Staff in major European clubs are being summoned to meeting rooms. Their clubs need a new head coach, someone who can be trusted to work well with their star players with a track record of success. The staff enter the room and find their seats, they look from the technical director to the director of strategy, to the general manager standing in front of a flip chart, pen in hand, the room falls into expectant silence. Finally, the technical director clears his throat, looking at the floor, “Err right lads, any ideas?”

This summer is the perfect storm, more top jobs are available with few obvious candidates. It was only a few years ago that Carlo Ancelotti took a job at 15th-placed Everton, partly due to a lack of obvious openings at a Champions League-level club.

Different clubs have different appetites for risk, Arsenal, and Dortmund took risks on managers (which as always will be used interchangeably with Head Coach in this article) who fell outside of the “proven winner with a track record of playing the right sort of football” criteria used by most elite clubs.

There are a handful of managers who meet the criteria and are out of work, Mourinho and Conte for example but this is where we run into our first modern football issue.

Who runs the club?

The theory is simple, an owner buys a club, he then appoints a Technical Director / Director of Football who then employs a Head Coach.

This is the hierarchy. The problem with this is the Head Coach is seen and treated by everyone in the club as “the gaffer”.

Some managers are more gaffer-ish than others. 

Technical Directors want a Head Coach who treats them as, at least, an equal, and makes them part of the process when thinking through their strategy for the first team. Rightly or wrongly some managers are seen as not wanting to work with Technical Directors and wanting full control over areas the Technical Director sees as their remit.  

People who reach top positions in football have fought off a lot of competition to get the job. They will face a lot of criticism if things go wrong. They don’t want to be hostages of other people’s decisions so they generally do fight for control. 

So few Technical Directors will actively choose people perceived as being controlling even if they have had success. They are typically the choices of owners and fewer and fewer of the biggest clubs are owner-run. 

How do they play?

Most elite level clubs play a similar style of football. They control possession, they are used to breaking down deep defences, they tend to play a high defensive line and look to regain the ball high up the pitch. They also have technically proficient players with good athleticism. 

So good teams, play good football, with good players.

What if you have players who are less good?  You have to adapt, sit deeper, play longer, look to counter?

Lots of Head Coaches do this. But by doing so are they costing themselves the opportunity to coach at a higher level?

One of the tools we have developed in the last year is a system that looks at the style of play a manager has implemented. 

We aren’t looking at how good the team is but at the way the team plays. 

“Attacking Possession” is our name for a bundle of different metrics that show how a team builds the attack, and retains the ball in the final third, it looks at certain types of build up zone and pass type. It deliberately excludes xG and other factors that measure effectiveness, we just want to know the style.

We have the same for “Attacking Pressure” which looks at territory. That measure concentrates mainly on pinning the opposition back high up the pitch.

What we find is that to be elite a team needs to dominate in both Possession and Pressure. Think of Guardiola and Klopp with high turnovers, territorial dominance, and a high line but also dominance of the ball.

In lower leagues, Pressure correlates more highly than Possession for success. Possession doesn’t seem to matter much at all.

In the higher leagues, our Attacking Possession basket is key, correlating very highly with the top end of the leagues.

Using this information we can very quickly assign scores to every manager in world football to show evidence of them having coached in a possession or pressure-heavy system.

We score both contextually (within that season in their league) and globally (within all seasons recorded across all leagues).

So what have we found?

Our data goes back to 15/16 so we are able to track the progress of coaches at different clubs, and look at the ones who have progressed up the leagues and those that haven’t.

What we have found is that the Head Coaches who have been hired by clubs at higher levels are those who play in an “attacking possession” style EVEN IF the results haven’t stood out.

Attacking Possession (and pressure) are ranked on a scale of 0.00-1.00 (you can call it 0-100 if you prefer)

If we look in England at League One then 4 managers have hit the threshold of 0.87, and all 4 have gone onto higher levels; McKenna (Ipswich), Martin (MK), Manning (MK), Smith (Walsall).

In the Championship we have Martin (Swansea/Southampton), Farke (Norwich/Leeds), Jokanovic/Parker/Silva (Fulham), Potter (Swansea), Carrick (Boro), Frank (Brentford), Kompany (Burnley), and Maresca (Leicester).

Apart from Carrick and Martin all the others have won promotion or been appointed by Premier League teams.

Potter has consistently shown he can coach an attacking possession system. This does not mean the results have followed, but he can coach teams to play in a style that correlates with success.

But Potter failed at Chelsea, and Brighton are better since he left?!

Maybe (although it is fair to say he progressed Brighton a lot) but again we aren’t saying this guarantees success only that part of the decision-making process at all clubs is “is there evidence he can coach teams to play attacking possession football”

Evidence

Thomas Frank is a great example. 

Brentford have adapted their style in the Premier League, they play solid, direct, counter-attacking football, and they have survived. They look like a solid team.

Frank’s global attacking possession scores in the Premier League are 0.36, 0.23, 0.34.

However, in his first 3 seasons at Brentford he scored 0.89, 0.83, 0.67

He ticks the evidence of being able to coach a dominant possession team from seasons 1 and 2 but the tangible success came in seasons 3, 4, 5, and 6 when they changed to a lower possession team.

