This article was originally published on the OddsInvest website on 26th June 2015.
What does a football manager actually do? And how can we tell if he’s any good at it?
We all think we know what a football manager does. And every football fan has an opinion on who they think is a good/decent/terrible manager. But what does a football manager actually do?
How much influence does he have over how well a team plays? How can we separate the influence of the coaching from the raw talent of the players, and from the influence of all the other less high-profile staff who work with a first team squad?
There are a huge number of things that happen at a football club for which ‘the manager’ gets the blame or credit. But if you wrote down all of these things, you would end up with a list so long that it would be apparent that unless a manager gets given a time-machine along with the keys for the manager’s office, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for him to actually do all of these things personally. The reality is that a lot of these jobs are delegated by the manager, or actually the responsibility of somebody else entirely.
STRATEGISTS AND TACTICIANS
Managers in any organisation fall into two distinct categories;
Strategists or Tacticians.
‘Strategy’ and ‘Tactics’ are different elements of an organisation’s operation and should never be confused.
Strategy involves looking at medium and long term goals, and planning how best to achieve them. In football this generally means looking at a team as an evolutionary project that runs in cycles of 3/4/5 years.
Tactics is short term. It’s how best to operate today, tomorrow, this week. Within a single season at most.
Every great organisation has at its core an effective blend of both strategic and tactical thinking and planning. Football is no different. The most efficient arrangement for a football club is to have a both a strategist and a tactician in key managerial positions, working together harmoniously. But with the strategist being senior. It doesn’t matter which one is referred to as ‘The Manager’ by the media.
For instance most people would think of Ronald Koeman as the Manager of Southampton. But in fact Les Reed is in overall charge at St Mary’s, with the head-coach (a role currently held by Koeman) just a replaceable cog in their excellent, efficient machine.
It takes a different skill-sets and mind-set for a person to think and act strategically or tactically.
Alex Ferguson was a strategist. He was never the ‘coach’ of Man Utd or Aberdeen. He was a Director of Football (Technical or Sporting Director, if you prefer) in all but name. He controlled the coaching function certainly by appointing and managing the coaching staff, but the actual tactical work was largely delegated to the likes of Archie Knox, Brian Kidd, Steve McLaren, Rene Mulensteen, Carlos Queiroz and Mike Phelan. These guys were the tacticians or the ‘Head Coach’ of his teams.
Tony Pullis and Ronald Koeman by contrast are tacticians. They takes training every day, working with the squad on fitness, shape, tactics and set-pieces.
The rule of thumb if you want to tell if a manager is a tactician or a strategist – look at where they position themselves during a match. If they sit on the bench throughout, they’re a strategist. If they’re standing in the technical area barking instructions, they’re a tactician.
By instinct a football manager will also either be Idealistic or Pragmatic. An idealist’s first thoughts are about how the team should play. A pragmatist only cares about winning.
Idealistic tacticians make the most popular managers. Fans, players and the media love them – they love the romance inherent in the dedication to playing ‘good football’. But pragamatic tacticians make the most successful coaches, and pragmatic strategists make the most successful managers overall. Being a pragmatic strategist with a touch of idealism is actually probably optimum – a la Alex Ferguson.
THE MYTH OF ‘FOOTBALL GENIUS’ COACHES
The idea of a football manager as a tactical genius is a myth.
There are some technical coaches like Louis van Gaal and Rafa Benitez who think deeply about tactics. But ultimately tactics are far less important to the success of a football team than the raw talent of the players on the pitch. No amount of tactical ingenuity can make up for a genuine deficit in talent.
This is why the top positions in all Europeans leagues are dominated by the same clubs, season in and season out. They are able to spend the most on wages. It’s that simple.
Occasionally a smaller club will chance upon a cluster of talented players to challenge the established top sides. But this is never maintained, because the most talented players from the upstart then move to the big clubs, reinforcing the gap between the rich and the poor. Atletico Madrid are partially a glorious current exception, finding ways to continually kick the shins of Barca and Real over recent seasons to match them in La Liga and Europe – although they are not exactly a minnow club themselves.
