Accurately assigning credit is incredibly difficult.
In football we may look at a team of eleven players who have just won a game by one goal to nil and try to break down what their individual contributions were.
The headlines will always be about the goal scorer. He scored the winning goal so he is most responsible for the win? But what if the goal was the result of the winger beating five players and passing it to the scorer with the net empty? Surely that was a bigger contribution?
What if the goalkeeper made some world class saves? Doesn’t that deserve more credit?
What if the defence or midfield were so good the goalkeeper didn’t have a shot to save? Which midfielder or defender was most responsible?
I think most reasonable people would agree football is a team sport and in teams individuals do all contribute at different rates in different circumstances. Some games it may be the goalkeeper who is the hero, some games the left back. The important thing is that the collective works.
Yet some players are clearly better than their teammates. These players rise through the levels as that talent is identified. Football is quite meritocratic in that way. There is no hierarchy to navigate, no boxes to tick, no interview panel, you simply get independently assessed on your observed performance.
Data and video help massively. Even at this fairly nascent stage of football analytics with only event data you can identify talented individuals within teams pretty accurately after only a few games. Jump onto Instat or Wyscout and verify with your eyes and soon you can pull together a list of players who are capable of playing at a higher level.
The difficult bit is matching players to roles and finding the best move for them for their current ability level. A good concept to keep in mind is the zone of proximal development. Players need to play at the level they are just good enough to get regular minutes at to maximise their development. This is a huge, and underused, advantage available to multiclub networks.
But we don’t have data and video for “thinking” jobs
If I am coaching track cyclists I can measure their output to ridiculously precise levels.
This is also true of traditional factory work. Piece-rate work where workers are assessed on how many units they process is incredibly common.
Problems occur when you start adding externalities into the performance measures. For example you may try to rank surgeons by their performance. Would you rather be operated on by Mr Smith with a 95% survival rate or Mr Jones with a 60% survival rate?
The higher the better surely? But what if I told you the expected, pre-operation survival rate of the patients was 100% for Smith’s and 20% for Jones’?
It gets even trickier when we move past measurement of individuals pursuing solitary enterprise into people working within teams.
Imagine a sales team, another place where data can be, and is, used. You have 100 sales leads and 10 people in the team. How do you assign the leads? Do the best sales people always get the best leads? If so, how do you know they are the best, not just the ones given the best chances?
Sales is still very much output driven. You have a single figure you can, rightly or wrongly, attribute to an individual.
What about long term projects? For example look at youth development at a football club.
This is a multi-step project including:
Initial talent identification: Someone has spotted the player.
Signing the talent: Someone has persuaded the parent/player to sign up with the club.
Coaching in multiple age groups: Someone has worked with the player and helped improve them.
Player retention: Someone has persuaded that player to remain with the club (good players always have options).
First-team debut: Someone has put that player on the pitch for the first-team.
Often football clubs look enviously at the youth system of another club and poach one of the staff from that club. This may be someone from the talent identification system. But does this work?
The Matthew Effect is something we should always consider. If we only give opportunity to people with “track records” we risk missing out on people with better ideas. How do we know the person with time in the Barcelona academy is better than the one with Bradford? Much like the surgeon example earlier, it may be a bigger achievement to have got 3 players all the way through the system into regular League Two football than it was to get Barcelona’s star players in.
And anyway is taking an individual person from a successful system and putting them into another system going to always work? Clearly not. You need someone to have correctly diagnosed the problem with the system.
A systemic approach?
Going back to our youth system process we first have to ask where the system is failing.
This is where I feel some clubs lack good quality user-centered information.
Saying “we need to develop our own players” is simple. But diagnosing why that happens is often missed out.
Take two clubs, Club A and Club B
Club A has a thriving youth system with 5 current first team players and millions in the bank from player sales.
Club B has only a few youth players but none are regulars, the academy runs at a huge loss.
Simple isn’t it, Club A is good, Club B is bad. Club B should take some of the talent spotters and coaches from Club A?
What if Club B finishes higher in the league than Club A almost every year?
Maybe it is just easier to get into the Club A first team? Maybe Club A have a structure in place where they have a stated aim to get players into the first-team whilst Club B prioritise winning above all.
To correctly diagnose the problem we would need to look at the problem systematically.
We could break this down into the various elements identified earlier and work out how we may go about assessing each element.
For example measuring retention. Are we losing players before their first-team debut? If so do they go on to have good careers with other clubs? Are they players we had identified as first team potential players? Who do they go to? Is there a pattern of the age they leave at? What reasons do the players/parents give for going elsewhere? What changes could we make to ensure we don’t lose our best talents?
At all stages we need to speak to the people who actually use the system and ensure we are designing systems and processes that suit our users.
Once the system is in place you can staff it with people who know their role and responsibilities and give them freedom within that framework to do the job brilliantly. Without a system and process you are too reliant on individual excellence for success, and if that excellence is noticed elsewhere you are in trouble.
