On Reflection: Are managers really that important?


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The landscape of this season’s Premier League changed last Thursday evening.

Within minutes of Tony Pulis’s departure from Crystal Palace, there was suddenly a new contender for relegation, Fantasy League managers were desperately trying to offload Palace defenders and poor old Martin Kelly, who had signed from Liverpool earlier in the day, was left wondering if he had said something to upset someone.

As it was, we will never know if Pulis might have done better than caretaker Keith Millen did in the 2-1 loss against Arsenal on Saturday evening, though it’s worth noting that as a caretaker-manager, Millen is at least a more conservative choice than Palace’s previous caretaker double-acts, Attilio Lombardo and Tomas Brolin (March-April 1998) and Ray Lewington and Ron Noades (April-May 1998).

“If Tony wants it [whatever ‘it’ is], then Steve Parish [Palace chairman] should just give it to him, as he is a guarantee of staying up,” was the argument of many fans. I heard from one West Brom fan who wondered if his club should try and hire Pulis even before Alan Irvine had taken charge of one game at the Hawthorns.

Last week’s fall-out might have been predicted before he was even appointed: Parish first spoke to Pulis last October after sacking Ian Holloway, but only appointed him on November 23, one month later. It was as though both parties knew the problems that might be coming, but bit the bullet.

How valuable is a good manager?

If anyone summed up the value of an over-achieving side, it was Pulis.

Crystal Palace, Pulis said over the summer, had the lowest budget of every team in the division and ended up 11th, their third best finish. Under Pulis, the team won 41 points from 28 games, which is 1.46 points per game.

Had they averaged that over the whole season, Palace would have jumped two places to ninth, with 55 points. That is why Pulis was named Manager of the Year and why Palace’s price to go down has now plummeted.

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Can one man really have that much effect on a team’s results? In certain cases, yes - as David Moyes showed last season, with (roughly) the same squad that won the 2012 Premier League under Sir Alex Ferguson, his side finished seventh and 25 points worse off. But in most cases, the answer is probably no.

While Louis van Gaal could be expected to improve United’s fortunes relative to Moyes, examples of a manager being capable of singlehandedly turning around a team's fortunes are few and far between.

Tony Scally, another chairman with whom Pulis famously fell out when the pair were at Gillingham in the 1990s, said of the side which reached the 1999 Second Division play-off final (losing to Manchester City on penalties, a result which changed the face of English football): “My grandmother could have run that team.”

So what does determine success and failure?

Professor Stefan Szymanski might agree with Scally’s sentiment. He 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. His view is that wages, and not managers, determine results.

As Szymanski and co-author Simon Kuper write in Soccernomics: “Perhaps the main service a manager can perform for his club is to avoid spending much money on transfers. After all, transfers usually fail, and they waste funds that could have been spent on boosting the all-determining players’ wages.”

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David Moyes bought Marouane Fellaini to Old Trafford for £27.5m (Reuters)

After Manchester United beat West Ham last season, Sam Allardyce quoted “the statistical fact” that “where you finish in the league depends on the money you’ve spent”. Copies of Soccernomics have been spotted on the desk of many chief executives of elite European clubs (declaration of interest: I have worked for the consultancy firm Soccernomics, set up as an adjunct to the book). But since the book’s first publication in 2009, others have taken its figures to task.

In another academic paper, ‘The Performance of Football Club Managers: Skill or Luck’, Adrian Bell, Chris Brooks and Tom Markham analysed Premier League managerial performance between 2004 and 2009 and found the variance in points was 56 per cent down to salaries (they were also able to identify the optimal time to sack a coach, and the opposite, examples when a firing was particularly harsh).

Dr David Sally and Chris Anderson, writing in The Numbers Game, felt that a more important metric was each team’s weakest player: “It is the strength of a football team’s weakest link that determines how much success a side will have; it is the manager’s job to minimise the potential impact of his worst player, both on the pitch on any given day and over the course of a season.” They also ran the same numbers and came up with an 81 per cent variable.

“Leaders matter, they really do. Critics would say that managers are responsible for only 15 per cent of their club’s fortunes. Football is a sport of the finest margins and 15 per cent is more than enough to be the difference between victory and defeat.”

The only way to know for sure would be take two samples of clubs, give half of them managers (the treatment group) and the other half no managers (the control group) and over time, compare performance. Not easy, then.

Coaches’ salaries and succession planning

It’s worth noting that the salaries covered in all these analyses include the coach’s salary, which in itself may be an influencing factor.

Highly-paid coaches invariably perform better. The Times reported that Pulis and Parish had clashed over the terms of a new contract for the Welshman, and it was that which led to his departure. (Incidentally, a 2007 German study on Bundesliga coaches’ salaries concluded that German coaches were underpaid.)


While Premier League coaches are gradually getting used to working under a director of football - Palace appointed Iain Moody to the position last November - there is a new challenge that some of them will face this season.

Two clubs have appointed assistant coaches who are ready-made replacements for the number one: at Aston Villa, Roy Keane is Paul Lambert’s assistant while Glenn Hoddle was last week named assistant to Harry Redknapp at QPR.

Moyes and Pulis last season showed the extremes - either under-achieving or over-achieving, of the coach’s significance. But for most clubs, the idea that the coach affects results more than the star player, for example, is one that is slowly changing. And we know that at least if there is a change at Villa or QPR, the chief executive won’t have far to look for a replacement.

Ben Lyttleton - you can follow him on Twitter @benlyt

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