There is no way to break this dynamic because of the two fundamentals of top level football;
- The natural talent of its players accounts for roughly 80% of a football team’s level.
- Wages are efficient. The best players get paid the most. So they play for the richest clubs, who become the best teams.
You can find some short-term exceptions to these rules like Atletico, but over a long-term they will always apply.
So in terms of the long term success of a football team, player recruitment and the development of young playing talent is far more important than on-field tactics, or any of the other short-term influences a coach can have.
Human beings love a story. We are suckers when it comes to falling for ‘narrative fallacy’. We can’t stop ourselves from spotting patterns in random events, and weaving them into stories that explain why things happens – also known as the ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy.
But the truth is that we’re not very good at telling signal from noise. We almost always over-rate the influence of a high profile leader in a large and complicated organisation. This appeals to our love of patterns, and because it makes for a good story. Football journalists get paid to construct these stories for a living, but we’re all guilty of it – we can’t help ourselves.
So football fans will often decide somebody is a ‘great manager’ without any real idea of what they have actually done. We just look at their team’s results, and create the narrative that they must have been responsible for it. Remember: Correlation does not imply causation. Just because one thing follows another doesn’t mean it was caused by it.
In this regard football managers are like CEOs of big companies, Prime Ministers/Presidents of countries, or directors of movies. The reality is almost always that the performance of a company or country, or the quality of a movie is far more influenced by external factors well beyond the control of the person ‘in charge’ than it is by any tactical decisions made by the highest profile decision maker. The world is run by the massed ranks of middle-managers, not by the figureheads. And the world is full of one-hit wonder figureheads who got lucky – like lottery winners. Genuine long term value-adders are rare beasts.
Strategic decisions are more important than tactical decisions overall, but events still control the manager more than the other way round. As a football manager it is entirely possible to get excellent looking short-term results purely by chance, and end up with a massively lucrative career while possessing not a single shred of talent or personailty. Think of Sven Goran Eriksson.
A great danger to any football club is making the mistake of giving strategic responsibility to a manager who is a tactician, not a strategist. Many of the spectacular falls from grace that prominent clubs have suffered in recent years can be traced back to such a mistake. Think of Paul Le Guen at Rangers, or Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth.
But patience is required to see a return on an investment in a strategic manager. It’s easy to forget, but it took Alex Ferguson six full seasons before he won his first championship with Manchester United. A simple reading of league tables in the seasons after he took over would suggest that he made United worse initially, not better. A strategist’s work should always be viewed over a medium-to-long term
Pep is an ‘idealistic tactician’. He has championed a high pressing, possession based brand of football that is very effective at overwhelming inferior opposition. He’s a flat track bully.
That isn’t really meant pejoratively. Beating up on the lesser teams in a league is a very efficient way of winning league titles. It’s a good way of winning La Liga or the Bundesliga if you have the squad with the most talented players. But the issues come when playing against teams with players of similar levels of ability.
So the real test for Pep’s Bayern has come at the Champions League semi final stage in the last two seasons where they have met Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. And they have been hammered by an aggregate of 10 – 3.
In both ties the flat track bully got his nose bloodied. In the 2nd leg at home in 2014 to Madrid, trailing 1 – nil from the first leg, Bayern crazily went all-out attack and got picked off 4 – nil by the world’s best counter-attacking side.
In 2015, Pep suicidally started with three at the back vs Neymar, Suarez and Messi in the first leg at the Nou Camp. Bayern could/should have been three down before he reverted to a back 4. The effort of chasing shadows early on told eventually though and Barca won 3 – nil with late goals.
On both of these occasions the fabled tactician Guardiola employed poor, naïve tactics. Nobody in the media would be brave enough to say it, but these were examples of tactical incompetence. Beating up on the likes of Freiburg and Paderborn is all very well, but it’s a weakness not a strength to refuse to be pragmatic in the face of an opponent with equal or greater natural talents.
