It would be an easy (and lazy) argument to make—advanced stats will one day help prevent clubs from appointing bad managers.
It’s also a straw man; no respectable writer or analyst has yet to make it, and likely never will. The reason is in part a reflection of one of the central weaknesses of soccer analytics: the temptation to look for data to support whichever conclusion you want to make.
It doesn’t always work this way, however. This is in part the allure of stats like Total Shots Ratio, which correlates reasonably well to points. If you can anchor it with something else like PDO (shot percentage plus save percentage, which we know involves a lot of variance), you get a fairly crude picture of how well a club is actually faring. A high TSR team with a low PDO over a small stretch of games might point to a team suffering from some bad luck, for example.
I say this is crude, but it is still far better than the subjective opinion of a columnist, or worse, a club board member. So, with all the current hullaballoo over David Moyes and why he needs to be sacked or whatever, what exactly are Man United’s numbers right now? Their TSR is 533 and their PDO is 1052.
What might this mean? Well, United’s TSR is ninth in the league and generally not commensurate with a top four finish, while their PDO is a little high at the moment, meaning the team may be slightly overperforming. That’s not a whole lot to go on, of course. But it at least offers a starting point to search further.
What complicates things in United’s case is that these numbers aren’t much different this year than they were under Ferguson last season (well, their PDO was higher), in which Man United won the league. The 2012-13 Premier League champions were an incredible statistical outlier in that respect. There are many competing theories over the secret of United’s unlikely success. My own unscientific view involves the unique brilliance of Sir Alex Ferguson overcoming some major problems in the squad. Consider for example United’s tendency last season to win after going behind, something pointed out as unsustainable by Omar Chaudhuri.
I suppose with all this in mind, some solid analysis might have encouraged Man United to act with more urgency in the last summer transfer window. Yet I think most people in charge knew the importance of a squad overhaul already. Despite the blame given to Man United chairman Ed Woodward for his failure to secure the club’s rumored transfer targets in the summer of 2013, it’s clear they were ambitious.
Yet while there is good evidence United were in trouble before Moyes, this does not imply that the club cannot not do better than Moyes, either. In the team’s last Champions League fixture against Olympiakos, I noted the width of the pitch and the lack of available passing options when United were in attack, which I theorized was the result of his preference for ensuring players are spaced out across lateral ‘zones’. This effect seems to be reflected a little in Neil Charles’ visualizations of the attacking patterns of several Premier League clubs.
These are all just fragments, and they don’t necessarily add up to a coherent whole. Perhaps Moyes’ methods (which, rumour has it, involves forcing senior players with Champions League medals to study video of Leon Osman and Phil Jagielka) will take some time for the players to learn, or maybe they just aren’t a good fit for the current team.
I think the far more fascinating and difficult question for Manchester United supporters, a question that I personally think no one adequately addressed or contemplated even after Ferguson retired, is what does a winning club do after an elite, over-performing manager leaves?
This is a problem that, in the fulness of time, most clubs would love to have. But I think it’s an important question because it really gets at the heart of what is wrong with English football’s obsession with the role of the manager. Because, at a distance, the way most clubs seem to operate is to hire managers with the impossible hope they will be the next Ferguson, the next Wenger, the next Busby, the next Clough etc. etc.
This mentality is part of what leads to the short shelf life for most managers—why waste time on this guy when the next guy might be The One—but it’s also seemingly why clubs are willing to hand over so much power to one person, like the power to recruit players at significant long term cost to the team, even though they’re not likely to stay longer than two or three seasons at the most.
This makes no organizational sense. English clubs are perpetually pouring millions down the drain in an attempt to win the Ferguson Lottery. Man United meanwhile, who were lucky enough to win the biggest lottery winnings in British football history in appointing the man himself back in 1986 and should have planned for his inevitable departure for years, decided instead to go out and play a lucky number whispered in their ears by SAF himself. That was Moyes. And here we are.
So, rather than reversing engineer reasons why the club should or should not have appointed a particular person, clubs might instead look at ways to insulate clubs from the inherent risk in making a ‘bad’ appointment. For example, limiting overall staff turnover when a new gaffer is appointed (Moyes brought in an entirely new backroom staff), spreading out responsibility across a number of roles but maintaining an overall club approach? Rather than prevent clubs from making bad appointments, why not find ways to limit the damage so that one day sacking the manager will be viewed as banal as sacking the physio? It would require an significant cultural shift, but might also free clubs from perpetual uncertainty and the costly effect of wiping the slate clean every few years.