Why are we so obsessed with coaches?
Studies have proven your coach doesn't matter much. Football is a player driven sport with global stars, yet we can't kick our obsession with coaches
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Louis van Gaal is not hard to find during a match. The Dutch manager takes the same seat in the dugout for every match and stays seated the entire time.
Unlike other managers, you’ll never find Van Gaal in the technical area shouting at his team. As Van Gaal stated while he was managing Manchester United, the manager can select the tactics and pick the team, but once the whistle blows there’s nothing else he can do, it’s all up to the players now. And so, once the whistle blows Van Gaal spends the next 90 minutes with his ass parked in his seat.
Perhaps this is why United fans love this clip so much.
I mean, yea it’s really funny and it’s not often someone manages to out-showman Mike Dean but in his two years in charge of the club this was the first time we ever saw Van Gaal do something during a match.
Ultimately though, Van Gaal isn’t wrong. Sure, a manager can stand on the touchline and shout encouragement to his players which can have a positive affect. He can inform a player to make a tweak in how he’s marking the opponent, or whether he should mark space differently, which undoubtedly can make an impact. He can make subs and change his formation though to be fair, he doesn’t have to leave his seat to do that. But for the most part Van Gaal is right, the coach matters a lot less than the players. Anything can happen in one game, but over the long run the team with better players is going to win a lot more.
I like to think my readers are among the more educated fans on the internet and therefore, nothing that I said above should be that groundbreaking. There have been numerous studies conducted on this subject and they all conclude the same thing: who your coach is matters less than we think it does. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski have an entire chapter about this in their often updated Soccernomics book. In The Numbers Game David Sally and Christopher Anderson focus on the subject as well but they put a number on it. They argue that, at most, a manager has just a 15 percent impact on where his team finishes at the end of the season.
And yet, football fans are obsessed with coaches. In the buildup to a match TV networks often put up graphics featuring the two managers in what looks like a WWE promo.
Big wins get credited as managerial masterclasses. Any player who improves is obviously due to the managers superior coaching. A bad run of form means the manager is out of his depth or not up to the task and needs to be sacked.
There are a lot of similarities between football and basketball. At a high level, let’s focus on these two. They are both games about space. Creating space, attacking space. Teams that have point guards with superior court vision have the same advantage as any team that has Luka Modric.
They are also both superstar based games. Lebron James, Kobe Bryan, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo are names that are known throughout the world. But here’s where the difference comes in. The NBA is entirely based around and focused on their players. THEY are the story. They are the selling point. Ask a casual sports fan who isn’t an NBA fan to start naming NBA coaches and they’ll be able to tell you Gregg Popovich and not many others. That's just not the NBA's focus.
Football’s focus on coaches rivals that of the NCAA. In College football and basketball the coaches are the stars. It's Tom Izzo's Michigan State vs Coach K's Duke or John Calipari's Kentucky. These guys are the 'best' coaches because they win the most games. They also happen to have the best players.
Obviously they have to have good skill to get those jobs in the first place. They create good strategies to help them win games but their most important skill has always been recruiting. The ability to spot talent and get those players to come play for them. The better players you bring in the more likely they’re going to be able to execute your strategy. Once these guys rise to the top they tend to stay there because every year the next crop of top players all pick the schools already at the top. Winning begets winning.
Even in American football - the sport I would say where the coach has the most impact - we see the same pattern. Urban Meyer left Ohio State and Ohio State, who because of their name still lure in the biggest and best football players, haven’t missed a beat. Meyer eventually jumped to the NFL and promptly flopped. He no longer had the advantage of having players that were bigger and better than everyone.
That advantage matters. The list of college football coaches to move the NFL and succeed is pretty small. The list of college coaches who moved to the NFL and failed is much longer.
Football is the same way.
Obviously, like any rule, there are managers who are exceptions. For most of his time in charge of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson had the best players in the league. However he still won a lot more than how much he should have won based on studieswho determined just exactly how much better those players are. There’s a reason for that overachievement. Arsene Wenger won a lot than what Arsenal's budget -compared that of their rivals' - dictated it should.