In Heynckes’ final year at Bayern in 2012/13 they won the Champions League as well as the Bundesliga and the German Cup. In Pep’s two seasons at Bayern he has easily won the Bundesliga. But given Bayern’s ability to poach the best players from their chief rivals in Germany and the enormous salary-paying advantage they enjoy, it would be remarkable if he hadn’t won those titles. Like Celtic in Scotland.
Tacticians like Guardiola are ten-a-penny. Strategists like Ferguson and Wenger are much rarer, and much more valuable.
There is no evidence that Barcelona got worse after Guardiola left, or Bayern got better after he arrived there. If anything the opposite is true. Guardiola is just fashionable, he’s not great.
He has been lucky to manage teams with higher wage bills than their opponents, and especially fortunate to have had his career made by a bona-fide footballing genius – Lionel Messi.
THE MESSI EFFECT
Barcelona have been the dominant club in European football in the last decade, with three Champions league victories. They were already a very good team when Guardiola took over in 2008/9 (Champions League semi finalists in 2007/8). Their progression to becoming a great team coincided with Guardiola becoming manager. But was it caused by it?
Almost certainly not. 2008/9 also happened to be the season in which Lionel Messi moved out of his teens and started to establish himself not only as an automatic starter at Barca, but as the single most influential football player in the history of the sport.
In 2007/8 Messi ‘only’ scored 16 goals across League, Cup and Champions league. But in 2008/9 he got 38, and since then has gone on an unprecedented top level goal-scoring spree, as well as providing barrel-loads of assists.
It was Messi who made Barcelona great, not Guardiola.
Certainly Pep deserves some credit for managing the little Argentine genius well. But Messi would be great no matter who was managing him, and no matter what position he was playing in.
By our measures he is worth roughly 0.8 goals of supremacy per game to Barcelona, over an average replacement (say an ‘average’ level forward playing in La Liga). Football is a low scoring sport where the average number of goals scored in top league games is around 2.65. So 0.8 in supremacy is a colossal number.
We think that if Messi played for any one of Real Madrid, Atletico, Valencia or Villarreal they would have won the won La Liga last season. He would certainly have won the Premier league for Arsenal, Man City or Man Utd, and possibly Spurs and Liverpool too. If Messi had played all 38 league games for Southampton last season they would probably have won the Premier league.
If you put Messi in any one of the Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Juventus, Bayern or PSG squads then they would instantly become the best team in Europe. If he went into the Real Madrid squad (assuming of course that he and Ronaldo got along!) they would be the greatest team to have ever played the sport.
He really is that good. Ronaldo is one of the greatest players of all time. But Messi is the greatest of all time, unquestionably. We should all enjoy, and marvel at him while he’s around.
The achievements of any coach who coaches him, and players who play with him, need to be viewed while bearing in mind the impact the he alone provides. It’s worth remembering that Pep was also bequeathed Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets.
A coach who achieves great things with Messi in his team does so because Messi in his team. Although certainly there is some managerial skill involved in keeping him fit and happy.
Messi ‘made’ Guardiola, and he would have done the same for almost any coach. He is a genuine phenomenon, not just the best football player who has ever lived, but one of the very best sportsmen ever.
Roughly speaking Ronaldo is worth ¾ of a Messi, about 0.6 goals per game – still a gigantic number in top flight European football.
By comparison, the most influential players in the Premier League are Aguero, Hazard and Terry – each worth about 0.35 of a goal in supremacy.
THE RELATIVE UN-IMPORTANCE OF TACTICS
A lot was made of the ‘false-9’ position in which Messi played for a while under Pep. It was exactly the sort of thing the media loves to use to create a great story about the genius of a manager. But this season, with the arrival of Luis Suarez, Messi has moved back over to his old starting position on the right and just had arguably his greatest ever season, helping Barca to a treble.
