The 2022 World Cup shattered a widespread coaching myth


DOHA, Qatar — The myth of failing in the second cycle resurfaced in football circles shortly after the US men’s national team was eliminated from the 2022 World Cup. It came up frequently in discussions surrounding Gregg Berhalter as the dust settled on his first tenure as USMNT head coach and US Soccer debated bringing him back for another four years. Somehow it has become common wisdom that giving an international football coach a second World Cup cycle rarely works.

It is mostly a false trend that is heavily influenced by selection bias.

And the 2022 World Cup happened to bust the myth.

Seven holdovers from 2018 took the same teams to Qatar, and five remain among the eight quarter-finalists. A sixth, Aliou Cisse, led Senegal to the round of 16 – where he lost to another second cyclist, England’s Gareth Southgate. Only one of the seven, Belgian Roberto Martinez, failed.

Of course, they also train nations with countless talents and that is the main reason why they are still standing. But comparable nations with coaches on their first contracts – Germany, Spain, Mexico, Denmark, Uruguay – have dropped out prematurely. The evidence could hardly be stronger than conventional wisdom.

However, the wisdom was flawed well before 2022.

A second cycle coach is, by definition, a coach who met or exceeded expectations at their first World Championship, thereby earning a second try. This overperformance then raises expectations for the second cycle, while the simple concept of regression often predicts an outcome that is more in line with the original expectations – an outcome that, with expectations inflated now, would represent a second cycle failure.

The question facing US soccer now: should coach Gregg Berhalter be brought back for another crack at the World Cup? (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

So Naturally Most coaches who get a second four-year contract will do worse in years 5-8 than in years 1-4. Because many who would counterfactually do better on their second contracts do not even get the second contract.

The World Cup expectations are notoriously difficult to meet anyway. Half a dozen countries enter each tournament to win a title that only one can win. Similarly, more than a dozen teams eye the quarter; Almost everyone hopes to get out of their group. Much of the 32 inevitably fails. And most eventually find new coaches.

The only ones clinging to the incumbents are those that beat the odds, exceeding expectations – like Croatia – or those that understand the value of continuity even in the face of failure – like Portugal and Brazil. Four years later, however, they face the same high odds and randomness that might have fallen in their favor last time, but still probably not this time. Trainers don’t fail because they are in the first or second cycle; they fail because World Cup success is ridiculously difficult to achieve.

Of course, there are some issues that are more likely to occur in Year 6 than in Year 2. There are messages that players ignore and management styles that get on their nerves. There are pitfalls, like over-reliance on veterans, that often thwart coaches like Belgium’s Martinez. There are plausible explanations for the trend towards failure in the second cycle – if it existed.

But there are, anecdotally, just as many benefits that accrue as a coaching tenure progresses. There are relationships that form and tactics that players know by heart. Didier Deschamps won the entire damn World Cup in his second cycle and is now back for a third, with his French team buzzing.

“I don’t think he’s changed his habits, I don’t think he’s changed how he treats the team,” said French striker Olivier Giroud this week – and he meant it in a positive way. “He really engages with the players to improve everything.”

In short, Deschamps wins because he has good players and is a good coach.

And good coaches, as the 2022 World Cup showed, are worth sticking around, stigma be damned.

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