Managers, and The Law of Diminishing Returns

Managers, and The Law of Diminishing Returns
April 12, 2016 Paul Tomkins

By Paul Tomkins.

Never go home, they say. Never return to where you had success. But is this true? It’s possible to think of several examples of managers struggling second time around at a club, but equally, there are those, like Jupp Heynckes, for whom things got even better upon their return.

But what’s the overall trend? Should someone like Jürgen Klopp be open to a return to Dortmund in the future (other than to mastermind a fine away display with the Reds), or would he only be in danger of shredding his legacy? If Rafa Benítez cannot lift Newcastle out of their long-term lethargy, and do so with their third-choice goalkeeper, should he return to Valencia? And will Brendan Rodgers be wise if he’s lured back to Swansea?

With this is mind I searched through the internet trying to find examples of managers who had returned to their old club; indeed, some managers I found had been in charge of the same club on four separate occasions, excluding caretaker spells.

In the end I found 32 managers who had returned to their old club, and – crucially, for the point of this exercise – where their management statistics were easily accessible. (I wanted to spend a couple of days on the piece, not a couple of months.) I found a fair few other examples, but where no stats were present, and there may be further examples I missed. So this list of 32 managers isn’t 100% definitive, but they are fairly random, in that they are the ones I happened upon. (Rules: anyone I found to have managed a club or country twice, and who had their stats listed, was included.)

However, amongst the 32 managers were some serial “returners”, with Guus Hiddink the master: two spells at each of Chelsea, PSV, Valencia and the Dutch national side. John Toshack returned to both Swansea and Real Madrid, and went back to Real Sociedad for a third time. So it actually makes for 32 managers but 55 instances of managers returning to a club.

There seem to be two distinct stories. First, those who had great success, and were then called back, years later, perhaps in the hope of lightning striking twice, or even three times: such as Howard Kendall at Everton, and Toshack at Real Sociedad.

And then there were those, such as Otto Rehhagel at Werder Bremen in the 1970s, Dino Zoff at Lazio in the early ‘90s, and Giovanni Trapattoni at Bayern Munich in 1994/95, who had low or unremarkable win percentages in initial spells at a club, but were still invited back later on, to give it another go, perhaps having proven themselves elsewhere in the meantime.

Of course, a handful of years ago Liverpool made their own reappointment, bringing back Kenny Dalglish in a move that many saw as sentimental, but which, at the time, was about shifting out a horribly wrong fit as a manager as the atmosphere grew toxic and depressive.

Dalglish brought an end to the dark days of Roy Hodgson (with the Reds’ league form transforming after just three or four games), and won what remains the Reds’ most recent trophy in 2012 – so in that sense he was successful; but it was nowhere near the level of success from 1985 to 1991, and by the end of 2011/12 the league form had trailed away and the Reds sunk to 8th.

Part of this, of course, comes down to where the club was in 1985 and where it found itself 26 years later: two very different places.

And for the purposes of this piece I have made no allowance for where clubs were when appointments were made, as those different contexts would obviously involve some complex analysis. And no matter what those contexts would suggest, the truth is that no club is ever the same twice: the players change (even if they are the same players, they will be older), and expectations are always shifting. (“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” –– Heraclitus.)

Often bosses will have been called back when things were going wrong, but that doesn’t mean the situation was necessarily great when first appointed. So even if they return due to the club’s desperation, the club may have been desperate first time around.

For example, Howard Kendall took over an Everton team that finished 15th in 1981, and on November 5th 1990, when he was reappointed (for the first time), they sat 17th after 11 games – so not a huge difference from nine years earlier; with the main change being that, between 1981 and 1987, Kendall had led them to big success, and that was the new high-water mark – something he couldn’t repeat upon his first return. When Kendall was appointed for a third time, in 1997, they had just finished … 15th. This time, after one season, he left with them … 17th.

So, theoretically, the challenge was no different second or third time around; just the expectations (and by 1997, possibly the finances).

With Dalglish, however, the manager was clearly inheriting a much more problematic situation second time around, compared with taking over a team that had reached the previous two European Cup finals, and won their most remarkable treble just a year before he was appointed.

Yet, in amongst the data, there are also examples of managers who took over much better teams second time around: for instance, Claudio Ranieri inheriting Rafa Benítez’s La Liga and Uefa Cup-winning Valencia in 2004, who were clearly better than the Mestalla side the Italian inherited in 1997, who had just finished 10th. Valencia sunk like a stone after Ranieri’s return.


Of course, this can lead to the philosophical debate as to whether it’s easier to take over a side that is struggling or one that is flying – both can have their pros and cons.  Who’d want to follow an incredibly successful manager? Or are managers lucky to inherit so many great players? Also, how do we say, for sure, that the team is great or on the precipice of steep decline? So it is with this in mind that I just stuck to the pure numbers, to see what story they told. (At some point it may be interesting to go back and add more context, but not for now.)

The first piece of analysis looks at the tenures, in order, for the 32 managers: 1st time, 2nd time, and sometimes even 3rd time. (There were 4th times for some managers but these didn’t have the data.) Then, I thought it would be interesting to see if successful managers struggle when returning, and so focused only on those bosses who’d had a great spell at a club (whether it was their first or second spell) and what happened when they went back later went back for more.

All comparisons are based on all-competitions win percentages.

First vs Second (vs Third)

So, here are the 32 managers, listed in a Tableau graphic created by Robert Radburn.

The overall picture is clear: going back is almost always a bad idea; or, at the very least, previous success is hard to replicate.

