What's Good for the Goose...
Just because a manager has had success with one club does not mean his methods will transfer to another
This we know: that there are good managers, and that there are not-so-good managers. But it's equally true that the quality of the manager doesn't always dictate the results a team gets. The truth is that, even if a manager is gifted enough, he relies on numerous other factors, many of which are beyond his control.
It's fair to say that players are largely responsible for much of their own form. Yes, they also rely on their team-mates for structure and support — even Lionel Messi needs the Barcelona set-up to flourish (as demonstrated by the way that he has not yet quite produced his very best for Argentina); and if the 10 other players are all performing like hungover parks' players, then it's hard for one individual to excel. However, when a player takes a shot at goal, it's no one else taking a shot at goal; they may be closed down or see a tackle coming in, but they are the ones who draw back their foot and let fly. Managers can't run out onto the pitch and do it for them (although it would be a nice novelty if one ever tried). Players experience bad fortune, suffer injury and encounter crises of confidence, but when they make a decision on the pitch, they get to act it out. By contrast, a coach is like a chess player whose pieces have minds of their own. Managers are always one or two steps removed from the action. They construct the team (albeit to varying degrees, depending on the time they've had in the job and the exact nature of their relationship with the directors), they devise the tactics and they supply the words of instruction and motivation. Once the 11 cross the white line, they can shout and gesticulate from the sidelines, and make substitutions, but the players — and the vagaries of cause and effect — take control.
Rarely do the world's very best players fail; wherever they go, they tend to shine. Of course, plenty of very good players fail to adapt to new surroundings, but the true geniuses of the game tend to be entirely transposable. But is the same true of managers? For all the difficulties of adapting to a new club, a player can still run out onto the pitch and showcase his own abilities. But a manager is judged by the abilities of others.
My current obsession — borne of a detailed study of the last two decades of top-flight football in England — relates to why good managers don't seem to be interchangeable; why an individual can succeed at one club but then, at times against all logic, fail miserably at another. How can Avram Grant come within a whisker of winning the Champions League with Chelsea, when a World Cup winner like Luiz Felipe Scolari found himself unable to impress his ideas upon the same personnel? Is it that managers, with their unique skill sets, are as different from one another as players, and need to be selected accordingly?
You wouldn't buy Messi to play him in goal, or Cristiano Ronaldo to deploy at centre-back. Yet when discussing an appointment to a certain club, the general notion seems to be that a manager is either 'good' or 'bad', often based on the results at his previous club; his suitability to the club he is joining is less scrutinised. And yet how many managers are so adaptable that they can alter their style to suit the expectations of any club, and are such unifiers of men and minds that they will find every player subservient and every chief executive compliant?
There are many factors to take into account when assessing why managers cannot take their success from club to club in the way players like Johan Cruyff or Diego Maradona looked a class apart wherever they played. Before a manager even gets the chance to make his own decisions, there is the quality of the squad he inherits — and every manager is bequeathed their own unique starting point. You can measure certain facets of his inheritance, like the age of the players, but judging the quality is hugely subjective. Then there is the issue of who is fit and who is injured, and those great intangibles such as the players' mental states, including their desire. Success can breed confidence, but also complacency; failure can kill confidence, but also breed hunger. In my most recent book, Pay As You Play (co-written with Graeme Riley and Gary Fulcher), I attempt to judge the managerial performances of every Premier League manager since 1992, based on the cost of their personnel — with all figures adjusted to modern day prices using the Transfer Price Index (TPI), a means we devised to take account of 'football inflation'. For each season, as well as the overall squad cost, we looked at how much of that talent was able to make it onto the pitch. Such an exercise can never be 100% conclusive — numbers can never explain every last detail of such a complex set of circumstances — but it did throw up some interesting results and, perhaps more surprisingly, some revealing trends.
Stefan Szymanski, Professor of Economics at Cass Business School, City University, and co-author of Soccernomics, has long been using wage bills to show a very strong correlation between spending and league position. Having reviewed our research into transfers and the cost of teams, Szymanski devised a graph that, in his words, "shows quite strikingly how similar the measures are" in terms of predicting Premier League success. So we feel that our findings are suitably robust to be used in assessing managerial performance in relation to expected levels of achievement.
