Betting syndicate operations like the one I work for keep ratings of teams and their players. During the course of a season we watch the games and crunch the stats, and adjust these ratings as teams/players perform better/worse than we expected.
During the close season, without hard evidence to go on, we have to guess what the impact of new players arriving/leaving a squad will be. We also note changes in managerial positions too obviously. We had to make some assumptions this summer for Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, plus the other 6 new managers in the English Premier League.
What changes do we make to our ratings of teams, based on a change of manager?
The short answer is ‘not a lot’. Normally we don’t make any adjustment for a new manager. Their ability to influence how well football teams plays is generally massively exaggerated.
Coaches of big professional teams are mostly pilots on a plane which is actually flying on auto-pilot. Top level football clubs have dozens of coaching, technical and medical staff all of whom can have a small direct or indirect influence on the performance of the first team – of which the head coach is one – but it’s the players on the pitch that really matter.
But it is a common human weakness that we are attracted to the idea of a ‘messiah’. The technical term is ‘leadership attribution bias’.
As humans we like to simplify things to the point where we believe one person is capable of being solely responsible for the success or failure of a large complex organisation. This is true in a sporting context with team managers, but is also prevalent in things like movie-making where hundreds of people can influence the final product on the screen but we generally prefer to give all the blame or credit to the Director. Politics is the same, where the figurehead we elect to be Prime Minister or President is said to ‘run the country’, when of course they do nothing of the kind. Did Steve Jobs really ‘run’ Apple day to day?
A figurehead may well be the single most influential person in an organisation, but that is not the same thing as saying they have a lot of influence. They are generally in a good position to set an example and a tone, and impose a strategic direction. But the bottom line of final results (especially in any short-term) is something over which they have little control. They are controlled by events, much more than in control of them.
The repeatedly ‘successful’ coaches tend to be the ones who find themselves in the right place at the right time through good fortune, and are then good at claiming credit when things go well, and adept at deflecting blame when things go badly.
Which brings us to Manchester United and Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho is the embodiment of the modern-day football messiah. He gets himself into the right places at the right time by going to manage clubs with strong existing squads and (most importantly) the promise of lavish transfer and salary funds to spend on new players. He then manoeuvres himself into the spotlight to get the credit for what short-term success follows.
As a hopeless strategist though this momentary bright flame soon fizzles out, and within three seasons he has alienated himself to the point where he inevitably leaves in a cloud of acrimony and disappointment. But our devotion to the messiah complex means our memories prefer the images of glory, and so guys like Mourinho will always be over-rated as long as there is the occasional trophy-holding picture to reinforce his brand.
In a sane and rational world (i.e. not the world football fans live in) we would all look objectively at what happened last season at Chelsea. Mourinho oversaw the highest paid squad in the country decline to the point where they were on the fringes of the relegation places when he was fired. A new manager (Guus Hiddink) then came in and immediately improved them.
If we thought rationally about football we would think; ‘that was rubbish!’. But instead he walks straight back into (arguably) the biggest managerial job in world football, with most ‘experts’ wittering nonsense about how he ‘guarantees success’ etc.
At a betting syndicate we would go skint if we fell for that sort of baseless hype. Mourinho is a footballing Wizard of Oz, pulling levers to create a show that has little or no real positive effect, while convincing everybody that he is doing magic.
Our rating of Manchester United changed zero for Van Gaal being replaced as manager by Mourinho. Which is not to say they haven’t improved since last season – they almost certainly have (by which we mean their underlying level, which will be revealed over a decent sample size of games, will be higher) for the signings of Zlatan, Bailly, Mkihitaryan and Pogba (plus having Shaw available again). Adding such highly paid talent is very unlikely not to produce an uptick in results over the course of a season.
But nine games into the season, Mourinho’s United have 14 points, when at the same stage last season under Louis Van Gaal they had 19. They also had 14 after 9 under David Moyes.
Since the start of last season Mourinho has managed 25 Premier League games and lost 12 of them. He’s only won 8. The myth of his managerial genius is unravelling, or at least it should be.
The source of the myth can be tracked back to a single moment in time. It was the 90th minute of the second leg in a Champions League last-16 tie on the 9th of March 2004 at Old Trafford. Porto were a couple of injury-time minutes away from going out of the competition when Costinha turned in a rebound to send Mourinho racing down the touchline, and Porto into the quarter-finals.
Without that Costinha goal it’s likely Jose Mourinho would now just be a jobbing coach at some mid-rank team somewhere, and you may well never have heard of him. But that Costinha goal changed everything.
His exuberant celebration caught the attention of the world’s media, and Porto went on to get a soft passage to a Champions League victory in May, dodging all of Europe’s top teams in the rest of the knock-out stages, facing Lyon, Deportivo and then Monaco in the final.
Without that Costinha goal Porto would not have won the Champions League, Mourinho wouldn’t have been hired by Chelsea in the summer of 2004, and he wouldn’t have been able to benefit from the biggest financial advantage any team has ever held in the history of the English Premier League.
Professional football works on a pretty simple basis really. Results that a team gets are directly correlated to the amount of money they spend on player wages. This is because by far the biggest factor in a team’s level of play is the innate talent of its players – this is the cause of footballing success.
And the market for innate football playing talent is basically efficient. So the best players command the biggest wages, which only the richest clubs can afford, so they become the best teams. Any exceptions are almost always short-lived (e.g. Leicester last season) as this irresistible force of the footballing universe pulls teams roughly back into line with their spending on wages.