Here are the overall trends:

Of the 55 examples of tenures following the first time around, only 10 (18%) saw an improvement on that first stint, with one exactly the same (Marcello Lippi at Juventus, 56% both times).

The only time a manager has succeeded on his third attempt – which usually smells of desperation – is Fatih Terim, with Turkey. (His third spell at Galatasaray was also better than his 2nd, but unlike his record with the Turkish national side, was not as good as his first.)

Return of the Big Successes

Next, I looked at the data for only those managers who’d really made an impact at a club; so including someone like Fabio Capello who, in his first brief spell at AC Milan, did nothing in just six games in 1987, and then, having returned in 1991, won four Serie A titles, three Italian Super Cups and the Champions League in just five seasons.

(As a note here, I was going to exclude examples where the manager was only in charge for a few games, but decided against it, as sometimes six games is all it takes to get sacked, and if they get sacked, they can be said to have failed.)

After his remarkable spell with Milan, Capello went to Spain for just one season, won the title with Real Madrid, but when he returned to AC after just 12 months away, he could only lead the side to a 10th-place finish, with a win percentage of just 32%. A break of just one season, and the spell also appeared broken.

However, as Capello did well at Real Madrid in that sole season he is included again, to look at how things went on his return to the Spanish giants a few years later: and again, he won the title, but with a win percentage down to 56% from the 64% of 1996/97. (Interestingly, neither time the fans seemed particularly impressed.)

The average win percentages across the 39 instances of a manager having their first really good spell at a club is 59%; and the average, for all of their subsequent returns – once, and sometimes twice – is 49%.

This is a clear drop from elite level – c.60% – to under 50%, which is often merely a “decent” level, albeit dependent on the club and the league in question, and with win percentages often ramped up in the most recent seasons, as mega-clubs with huge squads drop fewer points (at least, that was the case).

In 16 of the 39 instances of a manager returning to where he had success, the win percentage was below 40%. This is admittedly with the inclusion of teams like Mallorca, where Héctor Cúper returned after a 43% win-rate – which seems great for such a small club – but second time around he could only manage 26%.

Still, this 26% is less alarming than Jupp Heynckes returning to his beloved Borussia Mönchengladbach (where he’d had two exceptional spells as a striker, and one successful period as manager), and having taken over a team that had finished 10th in 2006, ended up winning only 5 of 21 games (24%) – leading to his resignation in January 2007, with the team one place off the bottom (they were relegated in last place).

As an aside, what’s interesting is that Heynckes’ resignation came amidst threats to his life from fans. He played 400 times for Mönchengladbach, scoring an incredible 292 goals. He then managed them for 343 games, from the late ‘70s to the late ‘80s. And 21 bad games in 2006 saw threats against his life: a case study in how much goodwill managers store up during the good times, and how long it lasts.

In some ways, it’s even more remarkable that his next job, over two years later, was to take over at Bayern Munich as a caretaker. His second proper tenure with the German giants, another couple of years after that, ranks as the best return by any manager in the study: a 76% win percentage, and a treble of trophies in 2013.


While managerial quality is clearly a real thing – I don’t think it’s something you can blag – these statistics only further enhance my growing sense that so much of what happens in football is about luck and circumstances, with circumstances including money, but also the general health of a club, the expectations of the fans, and the “vibe” around the place – which sounds a bit hippyish, but relates to the atmosphere (within the ground and behind the scenes), and whether it’s conducive to success, or in some way poisonous.

Returning when you’ve done well somewhere in the past seems to tick the first box: fan approval is often high, and that is better than having to run a gauntlet of hate. There won’t be groans or boos waiting to greet you. But will there be too much expectation?

If the best managers had a magic wand – if it was a kind of voodoo that they do do – then they’d simply repeat the feats from first time around. But over 80% of the time they do worse.

Also, how did Jupp Heynckes, in his sixties, go from the horrible nadir of his career in early 2007 to the unparalleled success of his 2013 Bayern Munich swan-song? How many managers would be written off after what happened at Mönchengladbach?

How did Claudio Ranieri go from the total ignominy of defeat with Greece against the Faroe Islands – as sackable as offence go – to leading (and getting close to nailing) the most remarkable title challenge of the Premier League era?

How did Jose Mourinho go from running away with the league title last season to being unable to halt the decline of a side slumped in 15th almost half a season later?

How did Dortmund end up at the bottom at the halfway stage last season under Jürgen Klopp, when for the previous few years they’d been one of the best sides in Europe?

And how can so many managers welcomed back by their old clubs with open arms end up falling so short?

Success almost seems freakish, and hard to repeat. Virtually no one can guarantee it. And while a key ingredient is almost certainly managerial knowhow – bad managers rarely succeed at any level – success is about the players:

Are they good enough?

Do they gel as a team?

Are they hungry enough? (Or are they hungry enough again, if they’ve just had a good season?)

Are they fit enough?

Are they morally brave enough? (i.e. to do good things with the ball, rather than the bravery of kicking someone up in the air.)

Are there enough match-winners?

Are there enough young starlets coming through?

Are they able (and suited) to do whatever the manager asks of them?

Do they believe in the manager and what he’s asking of them?

And of course, are they lucky enough?

The manager can control some of these factors, but not others.

It could be argued that managers have a shelf-life in their careers, and there’s no doubt that some “bright young managers” soon fail and fall into obscurity. They probably all have hot periods, where there methods are modern and give their teams an edge, and they can be said to be at their best, before the game evolves and they have to adapt or die.

But like anything in football, transferring skills from one place to another, without the time and/or money to shape things how you want them, can make repeating previous feats impossible. Remember, no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.