While the context of each manager's performance must to a large degree be judged on a case-by-case basis — no two situations are ever the same — there does seem to be a definite trend whereby those who achieve success at mid-ranking clubs fail to transfer that to higher profile jobs. In some ways that makes sense — logically, it should be harder the further up the table you travel, where the best are already congregated, with their money, talent and experience. Yet conventional wisdom also tells us that if a manager can surpass expectations with a limited collection of players, there is a tendency for club directors to say to themselves, "Imagine what he could do with those from a higher bracket." In the book I call this the 'Newcastle Effect', because of how many successful managers at smaller clubs failed under the obsessive scrutiny of Tyneside. (Although as the otherwise successful Kenny Dalglish also failed there, and Sir Bobby Robson didn't quite deliver what such an expensive team arguably should have, there's also the possibility that some clubs are just too difficult to manage, perhaps because of a culture of short-termism.)
The problem also seems to relate more to British managers. Perhaps this is because overseas managers rarely come in at the lower or middle level of the top division, and as such, a comparison cannot be made as to how they do when they get the biggest jobs. Arsène Wenger, Claudio Ranieri, Gérard Houllier, Gianluca Vialli, Martin Jol, Rafael Benítez, José Mourinho, Guus Hiddink, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Juande Ramos, Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini all took their first jobs in English football at what in terms of expectation and resources may be considered top-six clubs, having first achieved notable success in other countries. Outside of this elite (where, of course, an understanding of European football is usually a prerequisite) the aims are much more modest. These tend to be the most traditionally 'British' of clubs, where the emphasis is usually on making headway in the league table or, increasingly, to avoid the financial implosion that comes with relegation.
The success rate of the Premier League's foreign managers is decidedly mixed, but Sir Alex Ferguson aside, they do account for pretty much every trophy won in English football over the past 15 years, as well as all of those won by Premier League clubs in Europe (and in three instances, they have led close-fought runners-up in the Champions League). Since the end of the 1994-95 season, the only British manager other than Ferguson to win the league title, FA Cup or Champions League is Harry Redknapp, who took Portsmouth to the FA Cup in 2008. British bosses have prospered only in the League Cup, for which most big clubs send out their reserve (or even youth) side; seven successes since 1995.
Based on the cost of their squads and the XIs they fielded, there was definite success at smaller (or at the time of their appointments, struggling) clubs for Martin O'Neill (Leicester), Graeme Souness (Blackburn), Roy Hodgson (Fulham), Mark Hughes (Blackburn), Joe Kinnear (Wimbledon), Sam Allardyce (Bolton), Mike Walker (Norwich) and Gerry Francis (QPR). These represent some of the most notable cases of over-performance in the first 18 seasons of the Premier League. On the back of this relative success, each of these men went on to manage what, at the time of their appointment, would be deemed top-six clubs. Based on the finances of these clubs, and the expectations that surrounded them, the best the bunch achieved was the merely acceptable performance from O'Neill at Aston Villa. Though the rest might not have been given sufficient time to get their ideas across, each on the list is perceived to have been a failure in their biggest jobs in the Premier League to date.
The only British manager who seems to have risen from the middle of the pack is Harry Redknapp, who, on top of that FA Cup success with Portsmouth and the general good work at West Ham, has taken Spurs into the Champions League — although even this is only in keeping with the resources at his disposal (but at least he's matching expectations at the sharp end, unlike so many of his over-promoted compatriots). Even Redknapp isn't without his failures, most notably the relegation with Southampton, and poor performance the following season.
Why is this? Is there a lack of intelligence and mistrust of elite coaching methods in this country? After all, England has far fewer Grade A, B and Pro-licensed coaches than its comparatively-sized western European rivals: England has just 2,679, while Spain has 23,995, Italy 29,420 and Germany 34,970. France has over six times as many as England, at 17,588. Could it also be a problem in terms of the tactical malaise at the grass roots of English football, long bemoaned by the likes of Trevor Brooking? This remains the one 'developed' football nation that, below the top division, still relies heavily (for the most part) on brute force and route one tactics ahead of skill, technique and intelligence. In England, it seems that you can work your way up by having bigger, stronger, fitter players who can bully their way out of the lower leagues.
Indeed, while the Premier League has progressed massively in the past 15 years, to provide a wide variety of styles in the top flight, English footballers still remain a peculiarly insular breed; few travel abroad to play, and as most coaches still come from the ranks of the game, it leads to a very narrow outlook.
