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Assistant Coach to Head Coach: Risk and Reward

Research by Audrey Jarjoura

Enzo Maresca recently became one of the Championship’s newest Head Coaches. Despite a short stint as the Head Coach at Parma in 2021, his appointment comes with a level of attention as he transitions directly from an Assistant Coach role under Pep Guardiola that culminated in Manchester City’s historic 2022/23 treble-winning season.

However, it is also seen as a risky choice given his lack of experience at the Head Coach level. During Leicester’s decision-making process, the club hierarchy wouldn’t have had a track record to project against - it is the age-old conundrum within scouting circles of how you evaluate ‘potential’ over hard proof.

Despite this challenge, plenty of clubs have been willing to try it. Sportsology Group conducted a study across 9 leagues and since 2018, nearly a third (31.8%) of Head Coach hires have come directly from non-head coach roles. Fig 1 shows that the prevalent roles, three-quarters, are that of the Assistant Coach and the 2nd team coach.

Figure 1: Previous roles of the new hires coming from non-Head Coach backgrounds, across all 9 leagues studied since 2018 (excludes Interim appointments).

Enzo Maresca has joined Leicester in the Championship, which generally has been a good league for Assistant Coaches making the leap into management. Across our study in this league, nearly 40% of Head Coach hires came from non-Head Coaches. There are some big success story examples; Michael Carrick, who took his first Head Coach role at Middlesborough this past season, had an immediate impact, taking the team from 20th to finishing in the playoffs in 4th place. Michael Beale’s successful short stint at QPR last season before joining Glasgow Rangers is another example. And let’s not forget that Leeds' recently appointed Head Coach, Daniel Farke, started his successful Championship career coming to Norwich directly from managing the Borussia Dortmund 2nd team.

The Premier League, on the other hand, has only given the opportunity to first-time head coaches 14% of the time. Is the risk seen as too big? Is it simply the quality level that is seen as too high for an inexperienced coach? Although few, there are some clear success stories including Mikel Arteta joining Arsenal from Manchester City (like Enzo Maresca, also coming from the Pep ‘Coaching Tree’).

How does the Championship and the Premier League compare to other Leagues?

Since 2018, of the top 7 European Leagues and MLS/Championship that the Sportsology Group research team has analyzed, the Premier League has the lowest % of hires coming from non-head coach roles.

Of the top European leagues, the Bundesliga is showing the way with 44.6% of new hires coming from non-Head Coach roles. For example, Julian Nagelsmann was the 2nd team Head Coach at Hoffenheim before being given the lead role in 2018 at only 28 years old. Also, the recently touted Xabi Alonso, who has had a great impact at Leverkusen in his short tenure so far and is attracting the world's leading clubs’ attention, was the 2nd team coach at Real Sociedad.

Often within the Bundesliga and Eredivisie particularly you can find a team's existing Assistant Coach has been trained up for the main role and embedded into the club's culture and ethos, such as in Eden Terzic at Dortmund or Pascal Jansen at the forward-thinking AZ Alkmaar.

Ligue 1 also has some incumbent good examples with Will Still at Reims making an impact and Franck Haise, previously the coach of the Lens B team, now having led the team to their best-ever finish and Champions League Football next season.

A standout emerging league is the MLS. It is the only league analyzed where half of the new hires are first-time Head Coaches. In a trend where the league is moving away from the ‘high-profile’ European head coach imports, they are trusting their domestic coaches and their coaching education system with the 1st team head coach role.

A good MLS example is FC Cincinnati, who are currently riding high in the MLS standings; with only two losses all season, they are leading the Eastern Conference by quite a margin. A far cry from the team that Pat Noonan inherited (one of our top-rated HC’s on our Sportsology Group HC Score Index), taking over at the end of a dismal 2021 season where they finished dead last in the Eastern Conference. He has managed to help turn the team’s performances and the training ground culture around, bringing some of the expertise acquired under the lauded Philadelphia Union program with Jim Curtin (who himself joined Philadelphia from an Assistant role).

Is the trend increasing?

There are two sides to the story.

In the UK, namely the Premier League and Championship, this trend is increasing. For example, in the 2022/23 season, 10 of the Championship new hires came from an Assistant Coaching role. 

Prediction: If this trend continues, we predict that by the 2025/26 season, up to 25% of all new hires into Premier League Head Coach roles will be from non-Head Coach backgrounds and 50% in the Championship.

However, in certain leagues, we are seeing the opposite trend. Take La Liga for example - only ONE team in the past three seasons (namely new La Liga entrant Las Palmas) has hired a Head Coach directly from a non-Head Coach role. This is even when there are clear examples of success, including Champions League-winning Zinedine Zidane and Imanol Alguacil at high-flying Real Sociedad.

How does this impact a team's future Head Coach searches?

From our experience of helping clubs with their Head Coach searches in European Football, MLS Soccer, and across multiple sports, we believe decision-makers need to be more aware of the Assistant Coach market and the traits that make good ones stick.

There are success factors the club's decision-makers need to be mindful of and benchmark, for example; How structured an environment is the first-time head coach coming into and the one they have come from? Who are the top coaches/coaching tree they may have worked with and absorbed their philosophy from? How rigid or adaptable are they? Are they coming from a successful high-performance environment? We have evidence to suggest these are all important factors for a club to understand that can drive a successful tenure.

Given the average time period between a fire and hire of a Head Coach in the Premier League is 17 days, there often isn’t the time or resources for a team to gather all the information in time when conducting an often global search. So Head Coach tracking and succession planning is key, something that is a clear competitive advantage opportunity for teams in an increasingly volatile head coach market.

The success cases are both evident and attractive from a financial perspective as they also command a lower salary, demand shorter contracts, and generally buy into a club's operating model quicker than their more established counterparts. Something appealing as we see in our study for teams with lower budgets.

High-potential Head Coaches coming directly from the Assistant Coach role, such as Enzo Maresca, can be successful but will need additional support in the new role. Surrounding them with the right departments, culture, and staff is also vital.

About us…

Sportsology Group’s Head Coach Analysis & Search service offers an initial data-driven assessment and tracking of prospective coaches and assistant coaches in the global market, benchmarked against key criteria such as whether they have over-performed based on wage bill budget. But this is just 50% of the story, the other 50% is capturing the all-important qualitative market intelligence on the candidates from our extensive network; such as working style, peer review, interaction with internal management/media, key staff they would bring and language skills. Please get in touch for more information.


By Steven Houston


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