Alex Massie

Do Football Managers Make a Difference?

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Left Back in the Changing Room and More than Mind Games have already commented on Simon Kuper's* article in the FT that argues that football managers have no real impact on their teams' fortunes. But that doesn't mean I can't have a say too! Kuper writes:

The obsession with football managers is misguided. Hardly any of them make any difference to results. The institution of manager is something of a con-trick. Ferguson and Ancelotti are best understood as marketing tools.

The fact is that players’ salaries alone almost entirely determine football results. Stefan Szymanski, economics professor at Cass Business School, studied the spending of 40 English clubs between 1978 and 1997, and found that their spending on salaries explained 92 per cent of their variation in league position. The team that pays most, wins...

In English football now, managers could probably be replaced by stuffed teddy bears without their club’s league position changing. The manager serves chiefly as a marketing device to fans, media, sponsors and players. He is the club’s spokesman. Totemic faith is invested in his powers. As there isn’t much he can actually do, the key thing is that he looks the part.


Their thesis seems overcooked. At best you might say that most of the time most managers would have an equal chance of success at most clubs. But that's a rather more limited argument that won't sell many books will it? Common sense dictates, however, that football managers' expertese is distributed along a bell curve, just like most other skills.

Kuper argues that English football is "like a market with perfect information" and that, consequently, the league table reflects the financial muscle clubs can bring to bear. Well, sort of. No-one expects Birmingham City to challenge for the title, just as no-one expects Manchester United or Chelsea to finish 9th and 10th.

You or I might well get "about the same results as Ferguson" if we were managing Manchester United. But that "about" has to do some heavy lifting since it's the difference between winning the league and finishing third. In other words, it makes all the difference.

In any case, suggesting that anyone could do Ferguson's job devalues his achievements. Could you or I have won promotion with St Mirren? Could we have made Aberdeen the best team in Scotland, despite the Old Firm's financial advantages? (True, Celtic and Rangers were, in comparison with Aberdeen, poorly run and their financial advantage was not as pronounced as it is now, but Ferguson built a side that won the league three times and beat Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Hamburg in european competition. The Dons have not won the league since Fergie left for Machester). In other words, Ferguson, like Jose Mourinho and Fabio Capello has been a success at every club he's managed. That seems like more than random luck. (Capello, remember, won a Scudetto, and was runner-up twice, with Roma, who, though wealthy, have rarely been able to challenge the Big Three in Italy on a consistent basis.)

For that matter, one could ask how it is that David Moyes and Martin O'Neill have consistently and throughout their managerial careers outperformed their peers (that is, they've done better than equally wealthy or even wealthier clubs). Could anyone have done this? This too seems improbable. Nor does money automatically purchase success. Just ask Paris St-Germain. Or Tottenham Hotspur.  Or, for many years, Internazionale.

In fact, Kuper and Szymanski come close to admitting this. That is, they acknowledge that there are exceptional managers - Clough, Shankly, Wenger, Hiddink etc - whose knowledge and expertese can make a difference but then, oddly, suggest that the considerable number of exceptions to their rule doesn't matter at all, far less call into question the validity of the rule itself.

Kuper and Szymanski have clearly tried to write a Moneyball-for-football but the trouble is that football can't be broken into tiny little pieces the way baseball can. That means that, depsite the advances made in statistical analysis, it's more difficult to measure a given individual's performance or relative worth to the side. It's not as simple as buying the 11 best players in the world and just telling them to go out there and play. Some players need different types of players around them to be able to perform at their best. We see this in international tournaments. As best I can recall, England have generally struggled to find a way of incorporating Lampard, Gerrard and Cole in the same side with each performing to the maximum of their abilities.

It is, as the pundits say, a question of blend. This doesn't matter when England play Andorra, but it becomes a problem when they're up against other sides armed with equally talented players. Management decisions clearly make a difference there and, it stands to reason, that while Manchester United will beat Hull City more often than not regardless of the team or tactics they select, those decisions will become more important when they play Chelsea or Barcelona.

Do managers matter? Yes, I think they do, because 8% is actually quite a lot when it all comes down to the important games against your financial peers.

*Like James, I should say that I've great respect for Simon Kuper. His Football Against the Enemy was one of the great sports books of the 1990s and he's always interesting and challenging.

UPDATE: Stefan Szymanski responds to More Than Mind Games here

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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