According to the statistics, the three factors most likely to predict the success of a club in a professional soccer league are:
– the relative salaries paid to each set of players
– pure chance
– the type of soccer played .
That being the case, what exactly does the coach as leader contribute to success of a team?
This blog is formed of extracts from ‘The Numbers Game’ by Chris Anderson and David Sally.
“In a normal business, when there is a problem with the company, the CEO is removed; in soccer, the coach is”, says Keith Harris.
In the high profile, richest leagues in the world, the average tenure of a soccer coach is not much more than one year. This past season in the EPL, at least half a dozen clubs changed coach during the season. Swansea did it more than once.
And when they do change coach, what is the rationale? Take the example of Chelsea. Andre Villas-Boas was appointed coach in 2011. He was sacked after just nine months. The fact is, Chelsea had no idea if AVB was a good coach or a bad coach. Chelsea had no data to make an assessment. On day one AVB was seen as ‘blazing beacon of ability,’ and when he was fired nine months later ‘an ash heap of incompetence.’
In their book, Soccernomics, Kuper and Szymanski believe that the modern soccer coach is part of the “general obsession with the Great Man Theory of History.”
In other words, soccer clubs are out of touch.
The prevailing view about talent in modern soccer is outdated: they think talent is innate. In other words, collect as much of expensive individual talent as you can. And so go with the Great Man Theory.
Of course, we now know that talent is NOT innate. There is a strong correlation between practice and achievement. High achievers practice the most.
And talent is not necessarily portable, either. As Groysberg proved with Wall Street analysts. The same is true in sports, as he proved with wide receivers in American Football.
And Sloboda et al showed it with musicians. When they examined musicians considered to have exceptional talent, they found that there was little/no evidence of differences at a very young age between them and others.
And, according to Anderson and Sally, the coach does matter. And, therefore, the leader matters. And they have quantified it. “Having a good person as coach of your club will lead to improved results—a higher position in the league table”.
They know that some success on the field is due to chance. But if clubs appoint the wrong coach, “that the portion of success that is not determined by chance passes your club by.” Even if coaches are only responsible for 15% of the difference in performance, that is more than enough, in soccer, to be the difference between victory and defeat.
So, the leader does matter in sport, and in soccer especially. The statistics prove it. Not only is the coach far from an irrelevance, the coach matters to team results.
Many talk of a ‘new coach bounce’ after one coach is sacked, and another comes in and the team starts winning again. However, the statistics are clear. When a coach is sacked, the performance of the team does not improve with a new coach, it merely regresses to the mean.
Chance and money are of huge significance in predicting results in soccer. In fact, they can account for half of what goes on the pitch. Yet a good coach, a good leader, can make all the difference. Just look at Chelsea 2015/2016 versus Chelsea 2016/2017. Pretty much the same players on the field; a different coach, though.
Yet clubs seem to have no idea what makes a good coach in soccer. As Kuper and Szymanski point out, even if they have an effect at the margin, in soccer which is a game of margins, that means a lot.