Writing for the Independent during the World Cup, Ian Holloway — himself once seen as the archetypal British boss — summed up the cultural lag: "My favourite TV pundits are Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids. I can't get over how educated they are. They know exactly what they are talking about. They understand football, the formations and the problems teams face. But that just sums up the Dutch for me, and we have to try and educate our lads to the same standard ... I don't think our English lads are as football-educated as some of the others in the world."
At the lower levels on the continent, it appears that there is much more emphasis on the kind of approach that will also be required at the highest level; therefore, when successful second and third tier managers get promoted to more prominent positions in their domestic leagues, they can continue with similar ideas. But in the Premier League, rudimentary tactics seem to have a very definite glass ceiling; it's hard to recall anyone since the 1980s getting more than 60 points with an almost-exclusively long-ball approach. And the more sophisticated the elite teams become — as more top continental players are lured to the league by the riches on offer and the Champions League participation — the harder it is to bridge the gap with an agricultural approach. Kick-and-rush will get you into the top division, and may even lead to a brief flirtation with the upper echelons, but it lacks the necessary sophistication and variety to endure.
Going to Stoke might be a nightmare for the aesthetes (although Andy Gray's notion that Barcelona might suffer there on a wet Wednesday in winter assumes that the home team would actually get a kick of the ball). But overall — due largely to limited resources — a club like Stoke are never going to work their way into the top four with such an approach. They cannot be blamed for their style of play; they cut their cloth according to their budget, and presumably have no delusions of ever reaching such giddy heights. Should they prosper long enough to buy better players, those players are going to want to get the ball down and play.
Perhaps one of football's great unseen experiments is how pure long-ball methods would work with the most technically gifted players. Imagine the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo playing off a target man, with midfielders backing up play in search of the second ball. Getting the ball into the 'mixer' — essentially playing the percentages — may give impoverished sides a fighting chance, but if you're lucky enough to have someone like Messi, delivering accurate passes into his feet in and around the area will surely increase his chances of doing damage; even if he happened to be 6'1" (but somehow retained that same delicate grace and balance) you'd surely still want to pass and move, rather than hit and hope. For the sake of argument, it would be fascinating to see someone like John Carew transposed to the Barcelona attack at the expense of Pedro, and insist that, rather than collect the ball in deep areas, David Villa, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi and Messi all look to feed off knock-downs and scraps from great booming balls upfield. With their finishing skills, you'd still expect them to make a good percentage of chances count whenever the ball ran loose. But only a madman would ask those very players to change from such an incredibly effective way of playing to one that relies more on the lucky bounce of a ball in the area.
As a writer who until 2010 wrote exclusively about Liverpool FC, this season has proved a minefield in terms of making sense of what's been going on at 'my' club. Why was Roy Hodgson so good at Fulham (relatively speaking), and yet so mediocre on Merseyside? And why was Rafael Benítez so good at Liverpool (relatively speaking) after incredible success at Valencia, and yet, despite two items of showpiece silverware, endured a fairly torrid six months at Internazionale?
For 12 years Liverpool had been a continental club in terms of management and player recruitment. While Gérard Houllier and Rafa Benítez didn't bring back the league title, they did perform better than the two British managers they succeeded (Graeme Souness and Roy Evans) in terms of winning trophies. Houllier and Benítez were in charge at a time when the club fell increasingly adrift of the rich elite (in Souness's time, the Reds had the costliest squad in England; since then, the squad has ranked between 3rd and 10th). Rivals were bought by rich benefactors at a time when money was more limited on Merseyside.
Of the four men, Benítez won the best trophy (the Champions League) and attained the two highest points totals in a season: 86 and 82. Until his final season, he had over-performed in four of his five attempts in the Champions League, and won Premier League points at a cheaper cost than the average for such tallies. But there was suddenly a very conscious decision from the hierarchy that the club must 'go English'. Why? A couple more home-grown players were needed to meet new quota rulings, but that aside it was seen as a case of getting back to good old British basics and doing away with fancy foreign methods. It made little sense at the time, and it makes even less now.
