Tor-Kristian Karlsen, the Internet’s football golden boy of late, banged on about something last Wednesday that I’ve been banging on about for years now—the complete lack of care and attention paid to managerial appointments:
It never ceases to amaze me that the appointment of a new manager (or head coach, depending on the club’s structure) – surely the most important piece of recruitment a club is likely to make – seems to be given so little consideration. The shortlist seems more often than not to be made up of whoever is being touted by the press and anyone recommended by agents known to the chairman or board. And the selection committee’s perceptions of their potential new managers are generally formed from hearsay and how they come across in the media – not necessarily an accurate portrayal of someone’s real character. The reasoning rarely goes beyond “he did a good job at x, so let’s have him”.
One of the reasons I get tetchy when people criticize football analytics along the lines of “there are just some things numbers can’t tell you” is because a lot of football clubs don’t even do basic, simple research when it comes to the managerial role. Like looking into a candidates track record in the transfer window. Or looking at their footballing philosophy and tactical approach to see if it roughly jibes with the beliefs and approach of the rest of the staff.
I guess the reason why clubs seem to just hire any old available person is because the manager is simply expected to bend the entire club to their will, which I guess is kind of like expecting a single, flashy CEO hire to turn around a flagging company (which many investors in fact do hope will happen). In football, the only thing that seems to matter in hiring managers is experience. And for that reason, football tends to recycle a lot of bad managers simply because they were bad managers somewhere else first—see the legacy of Paul Jewell.
To be fair, there isn’t a lot of good data on just how exactly a manager influences and improves a club on the field of play. But not all hirings and firings are equal. Sometimes a particularly hire makes perfect sense, as with Michael Laudrup’s appointment at high-lined, possession-minded Swansea. Sometimes it’s not obvious until the after the fact. When Nigel Adkins was sacked from Southampton and replaced by Mauricio Pochettino, everyone in the English football circuit seemed shocked and appalled.
And yet we had some data on Pochettino’s previous impact at the club level from his time at Espanyol. There were a lot of question marks over whether Southampton was a club capable of absorbing Pochettino’s message quickly enough to improve. Their 3-3-2 record, which includes wins over Liverpool and Chelsea, has at least silenced some of the doubters.
It was a risk that, with the Saints now in 12th place (though only 4 points above the relegation zone), seemed to have been worth it. The same cannot be said of Adkins appointment to Reading, and cannot yet be said of Paolo Di Canio’s stint at Sunderland. But there was certainly no slam dunk case for the selection of either, at least in footballing terms.
And so here’s the thing: if clubs are as knee-jerk and frankly stupid as they are in something as important as selecting a manager, why should any of us expect them to invest the time, resources and knowledge into either player development, advanced scouting, or the transfer market?