Even for a club with short-termism at its core, January was pretty spectacular for Chelsea. The rumours surrounding Ashley Barnes and Islam Slimani were more than likely down to the opportunism of savvy agents, but the interest in Andy Carroll was real. Short-term signings as a short-term solution for a manager expected to leave in the short term.
‘Short-termism’ is a dirty word in sport, used exclusively as a criticism. It is an accusation that football clubs have danced with the devil and given into what Gary Neville notoriously referred to as “the immediacy of modern life”. It conjures an image of Neville writing his Sky Sports column by candlelight with quill and ink before delivering it to the editors via Penny Post.
If Chelsea’s January hunt through the striker bargain bin was a brief piece of short-termism theatre, their managerial past and present is a more detailed work. Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton have all had a manager surpass 200 games in charge since 2009; the last Chelsea manager to reach that milestone was John Neal in 1985. No outfield player on Chelsea’s books was alive when Neal left Stamford Bridge. This is a club addicted to managerial short-termism.
Even if Chelsea’s player strategy might appear long-termist – buy young, sell high – it has a core of short-termism. The sale of Nemanja Matic for £40m took Chelsea’s transfer income since the summer of 2013 comfortably over the £400m mark. Young players are sold to fund the purchase of ready-made replacements. A long-term process has a short-term core aim to ensure immediate success.
On Tuesday, Stan Collymore was the latest pundit to espouse the fairly common view that Chelsea are committing a heinous sporting crime. ‘Big clubs need stability when it comes to their manager and the Blues’ model of hire and fire offers anything but stability,’ Collymore wrote. ‘Finishing 10th, first, then potentially fourth, fifth or sixth shows it doesn’t work.’
Doesn’t it? The slumps to tenth (2015/16) and sixth (2011/12) were indeed not ideal, but no club has won the Premier League more often than Chelsea in the last ten years. No English club has won the Champions League since their 2012 triumph.
For all the talk of slumps, the counterpoint is that Chelsea have finished in the top three of the Premier League 12 times in the last 14 seasons. Next best on that list are Manchester United with ten, and then Arsenal with seven. Criticising Chelsea for inconsistency is a difficult argument to sustain.
It cannot be ignored that Chelsea’s strategy may, at some point, stop working. Antonio Conte is likely to return to Italy this summer after his year-long goodbye, mostly played out in pre- and post-match press conferences. There are questions too about the futures of Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois. That said, ascribing the departure of players to Real Madrid or Barcelona to short-termism rather than the acceptance of reality is a little harsh. Ask Liverpool – and their long-term manager – about that.
The importance of getting the recruitment decision right is paramount, and this is where Chelsea have truly excelled. They have either opted for the better devil they knew (Mourinho and Hiddink appointed more than once) or taken a calculated gamble that has typically come off. Eight of Chelsea’s last 14 managers have won a trophy within a year of their appointment, and four of their last eight permanent appointments won the Premier League title or the Champions League in their first season. That is a truly exceptional record, given the competitiveness of the league.
The question is not whether managerial short-termism can work for Chelsea, because it already has, but whether long-term planning – sold as the morally superior strategy – is really the only way to achieve harmony. Hands are wrung and heads shook every time a manager is sacked, but the anger about managerial impatience seems misplaced.
Take Leicester: sacked Nigel Pearson ‘unfairly’, Ranieri wins the league; sacked Ranieri ‘unfairly’, Craig Shakespeare turns the tide; sacked Shakespeare ‘unfairly’, Claude Puel takes them higher. All those words about ‘the game’s gone mad’ wasted.
In business, the case against short-termism is an economic one, and there is no doubt that hiring and firing managers is an expensive business. Yet in the upper echelons of the Premier League, wantonly spending money is a way of life. Chelsea gave Jose Mourinho and his staff £31.4million combined when sacking them in 2007 and 2015; that’s less than a Danny Drinkwater. These clubs can afford such a lifestyle.
Rather than something to be feared, short-termism is already the reality. Your best player will be targeted by a bigger club if they perform for two consecutive seasons and your manager will either get the same treatment or burn out and decide he needs a sabbatical away from the game. Football management has become an all-encompassing job. If you’re working 24/7, there are only so many 365s you can manage.
Worries that Chelsea will ‘run out of top coaches’ to appoint also feel misplaced. Luis Enrique, Leonardo Jardim, Maurizio Sarri, Massimiliano Allegri and Diego Simeone all come to mind as potential appointments this summer, and that’s without including those who have previously managed at Stamford Bridge. When Carlo Ancelotti is no longer the third favourite to take over at Chelsea, we know we’re all getting old.
This is nothing against long-termism, you understand. A defence of one idea does not have to be an attack on the other, despite what social media might make you believe. But to insist that managerial long-termism is better ‘just because’ is flawed. To suggest it is morally superior is a nonsense.
Bill Shankly, Matt Busby and Brian Clough did indeed build dynasties, but football management has changed as much as the game itself. Short-termism does not have to be a dirty word. Myopia can create utopia.