Pep Guardiola is in a league of his own among current managers. The way he thinks about the game and the style he has developed is unmatched by anyone and he’s the only active manager who has a shot at catching Ferguson’s trophy haul.
I know, I know, you’re going to say Jurgen Klopp. We’ll get to him.
Guardiola has also only managed the teams with the best players. At Barcelona he took over a team that had the best player to ever play the game, along with two of the best midfielders in the world and a generational class from the academy. While Guardiola’s style was new, it was based in the same principles that these players were already learning at La Masia before they played for Pep. While Pep deserves credit for finding new ways to use Messi and make him more potent, the core of this group won the European Championships twice and the World Cup without Pep or Messi. They were that good.
Barcelona had unprecedented success under Guardiola, but with the players still there after he left the success kept rolling. Barcelona won La Liga in their first season without Pep. Three years later they won the Champions League again.
When Pep moved to Bayern he inherited a team with more money than anyone else in the league. This was a huge advantage in obtaining the best players and they quickly flexed that muscle by signing their biggest rivals two best players, one of whom became is second top scorer in Bundesliga history. Pep inherited a team that had just won the treble, and they’ve won the Bundesliga title every year since he left.
Pep moved to Manchester City a team with the GDP of an oil state. With money not being an object, City routinely have the best players. Under Pep City have come to dominate the domestic cups as fielding a rotated squad for them still means putting out a team that could easily finish in the Champions League places.
Pep is in a league of his own among current managers but he’s always managed the teams with the best players. Both statements can be true. Pep has said just as much on numerous occasions.
If Pep were to go and manage Leeds what would happen? He’d probably still win and lead them to a finish several places above where they should finish based on their budget, but he wouldn’t be the serial trophy winning manager he is now.
That’s the thing about these so called ‘serial winner.’ They’re serial winners because they bounce around all the teams that already have the best players. Those teams were likely to win anyway. What happens when they don’t manage those teams?
Antonio Conte wins trophies when he coaches the biggest clubs in the league with the best player - or at Inter where they suddenly went on a spending spree to get him much better players than Inter usually had. When he moved to Spurs he’s still maxing them out as a team competing for the fourth place, the same level the club was at before he got there.
Carlo Ancelotti went to Everton and did a relatively good jobfinishing 10th. Realistically, given the players Everton had they were never going to finish much higher than that. Then he went back to Real Madrid, a team with some of the best players in the world, and promptly won La Liga and the Champions League.
That’s not to say Ancelotti isn’t a good coach. There are good coaches and bad coaches. You (typically - unless you’re not a club legend) have to succeed at the lower clubs before you can make it to one of the big clubs and win trophies. But succeeding at smaller clubs still mostly comes down to how good your players are.
The truth of the matter is a good coach only raises the level of the squad so much (as opposed to a bad coach who can drastically lower the level of the squad - we’ll get to that). The argument for coaches is they take the players that they have and ‘improve’ them. That’s not quite how it works though.
Managers don’t improve players technical ability. They improve players by putting them in roles that ask them to do the things they're good at and minimize how often they're asked to do things they're not good at. When the best managers recruit players, they look less at "are you good" and more at "will you be good in the role I'm looking to fill?" Not every player fits and thus even the best coach can’t improve every player. The list of players that have failed under good managers only to thrive under someone different is long and ever-growing.
While many coaches have a preferred style of play, the best coaches are the ones who are flexible enough to adapt that style to the players they have. Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool team is not the same as Klopp's Borussia Dortmund team. Pep's City team is not the same as his Bayern team which wasn't the same as his Barcelona team. Things get tweaked here and there.
While coaches only raise the ceiling so much, a bad coach can absolutely bring you down. If you don’t know what you’re doing and are absolutely clueless you’re not going to have any success, not even by accident, no matter how good your players are.
