Ian Graham: The 'holy grail' of analytics

Dr Ian Graham was Head of Research at Liverpool from 2012 to 2023

Dr Ian Graham was Head of Research at Liverpool from 2012 to 2023

FORMER Liverpool Head of Research Dr Ian Graham has said the “holy grail” of analytics is to accurately assess the significance of a manager.

Graham worked for the Reds for a decade before leaving at the end of last season and is credited with having played a significant role in their recent success.

In an interview with the New York Times, the Welshman admitted that assessing the importance of a manager was “very complicated” and “tends to be conflated with who has the best players, the best team.”

He added: “There are a lot of second-order effects. It’s very hard to know exactly how good any manager is, and what sort of impact they have on results.”

'UNICORN' MANAGERS 

Currently, football does seem to be in thrall to the cult of the manager. The top ones are paid huge salaries - sometimes commensurate with those of their players - and success or failure is often laid at their door.

This is reflected in the fact that the average tenure of a manager across Europe's top divisions last season was less than 16 months. If things go wrong for a club, they tend to be the ones who get the blame.

Dave Reddin, the Football Association's former Head of Strategy and Performance, has said he finds football’s preoccupation with the ‘unicorn manager’ a little mystifying. He came into sport as an 'outsider', having previously worked for England Rugby and the British Olympic Association.

“This concept of the unicorn, who is paid 10, 15 times more than anybody else in the organisation, who has all the answers, is a flawed leadership concept,” Reddin told TGG in 2020.

“It’s too prevalent still, this idea that the Head Coach, the unicorn, is untouchable and nobody can really ask probing questions about how they’re doing things or what they’re doing to contribute to performance.”

Performance coach Owen Eastwood, who has done significant work on culture with Gareth Southgate and the England team, has echoed these thoughts.

"One of the narratives that’s interesting is the idea of the genius manager,” he told TGG. “In football there’s far too much of this."

Managers might seem to be more important than ever, certainly if you turn on football phone-ins or listen to pundits, but now they are part of huge staffs at elite level, incorporating sport scientists, analysts, specialist coaches and more.

They tend to be overseen by a Sporting Director, who is responsible for the long-term strategy at a club. An important part of this is establishing a game model (essentially a playing style), which the manager and players will fit into.

Toulouse Chairman Damien Comolli told TGG last year: “When we hired our Head Coach (Philippe Montanier) I said, ‘The reason we are appointing you is because the data is telling us that the playing style you have been using over the years matches what we want to achieve.

"'This is what we want to implement as a playing style, so we are going to bring players in who perfectly fit the style we expect you to implement.'"

This is why Brighton moved seamlessly from Graham Potter to Roberto De Zerbi. At the time of the appointment, in September 2022, Brighton Chairman and owner Tony Bloom said: “I am confident his style and tactical approach will suit our existing squad superbly."

Putting too much onus on the manager can also potentially stifle players. After all, they're the ones who are playing the game out on the pitch.

In September, Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti explained: “I think old school coaches like me prefer not to give too much information and allow freedom for creativity. I give instructions off the ball.

“It depends on the creativity of the player, if Vinícius or Rodrygo feels creative on the ball, I’m not going to tell him what to do. It’s an interpretation of how to play on the ball and I don’t want to remove anybody’s creativity.”

When Avram Grant took charge of Chelsea in 2007/8, he had only previously managed in Israel and several unnamed players said his methods were “25 years behind the times"

Yet Chelsea competed for the league title to the final day of the season and came within penalty kicks of winning the Champions League.

Former Blues midfielder Steve Sidwell later gave an idea of why.

"I remember John Terry and the lads saying, ‘Right, we need to drive this ourselves as Avram hasn’t got the experience of the top echelons of football in terms of the Premier League. We have, and we’ll drive this’.

"I’m not saying they went against his wishes or anything. He still led the football club and the football team, but the players really drove that dressing room."

As Graham said, analytics could help to conclusively settle this debate.

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