The tactic of playing Messi as a false-9 is a good example of the reality of innovative tactics. The first time Messi ever played in that position was in a Classico game vs Real Madrid on May 2nd 2009. The move caught the Madrid defenders totally by surprise, worked perfectly and Barca won 6 -2 with Messi getting two.
The media and fans loved it, creating a great narrative out of Pep’s genius. But tactical innovations are made to look great by great players. If Pep had put an ordinary player in the false-9 role it wouldn’t have had any positive impact at all.
And the effectiveness of any innovation will inevitably fade. Once opposition players and scouting departments see a tactical innovation they will start to work on ways to counteract it.
Pep deserves credit for having the idea, plus the courage to unleash it upon his biggest rivals with an element of surprise. But such innovations, by their nature, can only be found very infrequently. And as their greatest impact is only fleeting, their contribution to a team’s long term success is small.
Tactical innovations are fine, and they make for great stories (think of Louis Van Gaal substituting goalkeepers before a World Cup penalty shoot-out). But they actually contribute a small overall amount to a team. No matter how much the media hype them.
Sir Alex Ferguson is the most successful, and generally regarded as the greatest manager in the modern history of the sport. His teams pretty much played 4-4-2 his whole career. He wasn’t a great one for fancy formations or tactical innovations.
He got great players in his team through efficient strategy and spending lots of money. He got his coaches to get them fit and motivated, and then he demanded that they play with intensity. If there is a secret to good management, this is it.
There is no magic formula that coaches can find to bypass the importance of talent. There is nothing special about tiki-taka, the high press, 4-2-3-1 or the false-9. These are short-term tactical innovations with a short shelf-life of usefulness. Passing fashions.
The raw talent of the players is 80%. Everything else is marginal. Tactics are not totally unimportant – and in any given game it is certainly possible for a coach to choose badly inefficient tactics. But over the course of a league season, the impact of tactics evens itself out as opposition scouting nullifies effects of tactical innovations.
SO DO MANAGERS MATTER AT ALL?
Yes they do. But just a lot less than the media, most fans and certainly the managers themselves and their agents would have us believe.
A strategist ‘manager’ who shapes recruitment and development has more potential to improve a team than a tactician ‘coach’, because 80% of a team’s success is directly attributable to the talent of the players in the squad. A strategist can directly impact the 80%, whereas a tactician coach only has 20% that he can improve upon.
But at the top level of professional football, every player you see on the telly was the best football player at their school. Everybody is talented. The differences between the talent levels are very small when you view them in the context of every person in the world who plays football. Except for freakish outliers like Messi.
So while 20% is a fairly small number, even a small improvement in coaching efficiency can mean a few places higher in the league table come the end of the season, even if it can never turn a relegation contender into a champion. So the role of a coach in a football team is important, but not vital.
A strategic manager is more focused on the 80%. He can directly impact the level of raw playing talent in the squad by ensuring the club spends as much money as it can, as wisely as possible on new players.
By far the best way to get more raw talent into a squad is to buy it – through transfer fees and wages. This is why the money that comes from qualifying for the Champions League is such a big deal these days for top clubs, and why shrewd strategic managers will prioritise this over a fan-pleasing cup run.
With any given squad the three most important factors are that the players;
- Are fit.
- Are motivated.
- Play with intensity.
Of these, motivation is the most common deficiency. If a coach ‘loses the dressing room’ then the team’s performances can fall off a cliff.
Lack of fitness (or more commonly in top level players) the effects of cumulative fatigue, can cause a team’s performance level to drop significantly.
Intensity is a less tangible quality. It’s not quite the same as aggression, passion or commitment. It’s about a clarity of purpose, and belief and determination in pursuing that purpose. It is less important what the purpose is (i.e. what the team’s tactics are) than simply that they have a clear purpose, and a shared focus on achieving it.
