On a wet and rainy Tuesday night in January, Thomas Tuchel strode onto the training pitch for the very first time. Clad in a full blue tracksuit, the German set about preparing his brand new charges for a tough home encounter against Wolverhampton Wanderers. A man of pedigree he is with decades of European coaching experience to fall back on, every ounce of which he would need as he tiptoed his way into a viper’s nest. Since that bitterly cold day in late January, Tuchel has instigated a scarcely believable turnaround that is testament to the man himself. The toxic snake pit has been placated with the soft melody of Tuchel’s tone that readily chimes out an abundance of charisma, honesty and coaching genius. Results and high class performances have followed this mid-season upheaval. The sixth mid-season managerial change in the Roman Abramovich era is Tuchel. Such a positive profound change or ‘new manager bounce’ as the phrase goes is not at all foreign to Chelsea Football Club. In fact in many ways, it’s a Chelsea thing.
‘Death and taxes’ – the two things widely considered to be absolute certainties in life may arguably have a third, football-themed one added to it: Roman Abramovich losing patience with a manager. Counting José Mourinho twice and new man Tuchel, Chelsea’s managerial seat has had no fewer than fifteen of the world’s highest paid and most reputable hind quarters take up permanent residence in it. Tasked with fulfilling the demands of an expectant owner, the sixteen major trophies that have followed stand as a ringing endorsement of an oft maligned and criticized managerial philosophy.
What is the ‘New Manager Bounce?’
There is a widely held footballing tenet which is: changing a manager after a downturn in results will immediately result in a team’s results improving. This school of thought presupposes that said managerial change has little to do with the knowledge, ability or pedigree and everything to do with the idea that it is not the ‘devil you knew’ in the hotseat any longer. Change for the sake of change precipitates a positive upturn in results.
In the obviously miniscule sample size from this season’s Premier League, it is in fact only Thomas Tuchel who has enjoyed an overtly positive impact on his team’s fortunes. Having just sacked their manager in Chris Wilder, Sheffield United haven’t won in the three games since his departure. Similarly, Sam Allardyce’s appointment at West Bromwich Albion has yielded just two wins from 16 games compared to one in 13 under previous manager Slaven Bilic.
Over the course of the entire Premier League since 1992, the impact of every managerial change at each club is likely to present more linear and balanced outcomes, certainly more so when it comes to debunking the perception of the positive ‘new manager bounce.’
From a Chelsea perspective, though, something that is particularly curious is the positive impact that a mid-season managerial change has had on the fortunes of the club under Abramovich. Of the fifteen permanent managers the Blues have ever had, six of them have come once the season was already underway. Interestingly, each one of them has instigated a positive change across all competitions, to varying degrees.
Chelsea: The Story of the Mid-Season Managerial Change
Avram Grant – 2007/08
Who could have envied Avram Grant in the 2007/08 season? It appeared that relations between Jose Mourinho and the Chelsea hierarchy had soured past breaking point. Exacerbated by a failure to secure the Premier League title for a third consecutive season and an inability to secure the lucrative UEFA Champions League title Abramovich craved, ‘The Special One’ was dismissed after a 1-1 draw at home to Rosenborg in the group stages of Europe’s premier competition.
Grant, a relative unknown compared to serial winner Mourinho, was tasked with reigniting the spirit in an expensively assembled and exceptionally talented group of players that was fiercely loyal to Mourinho. Though he did not win a trophy, what the Israeli achieved in his nine-month spell in charge was nonetheless impressive.
Finishing just two points behind Manchester United in the Premier League having lost fewer games tells a story of what might have been in the league. The bigger story, though, was Grant’s guidance of the club to its first ever UEFA Champions League Final in Moscow. Entering a fractious dressing room reeling from the departure of its leader and mastermind was a difficult task. That he was able to apply the necessary tonic to an acidic scenario and coax the best out of a world class team is testament to the manager himself. More than that, though, Grant’s legacy at Chelsea may not be a popular one simply because of whom he succeeded. Yet were it not for a few inches of Edwin van der Sar’s right-hand post as well as two 1-1 home draws in the final five games against Wigan Athletic and Bolton Wanderers, Chelsea could well have ended that season with an unprecedented haul of the Premier League and Champions League.
Conjecture aside, Grant’s overall win rate of 66.7 percent for the 07/08 season, compared to Mourinho’s 42.86 percent – a run of 3 wins in 7 games – from the same season, stands as testament not only to the Israeli’s capacity to instill calm, but to a trend he was to be the first example of in the context of the Chelsea hotseat. Though it is imperative not to ignore the fact that Mourinho’s overall win percentage in his first spell was 67 percent, the visible decline and deterioration in relations between manager and board at the start of 07/08 provides the necessary evidence for a pattern that was to manifest itself into what may be termed ‘a new manager bounce.’
So synonymous with managerial change is Chelsea that this intriguing pattern was to persist with five more managers (including Guus Hiddink twice) over the next decade and a half.