Arguably the most difficult area to assess individual impact, and separate it from circumstance, is when assessing head coaches or managers of football teams.
Using a simple win percentage model is clearly ridiculous. Give me Manchester City’s squad and Pep Guardiola an amateur team and I’d fancy my chances in a series of matches. But no doubt I’d have worsened Manchester City and Pep would have massively improved his team.
The best models (and we use this) look at a combination of data trends, player roles within teams, the types and age profiles of players used and recruited. We look too at the team playing style, comparing team similarity in various metrics.
At larger clubs track records become more important. You need managers who positively reflect the club in their dealings with the media and the way they conduct themselves. At the highest level a lot of the work is in persuading talented players to join the club rather than finding the right talent. In these cases a “star” manager may well be an advantage.
However I often find it interesting how many managers are very highly rated in the game and owe their position to huge strokes of luck or good timing. Be this being the team captain when the manager got sacked and being asked to take charge of a few games; or in Roger Schmidt’s case being overheard talking about football by a chairman of a lower league club who then pursued him for years until he reluctantly agreed to take charge of his team. So many of the boy genius type managers happen to have been around people who recognised their talent (AVB living in the same building as Bobby Robson, Nagelsmann being coached by Tuchel when his youth career ended due to injury).
If some of the most successful managers / coaches happen to be discovered by good fortune does that not tell us that there is a very good chance a talent we think of as being very rare is in fact simply limited by opportunity?
And rather than spending lots of money chasing a small amount of proven talent clubs should instead be developing coaches in house?
Game changing investment articles usually concentrate on player development, after all players can be traded for millions.
But bad coaching and management appointments can result in multi-millions in contract payments, failed transfers, and lost profits and revenues.
These appointments are the most important a club make.
In search of a unicorn
Football loves the expression “unicorn”. It relates to the idea that we are all searching for an impossible combination that is hard to find. The best managers are unicorns; they are brilliant tacticians, great motivators, charismatic communicators, have perfected psychology, have perfect ability to judge player performance, and unrivalled football knowledge.
Do these people exist? Yes with a caveat I’ll get to in a few paragraphs. They are at the very top of the game and get paid £10m+ a year.
But what if we didn’t need all that embodied in a single human? Are those requirements actually not that rare individually?
There are some phenomenal tactical writers. There are some brilliant communicators and motivators. There are some people who can watch a football match and pick out the key issues in minutes. There are people with very high levels of emotional intelligence who can perfectly judge the right thing to say.
Can we develop a systemic approach to football where we separate out the various constituent parts that make up a “unicorn” of a manager?
The magic ingredient
Doing this systemically requires humility. We need to understand our strengths and weaknesses and ensure the parts all work together.
It also requires respect, both at a human level, and for the idea of a systemic approach to football in a fairly ego driven industry.
The caveat I mentioned with the great managers earlier is that they arguably do this naturally. They surround themselves with the very best coaching teams, sports psychologists etc.
The difference in this case is that rather than effectively outsourcing the first team management to a head coach and his team you bring everything in house where it can be controlled and developed over time.
It is this effective outsourcing that leads to the biggest problems. You have a misalignment in priorities between the “club” (the structural business containing the youth development system, training ground, ground, sales, media, commercial team) and the first-team management team who at 95% of clubs have a requirement for short term success to enable them to gain a better job.
Aligning priorities is, unsurprisingly, something Red Bull seem to have thought about. Their approach has already seen coaches like Marco Rose, Gerhard Struber, and Jesse Marsch progress through their club network. At a systemic level they control the style of play, they then have a built in progression pathway for both managers and players where they can prove their ability to coach and play in a less pressured, relegation free environment (at Liefering mainly but also arguably NYRB).
We often talk about pathways for players but coaches are just as in need of the right to fail and learn.
We effectively give most managers / coaches around 10 games, usually in less than ideal circumstances, to see how good they are. But no proper professional development system works like that. Sink or swim wastes so much talent.
Surgeons aren’t chucked in at the deep end, they train in less pressured environments, work with experts, prove their ability, and slowly move up to become experts themselves before taking charge of complex procedures.
Why are people put in charge of really complicated, high pressured work, potentially risking hundreds of millions of assets not offered similar quality experiences?
Club networks have absolutely ideal development environments for coaches and managers. The ability to rotate between roles, work alongside experts and specialists and add to an institutional knowledge base on “what works” is a huge advantage. But again, how many are actually doing this?
Lessons for clubs
Systems are important, clubs should be structured with properly assigned roles.
Align the priorities of the first team manager / head coach with the club’s long term aims.
Create training pathways for coaches that lead all the way to the first-team. Why constantly effectively outsource the main visible part of your work behind the scenes to short term externally appointed groups of people?
Develop institutional knowledge. Build up a playbook owned by the organisation rather than relying on individuals with private knowledge.