HE’S NOT THE MESSIAH
The 2016/17 Premier League season will shortly be upon us, and no fewer than 8 of the 20 teams will start without the manager who was in charge at the end of last season.
At OddsModel we keep ratings of teams and their players. During the course of a season, as we watch the games and crunch the stats, we adjust these ratings as teams/players perform better/worse than we expected. During the close season 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. But 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. Football managers are among the most over-rated people in the world. Their ability to influence how well football teams plays is generally massively exaggerated. They 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. It’s the players on the pitch that really matter. But it is a natural human failing that we are instinctively attracted to the idea of a ‘messiah’ who is in charge and can make everything better again.
As humans we like to simplify things to the point where we believe one person is capable of, and responsible for the success or failure of large complex dynamic organisations. This is true in a sporting context with team managers, but is also prevalent in things like movies, where hundreds/thousands of people can influence the final product, but we generally prefer to give all the blame/credit to the one person listed as 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?
The figurehead may well be the single most influential person in an organisation, but that is not the same things 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. The repeatedly ‘successful’ ones tend to be the ones who find themselves in the right place at the right time through luck, and are 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 narcissist and a hopeless strategist this momentary bright flame soon fizzles out, and within 3 seasons he has alienated himself with everybody 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, where 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. And where a new manager then came in and immediately improved them. And we would think; ‘that was rubbish!’. But instead he walks straight back into (arguably) the biggest managerial job in world football. Mourinho is a footballing Wizard of Oz, pulling levers behind the scenes to create a show that has little or no real effect, while convincing everybody that he is doing magic.
Our rating of Manchester United has 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, and significantly, for the signings of Zlatan, Bailly, Mkihitaryan and Pogba (probably, for a world record fee). So Mourinho has landed in the right place at the right time again, and his magic show will start another 2 year run.
Across town, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City got an immediate bump in rating from us as he 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 any squad of players.
Guardiola is intelligent and charismatic, but using the level of talent 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 as an average. Bayern didn’t get any better when he arrived, and Barca didn’t get any worse when he left. He doesn’t have any track record of elevating a team above the level of the sum of its individual parts (which should be the criteria for describing someone as a ‘super’ coach). But City have also spent an eye-watering amount on new playing talent so are very likely to get better, but it’s likely they would do that under any non lame-duck manager.
High profile, ‘sexy’ managers can be useful recruitment tools. If genuinely valuable players choose to come and play for a club because of who the manager is then that is a real benefit that managers deliver to their clubs. But it’s a benefit similar to a club can get by being based in London rather than ‘oop North’ for example, an aesthetic embellishment rather than something tangible that the manager actually does.
While the idea of a football manager as a ‘messiah’ is nonsense (how often has the appointment as manager of a former great player at a club every actually worked out?) it is certainly possible for an individual football player to have a ‘messianic’ impact on a team. Individual players, especially those in forward attacking positions, have the potential to make a massive difference to the level of a team. Drop Messi into the top 4/5 teams in any of Europe’s big leagues and he would almost certainly make them champions in his first season. Its perhaps because of us seeing this happen occasionally at clubs with football players that we have made ourselves believe that something similar can happen with managers.
Of the other new managerial appointments in the English Premier, the one club we give a significant rating increase to is Everton. But again it’s not so much that we believe Ronald Koeman is anything special, but rather that Roberto Martinez is a poor manager who had ‘lost’ the dressing room by then end of last season. Among all the many things that a football manager does and can influence, the most important thing (aside from player recruitment, which is often something in which they only have a partial say) is that he gets his team playing on the field with intensity. And the only way to get a group of young, aggressive, competitive men to muster individual and collective intensity is to make them focus on (better still, be obsessed by) winning.
Managers like Martinez who focus more on how a team plays from a technical and tactical sense, rather than the outcome (i.e. winning, by any means) are always less successful in the long-term. Martinez was open about his preference for scoring attractive, team-based goals rather than scrappy goals such as from set-pieces. This is the wrong mindset for a manager to have and to pass on to players. Players can appreciate and like technical and tactical aspects of the game, but to produce intensity on the pitch they need to focus primarily on winning.