Guus Hiddink (Part 1) – 2008/09
The very next season would see this phenomenon take hold once again. Replaced by World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, Avram Grant did not get the chance at redemption after Champions League heartache. Scolari joined with much fanfare and the promise of the free flowing, attacking football so desired by owner Roman Abramovich. Incomings included the Portuguese attacking duo in Deco and Ricardo Quaresma to bring this vision to fruition.
Fast forward seven months and Scolari was given his marching orders after a sticky run of form and a slump to fourth place. It was a sad tale for a manager who began his tenure in impressive fashion, going unbeaten for twelve consecutive games at the start of the season, including a 4-0 thumping of Portsmouth on the opening day.
This stood as a record until recently when broken by Thomas Tuchel. Nevertheless, a win rate of 55.56 percent precipitated a change. Out went Scolari and in came Guus Hiddink. Over the course of the next five years, Hiddink was to be the name at the top of Chelsea’s triage list whenever urgent managerial rescues were required.
The second of the mid-season appointments under Abramovich, Hiddink’s impact was stark. A warm, father figure to most players, he would lose just one of his 22 games in charge on the way to third position in the Premier League, a last-ditch UEFA Champions League exit at the hands of Barcelona in a controversial Semi-Final and an FA Cup victory. His win percentage of 72.7 percent in that period stands as one of the best of any Chelsea manager ever.
Warmly regarded by both owner and fans alike, were it not for the availability of Carlo Ancelotti, few could have argued had Hiddink’s new manager bounce been allowed to carry on into the 2009/10 season.
Roberto di Matteo – 2011/12
Turn the clock forward three years and, as ever, Chelsea’s off the pitch boiling pot reached dizzying levels of toxicity as the chasm between first team regulars and the club’s young, stubborn and principled coach Andre Villas-Boas (AVB) proved incapable of rectification. Taking things back to basics and restoring the feeling among the club, what former Blue great Roberto di Matteo achieved in a short three-month spell at the end of 2011/12 has not been replicated since.
Few could have believed that di Matteo, a veritable novice at elite level coaching, would topple European giants Bayern Munich and Barcelona on the way to Chelsea’s first ever Champions League title win. But topple them he did. Tossing the progressive, patterned play espoused by his predecessor aside, the former midfielder restored the team to the identity that served them so well in the days of Mourinho.
Defensively resolute, self-sacrificing, and deadly on the counterattack, di Matteo was able to affect a positive change by instigating a definitive 4-2-3-1 that yielded 14 wins out of 21 matches in all competitions. A vast improvement on the 20 wins from 40 games under AVB, the Italian was keenly aware of the need to realise short-term ambitions as Chelsea battled to remain relevant in the race for Champions League football.
Ultimately, the side failed to arrest their floundering league form as they finished sixth. This was the West London side’s lowest finish since 2001/02. What he managed by winning both the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League, though, defied footballing form and reason. To this day, it serves as the clearest representation of a new manager bounce in arguably the most important three months ever in European competition for Chelsea Football Club.
Rafael Benitez – 2012/13
The sad reality for the heroic di Matteo is that his lack of managerial nous and pedigree was always going to catch up with him at such a demanding club. Sacked in November 2012, barely five months after his unheralded achievement, his replacement did more than raise a few eyebrows.
A frequent nemesis of the Blues during the mid-to-late 2000s, Rafael Benitez did much to stoke the embers of rivalry during frequent Premier League and latter stage Champions League ties between his former club Liverpool and Chelsea. The Spaniard was a widely unpopular figure on the touchline.
Taking the helm of an incredibly young and exciting Chelsea side that had just been eliminated from the group stages of the UEFA Champions League as defending champions, Benitez added structure and balance to a side that had lacked cohesion. In 48 matches, his side scored 99 goals on the way to finishing third in the League, reaching the FA Cup Semi-Finals, and winning the UEFA Europa League.
Although maligned by the fans, Benitez did instigate a mid-season revival and delivered silverware to add to the burgeoning trophy cabinet at Stamford Bridge. A justifiable appointment for his expertise and ability to instill tactical discipline and order, the former Valencia manager was another who embodied the new manager bounce. By this time, it had clearly become an oft relied upon strategy by the Chelsea hierarchy when short-term objectives were not being met. To this point, all but Grant had delivered tangible reward.
Guus Hiddink (Part 2) – 2015/16
In the most desperate of times, when Chelsea Football Club were haemorrhaging and in need of urgent repair, Guus Hiddink was the man with gauze and disinfectant in hand. Without doubt, the 15/16 season stands alone as the most catastrophic in the Abramovich era. After the high of a first league title since 2010 under the club’s greatest ever manager in Jose Mourinho, the talented crop of players began the season off the back of a shortened pre-season. In a move designed to give the players more time to recuperate after a demanding season, it set the team up to fall hopelessly short.
