All long-term team performance graphs are produced on FootStats
Design – What do you want your club to look like in 5 years time?
Align – get the people and processes in place you need to reach that point.
Build – building is disruptive and messy but necessary to create what you want.
Instil– the vision and processes have to outlast the people.
The power of long term trends.
Everybody in football knows deep down that effective change takes time. Your results are determined by a combination of past decisions and current circumstances.
Past decisions: The quality of the squad you have built up, and how well coached they have been to play together.
Current circumstance: Losing your two best players for 6 months is going to have an immediate impact on how good your results are.
We all should know that making consistently good decisions will improve us in the long term.
The purpose of running a data-informed club is that you separate the long term decisions from the short-term noise.
This is difficult, football has a combination of time pressure, and emotional investment that very few other businesses do. Fundamentally changing the way you do things as a football club is like trying to rebuild a restaurant whilst still serving up food to customers all observed by super critical reviewers.
Which is why most clubs don’t fundamentally change things. Most follow the pattern of outsourcing football to a manager.
This can work, the right manager, like the right chef, can produce great work if they are given time and support to perfect what they can do with the ingredients available to them.
Alex Ferguson took 6 years, heavy investment, and almost being sacked for finishing just a few points off relegation before winning 13 Premier League titles.
David Moyes took an Everton squad from near annual relegation fights to sustained top 7 finishes but it took 5 years of wildly fluctuating form to get there.
Everton Goals For and Goals Against on a 38 match rolling average over David Moyes entire time in charge. Being consistently good took around 5 years.
The problem with reliance on a single “star” employee is that when they leave things can fall apart.
Post-Moyes Goals For and Goals Against shows the number of goals scored maintained (with Lukaku signed and Barkley’s emergence) but a quick decline in the quality of the defence. Once Lukaku is sold (summer 2017) the number of goals scored drops too and remains 0.5 goals a game worse.
Similarly with the end of the Alex Ferguson era at Manchester United there was a steep and sudden decline in goals scored (0.5 per game) when he left in 2013 with the rolling average of goals scored for and against narrowing significantly with the only sign of recovery happening after 5 years of heavily financed squad rebuilding.
That happened at big clubs in the Premier League, lower down the food chain managers don’t get 5 years to get things right.
There are two reasons for this – we call it the Goldilocks problem.
If a manager does too well then they will get a better paid job at a bigger club.
If they suffer poor results for too long they will be sacked or resign due to external pressure.
An alternative to the approach of outsourcing to a really competent manager and giving them time to build is to just have loads more money than anyone else.
Chelsea managed this from around 2003 onwards. It didn’t really matter whether the manager was Mourinho, Conte, Ancelotti, Scolari they performed fairly consistently until their spending advantage over the other big 6 clubs narrowed.
Manchester City is a case in point. The 2008 takeover takes one year to show up in the rolling average of data (as we would suspect with a rolling average) and the gap doesn’t shrink regardless of whether the manager is Mancini, Pelligrini, or Guardiola.
But what options are there available to clubs who don’t have unlimited financial resources?
There is a 4 step process available to all which, if followed, will maximise the chances of a club doing as well as possible given their resources.
“Have a plan. Follow the plan, and you’ll be surprised how successful you can be. Most people don’t have a plan. That’s why it’s easy to beat most folks.” Bear Bryant.
It cannot be stated enough that clubs need to have a plan.
A plan needs to show where you plan to be in the future and the steps you will take to get there.
A high level example might be:
Aim: We will reach the top division within 5 years, playing attacking football, and with a young team with a high resale value.
How: By providing resources that will be invested in finding the best coaches (who share a vision and providing the best coach development system), recruiting the best young players (through expanding our scouting network), and improving our youth system (upgrading facilities and pathways to improve player retention).
The plan needs to come from the owners of the club. Everyone at the club needs to know it exists and be responsible for working towards it, challenging it when necessary
Once you have the plan you need to align the key people and departments to it.
The owners need to be aligned with the leadership group who need to be aligned with the coaches, who need the right players to deliver on the pitch.
Anyone who has had building work done on their house whilst still living in it knows it is noisy, disruptive, and full of hidden expenses.
Sometimes you do have to tweak plans if budgets change and sometimes the personnel involved in the actual building work alters during the project but ultimately you start with a clear vision of what you want and work towards that plan.
There is always a stage of a big build where you’ve spent £100k and are staring at a big hole where your house used to be. Giving up then is not normally a good idea.
Similarly, you have to destroy things down that were functional, the gym or the scouting department that were adequate for your current needs may need to be taken down to nothing before you build them back up
This will be painful but ultimately worthwhile.
Instil – to impart an idea gradually
A few people have recently referred to “The Infinite Game”, such as Stuart Webber, Director of Football at Norwich. It refers to the fact that there are finite games (we play a game of football for 90 minutes) and infinite games (our clubs will still exist in 100 years and fluctuate in all that time) you can never “win” football just specific matches.
The general idea is that you should generally favour long-term capacity building over short-term returns. Better to be a regular Premier League team in 5 years’ time than one that risks administration for a chance to be one immediately.
You also need to realise that things are always changing.
The end of a specific piece of work (in this case our 5-year plan) does not mean we are finished. The mindset of always looking to improve needs to be instilled into people within the club so it survives changes of leadership and personnel.
RB Leipzig has a distinct playing style, recruitment strategy, and has been able to consistently perform under several different Head Coaches without excessive spending.
Atalanta went from a team that fluctuated around the lower end of the division to a regular European qualifier by investing in youth players and developing an unusual tactical system. The system added value to the players, with the proceeds from sales reinvested in making the facilities even better and attracting, even more, high-potential young players to the squad. A virtuous cycle.
And finally Brentford, post takeover by Matthew Benham. The data-informed approach with cash from sales reinvested in young players has seen the club rise into the Championship and consistently outscore their opponents by a sufficient margin to show they are one of the league’s best teams.
Design, Align, Build, Instil.