We are living in extraordinary times. With what appeared to be a mediocre squad of players, Claudio Ranieri guided Leicester City to a Premier League title. Diego Simeone, having bid adieu to the likes of Diego Costa and Thibaut Courtois, brought Athlético Madrid to the Champions League final, again.
We have seen Iceland march into the last eight of the European Championships and Wales to the last four. Neither show signs of stopping there, and both can thank their supreme organisation and collective spirit for getting them this far.
Connacht have done the unthinkable and won the Pro 12, without the raft of big spending typically required, under the tutelage of the astute Pat Lam. Coming off the back of a dismal Rugby World Cup, England appointed Eddie Jones, which saw them pick up a first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2003 and a first-ever series whitewash on Australian soil.
The GAA, too, has been touched by this coach-led phenomenon. Kevin McStay’s arrival at Roscommon coincided with a Division 1 semi-final for the Rossies, while Donal Óg Cusack’s arrival at Clare has seen them win a first league title since 1978. You may bicker with the weight of importance attached to the manager with some of these examples, but the trend is inarguable.
The Chinese may tell you we live in the ‘Year of the Monkey’, but I would contest it to be the ‘Year of the Coach’.
The rise of tactics and strategy in sport is typically seen as something to be feared. South Africa’s 2007 Rugby World Cup triumph was heralded as a win for boring 10-man rugby, and the success of Ulster’s brand of ‘puke football’ in the early noughties was reviled by many. We now appear to be seeing a rise of tactics of a much more positive ilk.
The counterattacking football of Leicester has left us charmed and mesmerised, and opposition defences helpless. The stories of the rapid rises of fortune of the likes of Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante are fairytale-like in nature. They gave hope to us all. They suggested a grand coincidence, for a collection of criminally under-valued players to happen to be signed by the same club in the same season, and for them all to hit spectacular form at the exact same point in their respective careers. Such a coincidence appears to far-fetched, even for a fairytale. Method must lie beneath this madness somewhere, and it is personified by Ranieri.
However, a dent is made in this logic by the studies of Simon Kuper of Soccernomics fame (a highly recommended read). He points to the work of Sue Bridgewater, a professor at the Warwick Business School. Having studied Premier League sackings from 1992-2008, the evidence of managers having as seismic an effect as the above examples suggest is limited.
Football clubs generally enjoy a ‘honeymoon period’ following a manager’s sacking, a period where their results improve, albeit slightly, and for a brief period of time. Interestingly, however, she suggests that this isn’t due to a new manager, but due to the statistical phenomenon of ‘regression to the mean’, which states that following a string of particularly good or bad performances, teams are likely to revert to ‘average’ performances at some stage. Given that managers are often sacked following a particularly poor string of results, the improved performance is probably simply due to the team ‘regressing to the mean’ as opposed to the new manager’s pearls of wisdom.
In addition, barring outliers such as Leicester, a team’s wage bill is typically an extremely good indicator of their success, in the Premier League at least. The market for players appears quite efficient, as all clubs have much the same information on players, and players have a good idea of their own worth. Going by wage bills is actually an extremely accurate way of predicting the relative success of Premier League clubs, and no notice is given to club’s manager at the time. It does suggest, however, that the cost of sacking of coaches, a staggering £99 million in 2010-2011, would be better served attracting better players.
So what of Leicester? It would appear soccer’s ‘Moneyball’ team has finally revealed itself. Soccer has been notoriously slow to appreciate the role statistics can play in their sport, and so the Premier League was ripe for the picking from the first club to crack the code. Ranieri’s Leicester have done just that.
The importance of possession and territory have long been overstated in soccer. Rugby and GAA are different, possession yields points more easily and dominant teams are more often rewarded. Invariably soccer matches are decided by a single goal, a single strike. In such instances, it’s the quality of possession, not the amount, that reigns supreme.
Despite Roscommon and Connacht’s unbridled success, Rugby and GAA await their true ‘Moneyball’ team to harness the power of statistics. If Leicester are anything to go by, the glory that awaits such teams appears limitless.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena