Do Managers Matter? Simon Kuper says he could do Alex Ferguson’s job

Apart from transfer rumours, commentary on managers probably forms the bulk of football chatter. Before, during and after every game, every decision is scrutinised; every minute move debated; tactics, strategy, man-management, motivation, appearance — all feed into an endless discourse debating whether any given manager is succeeding or not. Protest and praise come by the truckload, and managers end up prematurely grey from it in every country.

Now Simon Kuper comes along and says, at least at the highest level, it doesn’t even matter who the manager is or what he does. He himself could do as good a job as Alex Ferguson. “The obsession with football managers is misguided,” Kuper writes in today’s FT. “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.”

Kuper cites Stefan Szymanski’s research which looked at 40 English teams between 1977 and 1997 and “found that their spending on salaries explained 92 per cent of their variation in league position.” (Though he curiously doesn’t mention it in the article, Szymanski is the co-author of a new book with Kuper using statistics to explain football phenomena).

It’s only when there are “knowledge gaps” (such as Wenger’s advanced knowledge on nutrition and foreign players in the 1990s) that a manager makes a difference, according to Kuper. At the highest level in England now, though, “the Premier League is like a market with almost perfect information,” so no such gaps exist (at least currently — how do we know this will always hold?). Therefore, Kuper concludes, “If I managed United I would probably get about the same results as Ferguson does.”

Kuper acknowledges this wouldn’t actually work in practice, as fans would not accept a man like him due to their cultural need for a manager to meet a certain stereotype — he must be over-35, a former professional, “almost always white”, and have a neat haircut. But in his view, a manager is a mere figurehead conveniently embodying a stereotype to fulfill a cultural expectation in football and avoid rocking the boat.

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There is something to Kuper’s claim here. He’s right that the cultural stereotype of what a manager should look like is sadly limited and the role a manager plays certainly does become totemic to a level that exaggerates the actual impact he has. But Kuper oddly concludes that (a) we didn’t already know that the economic factor is dominant; and (b) that this means no manager would be better than any manager.

Syzmanski’s research in fact has only found what’s actually a pretty obvious fact we all understand anyway — being able to pay your players more than your rivals is by far the most important factor in a team’s success? No shit. One doesn’t need to be a professor of economics to have figured that one out. I think most fans with any sense already realise that if you put Alex Ferguson in charge of Hull City, they still wouldn’t win the league given the disparity in resources between Hull and Manchester United. Managers might be lionised, but everyone knows the reason David Moyes won’t win the title with Everton has little to do with his abilities. Common sense has told us this already.

It’s fair that Szymanski and Kuper may help redress our understanding of the balance between the factors a little, if they are correct in the 92% figure cited that leaves perhaps less of a role for managers than we commonly accept (though it’s hard to analyse this rather exact number without seeing Szymanski’s research — for example, how does it account for the fact that the clubs that spend the most on player salaries to get the best presumably also do so for managers?).

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The problem is that Kuper runs away with this “discovery” to reach some curious conclusions, beginning with his belittling of Alex Ferguson’s success: “If you are able to stay manager of the world’s richest club for 23 years in an era when money determines results, you are guaranteed to stack up trophies.”

Well, yes. The question is why he has stayed so long. Kuper says it’s because Ferguson’s “accomplishment is not winning, but keeping all the interest groups united behind him for so long. They back him because of his personality, and because he seems to incarnate United.” But wasn’t it Ferguson’s accomplishment in the first place in breaking United’s title drought in 1992 that set in train their entire period of dominance and was crucial in making them the world’s richest club?  Where is the analysis explaining that Ferguson had resources that had been unavailable to all his predecessors after Busby over two decades to break the long run of failure in the first place?  If you’re going to make this argument based on numbers, you need to back it up with some.

Even if Ferguson has only made a 1% difference on results at United due to his management out of the remaining 8% unaccounted for in determining success from Syzmanski’s research cited, surely that’s significant at the highest level of sport, where we know the margins between success and failure are infinitesimal. After all, many teams with more resources than United have come and gone from the top.  Having that consistent 1%, or whatever it is, over 23 years has obviously been critical to United’s ability to build and rebuild under Ferguson.

Sure, Ferguson probably isn’t actually a genius and by far the most important factor in the results under his tenure is indeed Manchester United’s ability to continually pay very high salaries (though notably, he often succeeded with a far tighter wage structure than rivals, something Kuper does not examine) and maybe we should mention this more often. Point taken.

But Kuper takes this and twists it to go from managers not being as crucial as we think they are (except when they are, as in the cases of Wenger, Clough and Shankly that he cites as exceptions) to not mattering at all:  “One day a club will stop hiring managers, and allow an online survey of fans to pick the team. That club will probably perform well, because it will be harnessing the wisdom of crowds, and because it can use the money it saves on managers to raise players’ salaries.” (That experiment didn’t get very far with MyFootballClub, did it?)

This seems a bizarre conclusion to reach based on the evidence he’s presented. To say a manager might not make all the difference in the world as some fans think is miles away from being able to conclude on no evidence that not having a manager at all wouldn’t make a difference and would actually improve results.

Kuper has gone just a little too freakanomic here.

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