Coaching doesn’t make much difference, at least not in a positive sense. A genuinely incompetent coach who ‘loses the dressing room’ can make a football team much worse, but a ‘good’ coach will only make a minuscule difference over a merely ‘competent’ coach.
There’s no such thing as a ‘great’ coach of a top-level professional football team. Coaches can be very popular, and they can have a huge influence on the style of play a team adopts. But adult footballers’ abilities are pretty much set, and tactics just aren’t important enough to the outcome of football games for it to make much difference. Long-term planning (‘strategy’) on things like recruitment at a football club is crucial. Short-term ‘tactics’, such as team formations are mostly irrelevant to long-term success, above a baseline of competence.
So when Mourinho took over Chelsea he found himself in a position of natural superiority that is roughly similar to that which Celtic has enjoyed in Scotland for the last few years. If only Ronny Deila had some charisma and had declared himself ‘special’ at his first press conference, before comfortably winning the SPL title in both of his seasons there!
It would have been remarkable if Mourinho HADN’T won the league multiple times with that Chelsea team. What IS remarkable is that he managed to leave Chelsea languishing in the lower reaches of the league table not once but twice, given the superiority of financial resources at his disposal.
If you control for salary budget and transfer spend then Mourinho’s overall record at Chelsea is below par. An average manager would almost certainly have achieved better results, so it’s certainly possible that Mourinho is actually pretty close to ‘incompetent’ on a scale of managerial ability, when you factor in the huge drop-offs that have occurred when he has lost various dressing rooms.
His records at Inter and Real Madrid were pretty much in line with the enormous salary budgets he had there. He has no concept of long-term strategic planning, and focuses only on selfish short-term goals. And he’s not even very good at that.
Across town, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City got an immediate bump in rating from us as Pep moved into the managerial hotseat, not because we particularly rate Guardiola, but because under Pelligrini last season they bore some of the tell-tale signs of a squad who lacked intensity playing for a lame-duck manager. Announcing in advance that an incumbent manager is to be replaced at the end of a season has never had a positive effect on the intensity of any squad of players.
Guardiola is intelligent and charismatic, but using the level of talent and salary budget at his disposal in his two previous jobs as a measure (and specifically its strength relative to his domestic and European competitors) the success he had is only about level with what you would expect.
Bayern didn’t get any better when he arrived, and Barca didn’t get any worse when he left – which logically they should have done if he is really the ‘best coach in the world’. He doesn’t have any track record of elevating a team above the level of the sum of its individual parts, which should surely be the criteria for describing someone as a ‘super’ coach. Like Utd, City have also spent big in the summer on new playing talent so are very likely to get better this season, but that would have been the case under any non lame-duck manager.
Guardiola is a good example of a coach who has a big influence on a team’s playing style, but little influence on the results that they get – at least as measured against what any average/competent coach would achieve. Unlike Mourinho, there’s no evidence that he is a below average manager though, if total league points vs salary budget is your measure of success.
While the general rule is that tactics don’t matter much in a broad sweep of a team’s overall results, and this is true of Guardiola’s teams, there is an interesting statistical quirk that gets thrown up by Pep’s preferred style of play, and his unswerving commitment to it. It could be a genuine ‘thing’, rather than just some short-term statistical noise. Call it the ‘flat-track bully theory’.
This theory says that in cases where a team has a huge innate talent advantage over most of its rivals (such as Barca enjoy in La Liga, and Bayern in the Bundesliga) then playing the high possession style Pep adheres to is an excellent and efficient way to dispose of those weaker rivals.
It makes logical sense; if you can dominate possession, and especially if you have a lot of that possession in the opposition’s half of the field, then even when your opponents get the ball back, they are still a long way from your goal, as well as being tired from chasing the ball, so the danger is minimal. It’s a tactic that lets bigger teams ‘bully’ the smaller teams.
But what happens when the bully comes up against someone his own size? Does sticking to a plan of trying to bully somebody you can’t overpower still work? Or do you risk getting knocked out yourself?
The ‘flat-track bully’ theory says that adhering to the same ‘bullying’ playing style against teams with an equal or greater level of innate playing talent is a recipe for disaster. And the record of Pep’s teams against elite sides in the last five years lends some weight. Maybe playing ‘Pep’s way’ against a team good enough to win the ball back high up, and also good enough to break quickly on you, is a particularly bad way to play against really good teams.
Rayo Vallecano provide some interesting additional evidence for the theory. Although they are a relative minnow in Spain they stuck rigidly to a belief in high possession tactics no matter their opposition during their recent 5 season stay in Lia Liga. In that time they played the ‘big 3’ in Spain (Barca, Real & Atletico) a total of 30 times.
They won 1, and drew 1 (both v Atletico back in 2012/13) and lost the other 28. The aggregate scoreline is an eye-watering For 23, Against 110! Barcelona alone put 47 past them in their 10 matches.
Even by the standards of Spain’s big teams, that is a record of pulverisation. The motto being – don’t try to bully someone who is bigger than you are, because you’ll get knocked flat on your back.
So maybe the ‘coaches don’t matter’ statement needs another qualification. Coaches don’t matter so long as they are competent, they have the dressing room with them, and they are pragmatic about the tactics they employ given the standard of opposition they are facing.