“I have never used Prozone. I don’t use it because I don’t believe (in it)…” -Andre Villas-Boas
Let’s imagine for a moment an alternate universe.
It’s early July 1st, 2012. Andre Villas-Boas sits down with Tottenham Hotspur chief executive Daniel Levy to interview for the position of manager. Villas-Boas knows Levy can be a bit of a “numbers man,” and he’s prepared. He sits down across from Levy, takes a sip from his cappuccino made from the chief executive’s wildly expensive espresso maker, adjusts his tie, and slaps a novel-length dossier on the mahogany desk. Villas-Boas begins…
“I know as chief executive, you are concerned primarily with the club’s bottom line. But I know too that you aware that bottom line is intrinsically linked with the performance of this club on the football pitch, yes?
I also know you are also aware that the spread of talent in the Premier League has narrowed significantly over the years, and that the margins which separate the top tier of football clubs are incredibly small. Not two months ago, Spurs finished a single point outside of the Champions League playoff spot. That point cost this club millions, if not tens of millions, of euros in lost revenue from the Champions League. The Europa League is barely a consolation prize for a club with Tottenham’s ambitions, no?
And yet how many more millions of euros and pounds will be lost in future years should the club radically alter course now and sell players en masse only to buy players of equal or slightly better value but, critically, with less experience playing alongside one another? How many pounds and euros will be lost should the club experiment with a completely foreign playing philosophy without establishing the solid foundations it needs to be succeed?
What is a single point anyway? A bad bounce of the ball? The result of a single, unfortunate mistake? A shot that, had it dipped an inch lower, would have transformed one point into three and pipped your bitter rivals for fourth place? Should a single unfortunate result undo years of positive work and growth?
Well, you might counter: what of the games that came down to the innate, unchanging level of talent in the squad? Or the points dropped from repeated, avoidable tactical errors on the part of the manager? Or from poor team chemistry? Bad nutrition? Tiring and antiquated fitness regimes? Poor first team coaching? Lack of motivation from the manager?
And, crucially, how do we tell the difference between points won or lost by incompetence and skill, and points won or lost by dumb luck?
Part of the answer is in that dossier, Mr. Levy. That dossier could help Spurs not just qualify for the Champions League, but keep them there for years to come. Not every year of course. Perhaps not even this year, or the year after that. Because what that dossier won’t do is guarantee something that is impossible to guarantee. If you want that, you can hire whichever big name you like who will walk through this door after me eager to promise you the European Cup. And you know as well as I that they will fail and then depart with a healthy severance cheque not two years later.
What I come to give you instead is far, far more valuable: a good process. That dossier is our five year plan for the club, which will involve laying out a clear, risk management approach to player acquisition in the transfer market. It also contains the latest analytics research, which we will use in tandem with our existing data services as diagnostic tools to identify potential problems in first team performance before they negatively affect results. That research will also help us avoid panic or complacency over the various peaks and valleys of random variation. It will provide a standard against which you will hold me and the players accountable.
We will believe in our process, because our process is good. We won’t be afraid to change our approach however as new data and analysis becomes available, or to use accurate and proven predictive data to diagnose problems in the side, which we will strive to improve on the training pitch and in the classroom. And we will never approach the transfer market in a panic, but with a clear plan, and a realistic set of expectations laid out by our scouting team. We will ensure that new recruits are allowed to adapt quickly and comfortably to life in a new city, and we will establish some clear media guidelines to keep personnel issues in-house and out of the newspapers.
This isn’t about analytics. This is about consistency and trust. It’s about United and Sir Alex Ferguson, a manager who was able to change and adapt to changing circumstances because he knew he had the support of a grateful club, who worked with him to collectively achieve their competitive goals. This approach follows the same principles, but it gives us an invaluable guide to distinguish to recognize our failures when we see them, and not to get swayed by short term results. Our process will help the club survive catastrophe, even the inevitable sale of its brightest talent in Gareth Bale.”
And with that AVB gets up and walks out. Levy takes a sip of his now cold coffee and stares at the ceiling.