It’s human instinct to seek meaning among chaos: to crave an explanation for 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, had he exceeded the optimal time a manager should stay in a job: three years?
The argument carries some weight. 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 Béla Guttmann believed so, declaring “the third year is fatal” and arguing that things start to unravel for a manager after passing that threshold.
“A cycle of a manager is probably three years,” Morecambe boss Derek Adams told the Lancaster Guardian last year. “After that, it’s time to move on to a new club. “I don’t think any manager should stay for too long. 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 agree publicly, 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 José 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 Benítez 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 in 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 comedown in his fourth campaign – missing out on the league title 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 points. Last season, 86 points were enough to win the championship and, while down that was on their previous totals, it’s hard to build a case that Guardiola is stagnating after his first three seasons.
There has been a changing of the guard in that time, though. Stalwarts such as Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Agüero have left and Fernandinho’s role has become less prominent, while Rodri, Rúben Dias, Phil Foden and João Cancelo have established themselves in their stead. Perhaps this example shows the truth of the three-year cycle. It’s not managers who 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 Alex Ferguson. During his 27 years in charge at Manchester United, he constructed – and deconstructed – countless great teams, each with different characteristics. One of his strengths was his ability to recognise when this needed to happen and his willpower to take decisive action. There was no room for sentiment for players who had served him well in the past. As soon as 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.
Other Premier League managers have experienced similar patterns while building their dynasties. After establishing Bolton as a Premier League side in the early 2000s, Sam Allardyce changed the profile of his signings and took the next step; David Moyes evolved Everton into consistent top-eight finishers after suffering a fourth-season dip.
Managers who have achieved sustained periods of success and left jobs on a high have done so by rebuilding their teams. Contrast that to Bielsa, who retained more or less the same approach and core group of players into his fourth year at Leeds, and perhaps that lack of variety cost him. The answer for managers is not to jump ship after three years in a job, as Guttmann suggested, but to master the art of keeping a team fresh so they do not fall into the chaos caused by the fourth-year curse.