The 2022 World Cup has busted a common coaching myth

DOHA, Qatar — The myth of second-cycle failure re-emerged in soccer circles shortly after the U.S. men’s national team exited the 2022 World Cup. It appeared frequently in discussions surrounding Gregg Berhalter as the dust settled on his first cycle as head coach of the USMNT, and as U.S. Soccer mulled whether to bring him back for four more years. It has become conventional wisdom, somehow, that giving an international soccer coach a second World Cup cycle rarely works out.

It’s mostly a fake trend heavily influenced by selection bias.

And the 2022 World Cup has, coincidentally, busted the myth.

Seven holdovers from 2018 led their same teams to Qatar, and five are still standing among the eight quarterfinalists. A sixth, Aliou Cisse, led Senegal to the Round of 16 — where he lost to a fellow second-cycler, England's Gareth Southgate. Only one of the seven, Belgium’s Roberto Martinez, failed.

Of course, they also happen to coach nations with reams of talent, and that is the primary reason they’re still standing. But comparable nations with coaches on first contracts — Germany, Spain, Mexico, Denmark, Uruguay — have exited early. The evidence could hardly be stronger in opposition to the conventional wisdom.

The wisdom, though, was faulty long before 2022.

A second-cycle coach is, by definition, a coach who has met or exceeded expectations at his or her first World Cup, and thereby earned a second go-around. That over-performance then raises expectations for the second go-around, whereas the simple concept of regression often predicts an outcome more in line with the original expectations — an outcome which, now, with expectations inflated, would constitute second-cycle failure.

head coach Gregg Berhalter of the United States applauds at the end of the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between the Netherlands and the United States, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. The Netherlands won 3-1. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
The question now facing U.S. Soccer: Should coach Gregg Berhalter be brought back for another crack at the World Cup? (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

So of course most coaches who earn a second four-year contract are going to perform worse in years 5-8 than in years 1-4. Because many who would, in the counterfactual, perform better on their second contracts never actually get the second contract in the first place.

World Cup expectations are notoriously difficult to meet anyway. A half-dozen countries enter each tournament eyeing a title that only one can win. Similarly, more than a dozen teams eye the quarters; almost everybody hopes to get out of their group. A majority of the 32 inevitably fail. And most eventually find new coaches.

The only ones who stick with incumbents are those who beat the odds to outperform expectations — like Croatia — or those who understand the value of continuity even in the face of failure — like Portugal and Brazil. Four years later, though, they face the same long odds and the same randomness that perhaps fell in their favor last time around, but still likely won’t this time. Coaches fail not because they are on first or second cycles; they fail because World Cup success is ridiculously difficult to attain.

There are, of course, some problems more likely to arise in Year 6 than Year 2. There are messages that players tune out, and management styles that wear on them. There are pitfalls, like an over-reliance on veterans, that often seem to doom coaches like Belgium’s Martinez. There are plausible explanations for the trend of second-cycle failure — if it were real.

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

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

Deschamps is winning, in a nutshell, because he has good players and is a good coach.

And good coaches, as the 2022 World Cup has shown, are worth keeping around, stigma be damned.