Kit Symons has been divisive. We've already had an entire podcast devoted to whether he should be let go. Some people are convinced he's a horrible manager who can't get better and the team should let him go sooner rather than later. Some people are willing to give him more time to see how this team finally gels. Some think that Kit has the ability to develop into a better manager than the team could hope to hire. But there is another opinion, which is the one I tend to hold. It's quite possible that managers don't make that much difference.
The manager not making a big difference isn't something that makes a ton of intuitive sense. The manager sets up the squad. The manager handles substitutions. The manager develops a strategy for a match. Surely these are huge things, right? But if you stop and think, are they really? Once the game starts, there is very little the manager can do. A lucky bounce here, a bonehead tackle there, a bad decision by the referee; before you know it everything the manager did to prepare for the game goes out the window. With only three subs and no timeouts, the manager doesn't have the ability to influence the game that much. The players on the field are the ones with the outcome in their power.
When you look at the data, this is even more apparent. Sports economist Bastian Drut has shown that the salaries spent on players in the Premier League and Championship between 1991 and 2010 explains 87% of the variation in league position. Simply stated, if you have higher earning players, you have better players, and you win more often. Of course that still leaves 13% of the variation unaccounted for. How much of that comes down to the manager?
The first thing to remember is that while the market for players is very efficient, it is not 100% so. Just because you are on high wages doesn't mean you are a great player. Scott Parker is probably one of the highest earning Fulham players. But would you argue he's one of the best or most important? Also, injuries affect the results, but don't affect the wage bill. Scott Parker has spent much of the season recovering from injury. Even if he was one of the best players and completely worth his wages, if he's not available there isn't much a manager can do. In a case like at Fulham where the manager is not handling the transfer market and signing the players himself, these are two more areas where results are affected but he has little control over. Jamie Carragher might have summed it up best in his autobiography:
The bottom line is this: if you assemble a squad of players with talent and the right attitude and character, you'll win more football matches than you lose, no matter how inventive your training sessions, what system you play, or what team-talks you give. But anything that can give you that extra 10 per cent, whether that's through diet, your general fitness or the correct word in your ear, also has merit.
So finally we're left with very little that the manager controls. This doesn't mean he doesn't make a difference. There are managers who consistently overperform their spend rate. There are managers who are heavily involved in transfer dealings who can exploit inefficiencies when building there team. Perhaps there are managers who know how to use training to reduce injury rates. There are managers who are master motivators who get players to perform above their natural talent. The managers who combine these things usually end up being recognized as the best managers in the world. No one would argue that Kit is in this class. But there are very few of these guys around. To make things harder, these guys usually have their pick of jobs and are unlikely to take a job like Fulham. If Fulham wants one of these great managers, their best option is to go the AFC Bournemouth route (assuming you think Eddie Howe has become a great manager) and build one from scratch. The other option is to identify someone young who's managing at a low level or in a smaller league who might become a great manager. Can Kit Symons develop? The jury is still out, but the odds are against him. Great managers simply don't come around that often, so the deck would always be stacked against him. However, that doesn't mean he should be sacked if he isn't great or doesn't become great.
In the same way that great managers are rare, truly awful managers are also rare. We've all heard of the new manager bounce, but is it an effect that really exists? Most likely not. Teams fire the manager when they are struggling. Football is a game that is highly influenced by luck. A bad run of form can be caused by a few unlucky breaks. But over the long run we expect regression to the mean. If a team is collecting bad results, we would guess them to quickly regress to their true talent level. This level would obviously be better than the run of form they were previously in. Chances are they would have regressed with or without the managerial change. But we as humans like patterns and cause and effect. It's easy for us to assign the reason behind improvement to the new manager when realistically it didn't make much difference.
That isn't to say that bad managers don't exist. Felix Magath was a bad manager. He trained the team in ways that may have led to more injuries. He refused to treat those injuries properly. He picked squads that ignored his best players. He made players not want to give 100% effort. There are other bad managers out there. There are also managers who are in a situation that makes them bad. Just like in any workplace there can be personality conflicts. If the players don't like or respect their manager, they won't train and play as hard. They might ignore the game plan. While he might not be a bad manager, it's far easier to fire the manager than replace a whole squad. However, I'm not convinced Kit Symons is either a bad fit with this squad or that he's actively a bad manager.
All this might make you think that I believe managers are pointless. I don't believe that for a second. You can't take a guy off the street and make him a manager and expect success. It's a hard job that only a few people could do. However, the people who can't do it are mostly weeded out before they ever get a chance to manage a club. They flame out as coaches or managing youth teams before they are ever given the reigns to a club. Very few people who are unable to manage ever make it to a place where they are given the opportunity. This is where I think Kit Symons is. He's qualified to be a manager. He won't be the guy who gives you that extra 10% that can put a great team over the top, but he's also not so bad that your players will underperform to their talent level. If you replace him with another average manager (say Steve Bruce) you'll probably end up in about the same position you were if you'd kept him. Unless you identify and are able to secure the services of a truly special manager, I don't think there's much point in making a change.