Friday, 21 April 2017

Why are EPL clubs preferring to recruit foreign managers?

A few weeks ago I read a very interesting article by Sean Ingle in the Guardian comparing the performance of foreign managers in the EPL with their British & Irish counterparts. Using data compiled at the University of Bangor in Wales, the headline statistic was that foreign managers have averaged 1.66 points per game since 1992/93, compared to just 1.29 for those from the UK & Ireland. As Ingle points out: this amounts to a whopping 14 extra points over the course of the season.

My first thought was that these results might be misleading because of a potential selection bias. If overseas managers have tended to work for the top EPL clubs then of course they would have a higher average points per game, simply because a larger proportion of them managed big clubs than their domestic counterparts. In that case it’s not fair comparison. In the first part of the blog I will look at this in more detail: will the result reported in the Guardian stand up to further scrutiny?

Nevertheless, with only seven of the twenty EPL clubs starting this season with a British or Irish manager, it’s clear that clubs are showing a preference for recruiting from overseas. In the second part of this blog I’ll discuss one of the factors that may be motivating EPL clubs to hire foreign managers.

The rise of the foreign manager.


Figure 1 shows the breakdown of managers by nationality for each EPL season since 1992/93 (ignoring caretaker managers[1]). The red region represents English managers, blue the rest of the UK (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), green the Republic of Ireland, and grey the rest of the world. The results are presented cumulatively: for example, this season 28% of EPL managers (7) have been English and 12% (3) were from Scotland and Wales; the remaining 60% of managers in the EPL this season have been from continental Europe (13), South America (1) or the US (1).

Figure 1: Stacked line chart showing the proportion of EPL managers by nationality in each season since 1992/93. Current season represented up to the 1st March 2017. The proportion of managers that are English managers has fallen from two-thirds to one-third over the past 24 years.
The figure shows a clear trend: the number of English managers has significantly declined over the last 24 years. Back in 1992, over two-thirds of managers in the EPL were English and 93% were from the UK as a whole. Since then, the proportion of English managers has more than halved, replaced by managers from continental Europe and, more recently, South America[2]

Is the trend towards foreign managers driven by supremacy over their domestic rivals? 


The table below compares some basic statistics for UK & Irish managers with those of managers from elsewhere. Excluding caretaker managers, there have been 283 managerial appointments in the EPL era, of which over three-quarters have been from the Home Nations or the Republic of Ireland. Of the 66 foreign EPL appointments, nearly half were at one of the following Big6 clubs: Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs and Man City[3]. However, only 12% of British or Irish managerial appointments have been at one of these clubs. This is the selection bias I mentioned at the beginning – the top clubs are far more heavily weighted in one sample than the other.


At first glance, foreign managers have performed better: collecting 1.66 points/game compared to 1.29 for their UK & Irish counterparts (reproducing the results published in the Guardian article). However, this difference is entirely driven by the Big6. If you look at performance excluding these clubs it’s a dead heat – foreign managers have performed no better than domestic ones, both averaging 1.2 points per game.

At the Big6 clubs, foreign managers have collected 0.2 points/game more than their UK counterparts. This difference is almost entirely driven by Chelsea and Man City, where foreign managers have collected 0.8 and 0.7 points per game more than UK & Irish managers[4].  But since Abramovich enriched Chelsea in 2003, they have not hired a single British or Irish manager[5]. A similar story at Man City: in only one and a half of the nine seasons since the oil money started to flow into Manchester have they had a British manager (Mark Hughes). Both clubs had very different horizons before and after their respective cash injections, and they have hired exclusively from abroad since[6].

So it seems that, when you look closely, you find little convincing evidence that foreign managers have performed better than domestic managers in the EPL era. Why then do clubs prefer to look beyond these shores?

Access to foreign markets


Previous success is clearly a key criteria in manager recruitment, but I wonder if there are specific attributes that give foreign managers an edge over English candidates. In particular, foreign managers have local knowledge and contacts that might give a club the edge over domestic rivals in signing overseas talent. You could argue that Wenger’s initial success at Arsenal was influenced by his ability to identify and sign top French players at a time when France was dominating international football. Raphael Benitez certainly mined his knowledge of Spanish football to successfully bring a number of players to Liverpool.

In hiring foreign managers, do clubs improve their access to transfer markets overseas? As the table above shows, foreign managers sign players from abroad at roughly twice the rate of domestic managers -- an average of 5 per season compared to the 2.6 per season signed by their British or Irish counterparts. The result does not change significantly if you exclude the Big6 clubs, or if you only look at players signed in the last 15 years. 

This doesn’t prove the hypothesis that clubs sign foreign managers to improve access to foreign players, but it does support it. Of course, being British isn’t necessarily a barrier to signing top overseas talent; after all, Dennis Bergkamp, arguably Arsenal’s greatest ever import, was bought by Bruce Rioch. But in era in which English players come at a premium, it makes sense to for clubs to hire managers that will enable them to lure high quality players from the continent. 

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Thanks to David Shaw and Tom Orford for comments.

[1] I define a caretaker manager as one that remained in post for less than 60 days.
[2] The proportion of managers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has generally remained stable at about 25% (although very recently it is has fallen).
[3] The first five are the five best finishers in the EPL era, on average. I decided Man City warranted inclusion because of their two EPL titles.
[4] Of the others, Wenger and Ferguson largely cancel each other out and foreign managers have performed only marginally better at Spurs and Liverpool.
[5] Indeed you have to go all the way back to Glen Hoddle’s departure in 1996 to find Chelsea’s last British or Irish manager.
[6] Mark Hughes was appointed before the Abu Dhabi group bought Man City.