Admittedly Benítez's replacement, the nomadic Roy Hodgson, is not your typical English manager. That said, he had toured the world bringing the 4-4-2 teachings of the 1970s FA coaching guru Allen Wade to countries steeped in the tradition of the sweeper system and open-play man-marking. So rather than bring continental expertise to the Premier League, he essentially imported the very thing he had been exporting in the first place. That said, it clearly worked well at Fulham. But his time at Blackburn — at the time very much a big-six club with the league title won just two years before he arrived — was undeniably disastrous. This was quite a long time ago — 14 years — and therefore it could be argued that he has learned some valuable lessons in the interim. But despite a fairly promising first year at Ewood Park, he spent £75m (translated into current money using the TPI) ahead of the 1998-99 season, including large sums for Kevin Davies (£17m), Christian Daily (£13m), Nathan Blake (£10m) and Callum Davidson (£6m), plus £10m combined on Anders Andersson and Martin Dahlin. But it went horribly wrong. When Hodgson was sacked in November 1998, Blackburn were 20th, with just nine points from fourteen games. By contrast, Brian Kidd, who was in charge at the actual time of relegation — and who therefore gets a lot of the blame — won a far better 26 points from 24 games (slightly better than relegation form). Hodgson's cost per point that season was £3.16m — which, if sustained for a whole campaign, would have been the highest ever (just ahead of Chelsea's rating when they finished 2nd in 2007 with their übersquad). Kidd's was £1.44m, which in itself is terrible for a relegated side. But with the club already marooned at the bottom, and with the squad now built strongly in Hodgson's image, Kidd's task was all the harder. Put Hodgson and Kidd's figures together and it remains both the costliest squad and the highest average cost of the starting XI over the 38 games of the season, adjusted with TPI inflation, in Premier League history.
Despite that, Hodgson went on his travels again, winning a league and cup double with Copenhagen in 2001. Six years later he returned to steer Fulham to seventh in 2009 and to the Europa League Final in 2010. Top work. But maybe — just maybe — he remains someone who cannot transfer his backs-to-the-wall methods to clubs that, in a competitive league, have to win more than 50% of their games to be seen as sufficiently successful. In a bizarre quirk that suggests his approach will reap the same rewards no matter the quality of the players, in Hodgson's first 16 games of the past three seasons (two with Fulham, one with Liverpool), he racked up either five or six wins each time: always five at home, and on two occasions, one away (the other season saw no away wins). At Fulham in 2009-10, those first 16 league games saw just 20 goals scored; identical to his first 16 league games with the Reds. Hodgson's overall Premier League win record with Fulham was 34%; at Liverpool by the time he was sacked in January it was 35%. His overall career record in management has seen him win 43% of his league games since the mid-70s; including the relatively uncompetitive Europa League this season, his overall Liverpool record read 42%.
Perhaps this is all just coincidental, and, given time and money to spend, he could have got Liverpool back to where they were between 2004 and 2009 — winning more than 55% of games in all competitions. But he was given the money to spend at Blackburn, and at a time when the top teams were investing in talented continental schemers, Hodgson bought mostly bog-standard Brits. On the evidence so far across three Premier League clubs Hodgson seems a prime example of an excellent smaller club manager whose mentality is not in keeping with one where simply avoiding defeat is not enough. "You can be a very good manager of a corner shop," the former Manchester City player and director Dennis Tueart said, "but that doesn't mean you can run a multinational. It's a different skill set." Sam Allardyce overperformed to incredible levels with Bolton, but when it came to managing a multinational at Newcastle, he fell short; the fans hated his tactics, and he was hounded out.
Despite all this, perhaps we're seeing a shift in thinking from some smaller clubs. In an exciting development, all three of the promoted clubs this season have attempted to play a passing style of football: particularly West Bromwich Albion (under the Italian Roberto Di Matteo) and Blackpool, whose manager, Ian Holloway, took a year out to study the game under Wigan's Roberto Martínez before returning with fresh ideas; even promising, somewhat ambitiously, to try and replicate Barcelona's tiki-taka style. Martinez himself has turned an unfashionable club into one with a more progressive approach, although like Di Matteo, he is a young European who also played in England. Meanwhile, Allardyce's old club, Bolton, have switched from dour play under Gary Megson to the expressive, attacking style of Owen Coyle, who had managed one of last season's promoted teams (Burnley).
Can they translate this to bigger clubs, if given the chance? Maybe, but it's hard to know until they're tested. At least, though, they seem to have transferable theories on how the game should be played.