Mostly though, bad coaches tend to be the ones who are the most rigid. They have their system and they’re going to use it no matter what. That’s just dumb yet we see so many managers do it and fail. If you have a physical team that gets stuck in and plays on the counter, telling them to start playing a more possession and technical game probably won’t get you far. If you’ve got a creative player who thrives on having freedom to get on the ball and move around the pitch, he probably won't do well if you give him very strict defensive responsibilities. If he's your main creator, your team is going to struggle.
There is no denying that tactical tweaks from a new coach can make a big difference. A change in formation (but usually also some personnel) can shore up a leaky defense. If all of a sudden you’re not conceding goals, results are likely to improve. But ultimately even young up and coming managers are beholden to how good their players are as well.
Every few years an innovative manager comes along with new tactics or a new style of play. That new style will give him a brief advantage but the thing about football is when something works, everyone else quickly copies it. That new style isn’t going to be new or unique very long. The thing that the young up and coming new idea managers who were successful long term all had in common is simple. They were very good at finding unknown but really good players who fit their systems. It’s notable that often when the manager leaves for greener pastures, his old team doesn’t tend to miss him right away.
So let’s talk about Jurgen Klopp.
Klopp has brought plenty of innovation to the game. He’s also gotten nearly everything right along the way.
Klopp’s initial job came at lowly Mainz where he lead the tiny second division club to promotion to the Bundesliga in his third season. They then surprised everyone by finishing 11th in back to back seasons despite being such a small club. They were relegated back down to 2. Bundesliga where Klopp lead them to a fourth place finish before leaving for Borussia Dortmund.
Klopp was replaced at Mainz by Thomas Tuchel, who, using the same core of players took Mainz right back up, then lead them to 9th and 5th place finishes in the Bundesliga.
Klopp arrived at Borussia Dortmund when the club was in flux. The job on his hands looked immense, but in actuality, he arrived at a great time. Given the lack of money, the team had just revamped their recruitment structure and they also had some gems coming of age within their academy. Matz Hummels was already at the club on loan. Two years later the club signed Robert Lewandowski - who would only go on to be the Bundesliga’s 2nd top scorer of all time - and Mario Gotze joined from the academy. They soon added players like Ilkay Gundogan - who would move to Manchester City - Ivan Perisic - a fairly decorated player himself - and Marco Reus. Not so surprising these guys won the Bundesliga is it?
Bayern Munich would step up their methodical approach to bringing BVB down but with every player the Black and Yellows lost, they’d replace them with someone seemingly just as good. Borussia Dortmund established themselves as the clear cut number two team in Germany and when Klopp left - replaced again by Tuchel - the players he left behind continued to finish runners up and even won the DFB Pokal.
Klopp moved on to Liverpool where he inherited a team also changing how they did things. Liverpool’s analytics department were uncovering undervalued gems all through Europe. Liverpool quickly built a juggernaut.
Klopp deserves all the credit in the world for knowing how to use each of these players, putting them in roles that maximized their ability. But that doesn’t mean that these players weren’t top players in their own right. Many played different systems for their national teams yet still carried those teams on their backs.
Give a man with a tactical mind good players and he’s going to deliver great results, but it’s incredible how just as important for what could make or break a coaches career is simply the timing of when he takes over a certain team.
The reverse side of this is Leicester City. Claudio Ranieri was far from an in-demand manager when he took over the Foxes in 2015. Ranieri won the league in his first season, then was sacked halfway through the next season. He’s not been offered any major job since. Winning the Premier League didn’t change anyone’s opinion of him.
So how did he do it? For one, Leicester had their fair share of luck. Thanks to Kasper Schmeichel Leicester conceded about nine goals fewer than expected while they greatly benefitted from all their rivals having quite poor seasons.