Chelsea were outrun and out thought in nearly every match. The off-field histrionics that often engulf a Mourinho-led team came home to roost in the most spectacular capitulation of any defending Premier League champion. In 25 games in all competitions, Chelsea won nine and lost twelve. A 2-1 loss away to would-be-champions Leicester City proved the last straw for the iconic Portuguese.
So desperate were the hierarchy to arrest the decline and guard against the threat of slipping into the lower reaches of the table, Hiddink was drafted to apply the fix. In his 27 matches in charge Hiddink won ten and lost just six. While it shows a negligible one percent improvement in win percentage over Mourinho in 15/16, what Hiddink did do to instigate a new manager bounce was take the club from the mire of sixteenth place to tenth.
Eliminated from the Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup and completely out of contention for any European football in the league, this season was the anomaly to end all anomalies for the West London side. It does not stand as a ringing endorsement of the positivity of a new manager bounce, but what it achieved was an end to the most horrid of situations.
Thomas Tuchel – 2020/21
For the better part of half a decade, it seemed Chelsea had achieved something like relative stability with no managerial upheavals punctuating any of the seasons up to this one. That being said, club legend Frank Lampard’s departure off the back of an uncomfortable run of league form precipitated a change.
Chelsea came into the 2020/21 season riding a wave of optimism. Brimming with academy talent and having signed a handful of Europe’s best talents for an eye watering £220million, the framework was in place for the Pensioners to mount a sustained title tilt for the first time since 2016/17.
After 11 games, Chelsea were two points off Tottenham and Liverpool at the top of the league on the 6th of December 2020. Fast forward eight games and Lampard’s men had dropped to ninth after suffering five defeats in eight games. In the space of six short weeks, the Blues’ season unravelled. Suddenly, off the pitch issues bubbled to the surface. Players who weren’t first choice saw their names in the press as instigators of a revolt against their manager. The characteristic toxicity both on and off the pitch returned to Chelsea Football Club.
Much like the certainties of mortality and taxes, Chelsea’s generous but expectant owner waits for no man, not even arguably Chelsea’s greatest ever player in Frank Lampard. To curb this furore, Abramovich’s appointees returned to their tried and tested method of ‘out with the old and in with the new.’ Another new manager bounce was the order of the day and in came Thomas Tuchel, the latest in a line of elite European managers to jump aboard Chelsea’s managerial roulette wheel.
However, few could have anticipated the impact the German would have on what appeared to be a relatively disjointed squad. In 14 games to date, the Blues have not lost, have conceded just twice in all competitions and have looked a thoroughly cohesive unit. Lampard’s win rate this season of just under 52 percent stands in stark contrast to Tuchel’s near 72 percent.
Given the lack of a transfer window or the benefit of a pre-season to implement a playing philosophy, this is a remarkable achievement already by the former PSG manager. Granted he will be judged on whether he delivers on Chelsea’s target of qualification for Champions League football next season, the fact that he has navigated a tricky European tie against Atletico Madrid, restored Chelsea to the top four for the moment and qualified for the FA Cup Semi-Finals is testament to a resoundingly positive impact.
New Manager Bounce: Here to Stay or Finally to Go Away?
The European football landscape has changed dramatically over the last two decades as more and more money is injected into the game. More money means better facilities; better facilities mean better staff, and better staff mean better trained athletes. All of this translates into exceedingly fine margins both on and off the pitch. As a result, the scrutiny placed on a manager of today grows ever greater with each passing season.
Chelsea Football Club have always been an institution that has a mixed relationship with its managers. Now dubbed a ‘head coach’ rather than a manager, the remit from the top is clear: just win. It is a controversial philosophy, especially given the fact that many a fan cast admiring glances at more sustainable models of success in Liverpool and Manchester City. But it is a successful philosophy, nonetheless. No club in England can match the trophy haul of the West London side since the Russian billionaire’s takeover in 2003.
For those managers who do win a league title or a Champions League trophy, longevity is often a possibility on one condition. The moment the fountain of silverware dries up, so does the patience and inevitably the employment contract. The framework in which a Chelsea head coach exists is very much self-serving, both for coach and club. For the club, it is a case of a high-class professional being given the license to exist within a framework that serves the club’s ambitions. For the coach, it is a chance to work at an elite level and within an affluent institution that only a handful of clubs in Europe can match. Moreover, to fail as a head coach at Chelsea has never been a blot on any manager’s copybook with so many going on to achieve success after being sacked.
Tuchel is the latest proponent of this ‘new manager bounce’ and he may yet prove to be the exception to the rule. He has all the tools to be successful at Stamford Bridge. Only time will tell whether his achievements measure up to the standards expected of him. Many fans like what they see so far and will be hoping for staying power and stability in the medium-term at the very least.
Tuchel is a world class manager of pedigree that fits the mould of the archetypal Chelsea head coach. The smart money, though, is on the fact that he will not be around for longer than his 18-month contract if the appetite for trophies isn’t satiated.
It’s a Chelsea thing, after all.
Written and edited by Dan Hill (@idanknow05)