THE REAL NUMBERS GAME
Roberto Martinez’s teams have defied conventional quantitative analysis for the last few seasons. They play lovely football the ‘right way’. They have lots of possession and generate plenty of shots. They are clearly well coached and know what they are doing.
And yet….under Martinez, Wigan got relegated. And for a long while last season it looked like he might take Everton down too. Everton are performing worse now than they did under Moyes, despite a greater wage budget.
The reason is that Martinez’s teams lack intensity. He is an idealist tactician who focuses on how his teams play, rather than on winning. This makes for attractive football, and good-looking stats. But it is a much less efficient way to manage a football team than by being pragmatic about your club’s position in the wages spend pecking order. And lack of intensity leads to Martinez’s players making loads of individual errors, compared to players coached by somebody like Jose Mourinho.
It is just common sense that if you keep trying to play lovely football against other teams who also play lovely football, but with more expensive players – you’ll get beaten.
Martinez is an inefficient football coach. His career will follow a similar trajectory to other idealistic tactician coaches like Tony Mowbray, Ossie Ardiles and Kevin Keegan, no matter how much he might be lauded by media, players and fans. And no matter how much of a revolutionary analytical genius you might have been told he is, by nonsense like in The Numbers Game.
HOW TO TELL IF A COACH IS ACTUALLY ANY GOOD
The only way to definitively measure the effectiveness of a coach would be to conduct a scientific experiment where different coaches had the opportunity to manage the exact same squad of players, in a large sample of the exact same matches.
In the real world this is impossible to do, so we are left to draw conclusions based on imperfect evidence. In other words we are guessing. Our guesses are based on various kinds of quantitative analysis such as looking at a team’s record during and after a manager was in charge. But they are still guesses.
For what it’s worth though we think there are only four coaches who have worked recently in the English Premier League and La Liga who genuinely add value to a team’s performance through their coaching. In other words they have a genuine, repeatable talent for coaching that is significantly greater than the average of their peers. They get better results from their resources than other managers would.
- Tony Pullis
- Sam Allardyce*
- Diego Simeone
- Jose Mourinho
All of them are pragmatic tacticians. They make their teams better than other coaches would make them, although there’s a good argument that Mourinho’s positive impact will only ever a fleeting one as everyone at a club comes to recognise that he’s a dick.
All the others coaches have a share of success and failure that’s in line with the financial resources of their club, plus simple randomness. Their results will revert to the mean, which is mostly governed by the spend on wages of the clubs they are managing.
* Allardyce isn’t currently in a Premier League job, while Tim Sherwood and Nigel Pearson are!
SO HOW GOOD IS GUARDIOLA?
The two most important factors in a successful top-level club coaching career are;
- Luck. Being in the right place at the right time.
- Money. Your club has the resources to pay bigger wages than your competitors.
Coaching talent matters, but not as much as luck and money.
So how good is Guardiola?
In our opinion he’s fine. He’s not bad. A decent idealistic tactical coach, with a talent for getting dominant teams to play in an attractive, possession based style that is efficient at dispatching weaker sides. His teams are fit, motivated and intense, so he is certainly competent.
But he has twice shown himself to be tactically naïve in big games against sides of similar strength. He’s a flat track bully.
Here is the rub though – imagine if he moved to Manchester City this summer, would you upgrade your rating of them based on him replacing Manuel Pellegrini?
We wouldn’t. If he was simply coaching the same group of players, we doubt he would get any better results from them than Pellegrini currently does.
He has certainly not yet proved himself to be a ‘great’ football manager. That idea is ridiculous.
But what we can be sure of is that Pep is astute at managing his own career. If he was to move to Man City it is fairly certain it would be on the condition of the club investing huge sums in transfers and wages. That’s how a successful tactician coach plays the game.
Pep knows, like we do, that the amount that a club spends on wages is the single thing that has the greatest impact on how successful he will be as a coach.
“A good managerial record is far more a function of what business boat you get into, than it is of how effectively you row”.