Plenty of pundits and experts are likely to be bearish on how Koeman’s old club Southampton will fare this season, with the lowest profile managerial appointment in the league. Not us though. The Saints will be absolutely fine. Privately they are probably absolutely delighted to have got some serious cash in compensation for losing their head coach, a position which is just a cog in the machine of the system they have built to manage their football operations over the last few years. The role of head coach is something they would normally look to refresh every few seasons anyway.
Southampton’s ‘manager’ is still in place, His name is Les Reed, and if you haven’t heard of him it’s because he doesn’t do the Friday morning press conference or sit on the bench on a Saturday. But in virtually every other way Reed is to Southampton what Alex Freguson was to Man Utd, and what Arsene Wenger is to Arsenal. These guys are the strategists who control the operations of their clubs, and who leave the short-term aspects such as taking training session to others.
For Southampton, losing Koeman is really no more significant than when Alex Ferguson lost an assistant manager like Carlos Quieroz or Steve Mclaren. And as a well-run, long-term focussed organisation, Saints will have had a decent list of suitable replacement head coaches ready for when Koeman left. Claude Puel might not be someone you have ever heard of, but you can be pretty sure he is competent, tactically astute, and a good man-manager who is happy to fit into the club as a ‘coach’ rather than as a ‘manager’ with messianic ambitions.
As little Southampton (stadium capacity 32k) prepare for their 5th consecutive season in the Premier League, on the back of 3 straight top 8 finishes, and with their coffers swollen by another summer of transfer surplus, a club like Newcastle (stadium capacity 52k) would do well to look down the road and reflect on their obsession with messiahs, their Championship status, and ask whether there is any causal link. They’ve just found themselves another messiah, of course. Rafa Benitez is apparently the 13th highest paid manager in European football. For a club in the second tier of its country’s league structure this is crazy, and symptomatic of a club and an organisation that doesn’t know what it is doing. With no sense of long-term strategy, just short-term pandering to fans (‘fan’ is short for ‘fanatic’ remember) who demand sackings and appointments. To repeatedly copy the mistakes of the past, and hope that the latest spin of the roulette wheel turns up a messiah is the definition of footballing madness.
If Southampton aren’t evidence enough, the benefits of a modern management structure which eschews the old-fashioned ‘football manager as messiah and all-powerful overlord, who will leave in a few years for a bigger club if he’s successful’ method in favour of a system which is long-term focussed and where no one individual is irreplaceable, then Newcastle can look to an even higher profile recent success: Leicester City.
The reigning Premier League champions have a similar structure to Southampton, where the guy who does the media interviews and picks the team is the ‘head coach’. When he leaves he doesn’t take a whole raft of staff with him. He simply vacates the role, and the club replaces him with somebody else. This time last year nobody was referring to Caludio Ranieri as a messiah. He’d just been fired from a job as manager of Greece, where his side had been beaten by the Faroe Islands (total population less than St James’s Park capacity). But Ranieri slotted into his role at Leicester (amid huge scepticism and doom-mongering from the ‘experts’, now long forgotten of course) supported by all the same people at the club who had been there when Nigel Pearson held the position. And the rest is history.
Football managers are not messiahs. They are just the highest-profile person in a large, complicated, dynamic organisation. If they are also given the control to be the most influential person in the organisation (like Ferguson and Wenger) then they can use their position to set a long-term strategic course, and instil values at a club that pay dividends over time. Remember it took Alex Ferguson 6 seasons before he won the first of his 13 league titles. Or a ‘manager’ can be a ‘head coach’ who does media duties, and runs the dressing room. But a football manager cannot improve a football team in the short term the way a great player can. Tactics and formations just aren’t that important. In this season’s Premier League, like with any other, it will be the players who decide the outcomes, not the managers.