Should Frank be linked with the biggest jobs? Or has the fact he has adapted his style for the good of the club damaged his chances?

On the other hand, let’s look at Vicent Kompany. He is likely to be the new Bayern Munich head coach. Yes, from 19th place and relegation with Burnley to a top 10 job in the world.

How does that happen?

He improved Anderlecht significantly and turned Burnley (Burnley!) into a ball-dominant team that won promotion.

Even within the Premier League, with only 46% possession, he still had enough 10+ pass sequences and controlled final third entries to score a very respectable 0.65, very good when you are up against the global elite in 50% of your games.

Contrast this with Frank who scored far lower on the metrics but far higher on the actual table.

Is this fair?

To answer this we need to find out if there Is any evidence that a good possession score translates between clubs.

Is Head Coach style consistent across teams?

Some managers show up playing extremely different styles at different teams or in different seasons as their player availability changes.

Just as we saw with Thomas Frank, Tony Mowbray is a great example scoring as low as 0.14 and as high as 0.93 depending on the players he has at his disposal.

Some managers are pragmatic and adapt their style to work with what they have.

In our view consistent achievement and consistent playing styles are hard to achieve, particularly when moving between clubs and ability levels.

Carlo Ancelotti has a possession score of over 0.94 in every season but two of his career. The two at Everton (0.57 and 0.62) where he sat deep and countered for significant periods of games.

We’ve already seen Graham Potter consistently play a ball-dominant style of play whatever his resources but does that come at the cost of results?

Measuring impact on style is as important as looking at the raw score

Let’s look at some of the managers recruited into new jobs this season who had previously scored highly at a global level of Attacking Possession and see what impact they have had on the teams they are hired by.

This is only a sample of 4 coaches, however, our internal checks show that managers who hit a certain threshold in either attacking pressure or possession show the ability to implement that style well at other clubs.

Both Postecoglou and Cifuentes improved their teams significantly in both possession and pressure.

Glasner barely impacted possession but significantly improved territorial play and Williamson massively increased attacking possession but not pressure.

Success isn’t always obvious in raw data, for example, Cifuentes’s QPR score for possession was still below average at the Championship level but massively improved from a very low base. Add in the even larger improvement in attacking pressure and you have a very successful hire. 

All most clubs with a long term strategy can ask is that new Head Coaches move the needle in the right direction. 

Every club with a vision of how they want to play should look for evidence of managerial hires coaching the style that they want to adopt.

Elite needs

As mentioned earlier elite clubs generally start at elite levels.

They are about maintaining a style, managing big names, and winning trophies.

The “managing big names” factor is not to be underestimated. 

Managing Real Madrid or Bayern Munich is not just about tactics, it is about leadership and profile.

Someone like Vincent Kompany ticks one big box immediately, he captained club and country, and he can lead people. He is intelligent and multi-lingual, he is used to the pressure of winning and the intensity of the scrutiny he will face. That isn’t the case with everyone. Are there better coaches? Almost certainly, but would many of those be able to handle their every word and action being microanalysed and the fame that comes with the job?

He has already shown that he can get teams playing in the style that elite teams play in.

The theory will be that with additional player quality, he can then win trophies. 

Contrast this with someone without the same playing background, perhaps an Ange Postecoglou or Mauricio Sarri. The burden of proof on them will be much higher, when people accepted they were great coaches, they still needed multiple years of success before big jobs opened to them.

The theory isn’t stupid. You only have to look at Zidane and Guardiola, big name players given a B team job to prove they could coach before going into a huge club.

Xabi Alonso had a similar path. Elite player, implement the tactical plan in the second tier, big job. Yes Leverkusen isn’t Munich but Alonso was less prepared than Kompany.

How hiring works (or how we think it should)

Over the last few years we have increasingly consulted with clubs on how to use data analytics as part of the recruitment process for Head Coach hires.

A full explanation of the process can be found here

The key things can be summarised as:

Succession planning work to ensure they are ready for a change when it happens.

Work with the club to see how they currently play.

Work with the club to see how they want to play.

Look at the squad and see how realistic the proposed style change is and agree how change should be measured through data.

Identify managers who have evidence they can coach teams in that style of play.

Speak to managers and see if we think they are a good match with the club, now or in the future. We’ve had Zooms, coffees, and lunches with all sorts of managers and find it the quickest and easiest way of assessing if someone is going to get on with our clients.
When a vacancy arises introduce the managers to the club.

The same process has been used in the National League and Champions League. 

Often this isn’t how clubs work, when you see interview lists with very different personalities and coaching styles in the final process you can often tell things are going to go wrong. When an owner is choosing based on who presents best in a few hours at a hotel, or who they know from watching Match of the Day you also know things will go wrong.

Summary

Hiring coaches is an inexact science, a manager is the single most important individual at any club. But they are only an individual. 

Impacts on playing styles through changing coaches can be significant.

Managers can coach different styles, pragmatic managers who maximise resources should not be ignored for their lack of purity.

However you need some proof they can coach in and believe in the style you want to bring in to the club. This is far easier for the purists to demonstrate, and this is why they get the bigger jobs.

Personality is arguably even more important than coaching ability at the elite level, elite coaches can be hired as assistants, but someone has to be the front man, a uniquely pressured job.

Categories: MRKT Insights

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