It’s human instinct to seek meaning among chaos. To crave explanation to understand why something that once seemed unfathomable has happened – and never more so when judging a football manager’s success.
As Marcelo Bielsa became the latest managerial casualty in the Premier League upon leaving Leeds last month, that thirst for finding order beyond the headlines led several pundits to suggest his downfall was how long he’d been in the role. More specifically, he’d exceeded the optimal time a manager should stay in a role: three years.
The argument carries some weight. After all, Bielsa’s fourth year was when the upward curve Leeds had been on under his management started to dip. But is there really something in the idea that managers should work on a three-year cycle?
Former Milan and Benfica coach Bela Guttmann believed so, declaring “the third year is fatal” and arguing that things start to unravel for a manager after passing that threshold.
“I think a cycle of a manager is probably three years,” Morecambe boss Derek Adams told the Lancaster Guardian in 2021. “After that, it’s time to move on to a new club.
“I don’t think any manager should stay for too long… I think if you do stay, the club perhaps doesn’t get to move forwards and the manager doesn’t [either].”
It would be career suicide for too many coaches to publicly agree, with long-term contracts the compensation for a high-pressure and notoriously unpredictable profession. Although some point to the transient nature of Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho’s careers as evidence they subscribe to those assessments.
The three-year zenith can be picked up in the records of several other longer-serving managers. Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs peaked in his third season and Rafa Benitez won all his trophies as Liverpool boss in the first three of his six seasons as manager – albeit their title challenge of 2008-09 was his fifth campaign.
Prior to taking over at Manchester City in 2016, Pep Guardiola’s career also appeared to be following a similar pattern. After winning three successive La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues in his first three years as Barcelona manager, Guardiola oversaw a relative come down in his fourth campaign – missing out on the league by nine points and losing in the last four of the Champions League. He then went on to complete three years as Bayern Munich manager before leaving for the Premier League.
Even at City, Pep’s side dropped off in year four. Eye-watering points totals of 100 and 98 in his second and third seasons were followed by a second-placed finish with a relatively meagre 81. Last season, 86 points were enough to win the championship and while down on their previous amounts, it’s hard to seriously suggest Guardiola is seeing a post-season three lull.
In that time, there has been a changing of the guard, though. Stalwarts such as Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero left and Fernandinho’s role become less prominent, while Rodri, Ruben Dias, Phil Foden and Joao Cancelo have established themselves in their stead.
Perhaps in this example exists the truth about the three-year cycle. It’s not that managers only have three-year shelf lives, but their teams. And it’s the coaches who find a way to adapt and rebuild new sides that build long-lasting dynasties.
The most obvious example is Sir Alex Ferguson. During his 27 years in charge at Manchester United, Fergie constructed – and deconstructed – countless great teams, each with different characteristics. One of his best skills was his ability to recognise when this needed to happen and taking decisive action. There was no room for sentiment for players who had served him well in the past and if they showed signs of needing to be replaced, they were sold.
Even Ferguson’s record appeared to go in cycles. Three consecutive titles between 1999 and 2001 was followed by a trophyless 2001-02 when United finished third; 2009-10 ended in disappointment (second place in the league, quarter-finals of the Champions League and an FA Cup exit in round three, despite lifting the League Cup) on the back of another hat-trick of successive Premier League wins.
Those some traits appear when looking at other successful Premier League dynasties in the past two decades. After establishing Bolton as a Premier League side in the early noughties, Sam Allardyce changed the profile of his signings and pioneered sports science to take the next step; David Moyes evolved Everton into consistent top-eight finishers after suffering a fourth-season dip.
The trouble with all of this is that looking at the numbers from previous seasons ignores the nuance of what happened during those tenures – good and bad. But in the instances when managers have achieved a period of sustained success and left jobs on a high, it was their ability to successfully rebuild that made it possible.
Contrast that to Bielsa, for example, who retained more or less the same approach and core group of players into his fourth year at Leeds and perhaps it was that lack of variety that cost him dearly.
The answer for managers isn’t as Guttmann suggested to jump ship after three years in a job, it’s to master the skill of keeping a team fresh so they don’t fall into the chaos caused by the fourth-year curse.