Thursday, 20 November 2008

Yes, you can blame the Manager

Danny Finkelstein has an interesting take on the importance of managers in sport. A recent study has been carried out by economist David Berri, who analysed the contributions made by a variety of basketball players when managed by different coaches.

The study concluded that:

"The majority of the coaches we looked at did not have a statistically significant impact on player performance. And some of these coaches are ranked among the all-time greats.

Such findings suggest that the outcomes we observe for teams are mostly about the players, not the coaches. So teams that wish to improve should focus on the people in the uniforms, not the people wearing suits on the sidelines."

This clearly is something Finkelstein has long suspected, and he uses his own comparison of the records of Jose Mourinho and Avram Grant at Chelsea.
"The Fink Tank hasn't done a directly comparable study, but last year we crawled all over the figures for the tenure of the celebrated Jose Mourinho and the generally dismissed Avram Grant. The result? That Avram Grant did slightly better.

I do not think this was because Avram Grant had hidden ability. I think Grant's success simply shows that managers don't make as much difference to team performance as coverage suggests."

I am sure that this is largely correct - few can argue that the press are prone to exaggeration when it comes to a manager's abilities. The Grant/Mourinho comparison holds water too, but I can't help feel that Grant's demise was driven by factors other than his managerial record. Mourinho is a good-looking bastard with a penchant for being obnoxious and a stratospheric self-regard; despite this, the fans and press fell in love with him (and despite my description of him, I love him as well). Grant, on the other hand, makes John Major look like Mr Exciting. As Chelsea were pipped to the Premiership and the Champions' League by an exceptional Manchester United team, Bruce Buck and that slimeball Kenyon bought into the Mourinho myth and Grant was history. Should Big Phil equal Grant's achievements this season, I think we can be fairly sure he'll still have a job at the end of it.

The importance of a manager may be overstated, but to dismiss it altogether is absurd. After all, it is the manager who chooses who to buy, the manager who chooses who to play and where to play them. It is the manager who most influences the style of football that the team plays. Take Spurs for example. Juande Ramos used Bentley at right-back and left midfield, but never in his best position on the right wing or as a withdrawn striker. He made the exceptionally gifted attacking playmaker Luca Modric play as a tough-tackling holding midfielder, and he made the exceptionally ungifted centre midfielder Didier Zokora play left-back. Small wonder Spurs underachieved. Now under 'Arry, Bentley's back on the right, Modric is in a position where he can display his attacking talents and Spurs are winning again.

It is the manager who influences the development of young players. Would Arsenal's brilliant young players be as accomplished were it not for Arsene Wenger? Would Cristiano Ronaldo have become the player he had if he had been bought by Alan Curbishley rather than Alex Ferguson? (The answer to that, as you should already know is "no". Curbishley would have refused to put him in the team because he frowns upon flair and unpredictability, and because he is the most miserable depressing man in the world, ever. Hayden Mullins would have played instead).

The life of an international manager is very similar to the situation engineered by Berri in his research. They effectively have a collection of players put in front of them. They can't buy players, they don't have enough time to coach them technically, and they are not required to act as a father figure.

So, according to Finkelstein and Berri, we may as well have stuck with Schteve McClaren, because Capello can't make much of a difference. After all, Capello's picked pretty much the same players as McClaren. Anyone who's watched England over the past couple of years would surely agree that the new manager HAS made a pretty big difference, not the players.

I think it's a bit ridiculous when you see clubs sacking managers every time they have a few bad games in a row, but to suggest that the manager's role is not of great importance is lunacy.

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