win their next trophy (along with some humiliating defeats for good measure).


The 7-0 aggregate defeat was a warning sign for the Catalans

This entire article has been about how managers can change the way in which players operate. But in this case, Barcelona’s players proved to be the problem. Indeed, Vilanova planned on overhauling the squad in the summer of 2013 if it weren’t for his cancer. Eventually, a transfer ban and a massive spending spree in panic preceding it led to a true overhaul. Moyes would have done well to follow.

This swap illustrated how sometimes a club’s lack of investment could make it seem like a manager did a worser job than he actually did. Benitez at Inter, Moyes at United and other such examples illustrate this perfectly.


The managers who take-over and succeed quickly are the ones that can quickly identify decay in a squad and fix it effectively. They are also the ones who have a vision of their own, and turnover players as necessary. Extreme visionaries and those reluctant to change often fail.