For two, they also had some damn good players. A year after winning the title at Leicester N’Golo Kante moved to Chelsea where he won another title and was voted the PFA’s Player of the Year. A few years later Riyad Mahrez made a £60m move to Manchester City where he’s played a role in winning three more league titles. Jamie Vardy never left Leicester but has become one of the top striker in the Premier League. Since winning the title Vardy has proved the 24 goals he scored in 2015-16 wasn’t a one off by scoring a further 104 goals in the Premier League - only Harry Kane and Mohammed Salah have scored more in that time. As Kuper and Szymanski note, excellent players tend to win titles.
Look no further than Manchester United.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over a team that was about sixth best in the league. He stripped them of some of their worst players and relied on a young core that was about fourth best in the league. They finished third.
A year later the team didn’t add anything to the first team other than a backup left back and rotation striker. The big difference was now they had a full season of Bruno Fernandes and more games from Paul Pogba. They finished eight points better.
The following season instead of United addressing their needs, they added a poor player who didn’t fit the rest of their squad. Not only that, they changed the entire system to play around that player. Obviously it was a mess and everything fell apart, but in today’s world someone needs to get blamed and that blame falls on the manager. United sacked Solskjaer and hired Ralf Rangnick who didn’t do any better. Of course he didn’t, the problem was a dominant bad player, not the manager.
Erik Ten Hag came in and quickly made it a point to drop that player, re-establishing the core squad and a similar playing style to what United had two seasons ago. There have also been upgrades brought in - specifically at United’s biggest area of need, central midfield. Top to bottom this squad is far better than anything United have had in the past four years. Naturally they're thriving.
It’s not too dissimilar from what’s happening at Chelsea this season. Chelsea were also a very flawed squad, severely lacking in central midfield. Instead of addressing that over the summer, they threw money at attackers and defenders. Thomas Tuchel was sacked and Graham Potter hasn’t fared any better. Of course he hasn’t, the squad is way too flawed. Meanwhile the squad Potter left behind at Brighton hasn’t seemed to miss a beat since he left.
Coaches don’t make it to the top level if they don’t have a tactical mind. Give a coach who has a bright tactical minds good players and he’s going to win. Give him bad players and he probably won’t.
Deep down we all know this yet we still go and deify coaches. The reason for that is simple. A club can only change their players during two transfer windows a year. Coaches can be hired and fired 365 days a year. When a team isn’t doing well, it’s usually either because their players aren’t good enough, or their just getting unlucky. But that’s not the answer fans want to hear. If something isn’t going right they want action and it’s a hell of a lot easier to fire a coach then get rid of players who are on multi-year contracts.
As a result if we blame the coach when things go wrong, then certainly the opposite is true that the coach deserves the credit when things go right. So we deify the coach, even though Louis Van Gaal is right, the coach matters much less than the players.
I recommend reading the updated version every four years. They do a great job keeping the book fresh with events from the past four years while the principles remain largely the same and serve as a good refresher.
I can also name Brad Stevens, Jason Kidd, and I think Steve Nash is still coaching?
After all, they’re the constants. The players are always changing
Yes I know, he retired
Just like there’s a reason he didn’t win as much in Europe.
They’ve won it four more times in the decade since
They did add some really good players for him
Most technical ability is developed in the younger years. Improvements that come later are entirely on the player working on it themselves.
Inevitably though, when a manager changes the style of play someone in the squad will benefit. It’s simply a matter of playing a style that fits that player. Think Jesse Lingard under Jose Mourinho and David Moyes.
There are plenty of young managers who failed because they had bad ideas. There are also manager who failed because while they had good ideas, they signed the wrong players to execute those ideas.
For the record, I’m a HUGE Jurgen Klopp fan. Did not like it at all when Liverpool hired him because I did not have one shred of doubt that he would win the league at Anfield.
Mauricio Pochettino and timing will get their own post.
United’s worst matches under Ten Hag have all featured Ronaldo
You can argue United have dropped their worst player and marginalized their second worst
Brighton’s NPxGD per 90 under Potter was 0.37. Their NPxGD under De Zerbi is +0.33. The difference in results is just variance.