Isomorphism in Elite Football
By Jacob Svarrer & Mickey Ølholm
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This paper is the first product of our collaborative lab. In this analysis known institutional theory is applied to the world of football to present a new perspective on how the game evolves. By putting bright young minds to the task of identifying their respective fields I hope that we, the footballing world, can learn from their academic expertise whilst teaching them the unique ways of managing, coaching and directing in professional football, thus creating new talent to better the game for which we share the love.
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Football is a game of constant change. This paper intends to present theory as to how some of these changes happen. It is not the intention to give an ultimate answer as football is a complex game with even more complex structures behind it. Instead, the paper confines to analyse Premier League through the lenses of isomorphic change; a term from organisation theory describing how institutions in a field over time develop into a homogenous mass. By analysing whether Manchester City’s recent years of success under Pep Guardiola can be attributed to a significant and pioneering playing style and if the rest of Premier League are imitating this, the paper seeks to highlight the process of mimetic isomorphism in professional football.
By breaking Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City into parameters and data, that can be used to analyse whether a football team is playing a style similar to that of City, is identified. Once relevant data has been identified and analysed, it is the objective of this paper to investigate whether mimetic isomorphism takes place as a result of the recent success of Manchester City and discuss whether other factors can influence the results of the findings. The thesis of the authors is that as Manchester City’s success becomes evident, organisations within the same constraints of field will seek to mimic the factors that can be attributed to success. In the field of football Style of Play (SoP) will always be seen as a central factor of success and therefore a source of improvement that can be imitated by those wishing to accomplish legitimacy and success within the same field. Lastly, it is the wish of the authors to answer how this knowledge is useful in creating a sustainable strategy for professional football organisations.
Breaking down Guardiola’s SoP, his tactics, and the philosophy and strategy of Manchester City in-depth would be several articles all on their own. Instead, we present a distillation of our understanding of Manchester City and their SoP since the season of 2016-17 with Guardiola being the head coach. We have extracted 5 factors that we find central to their SoP. At the centre of Guardiola and City’s success is a very distinct passing game. Plenty of passes aims to move the ball laterally as a way of disorganising the defence and create space for a breakthrough. As short passing is preferred, long and high passes are less desirable as they have a lower success rate than shorter passes along the grass.
By moving the ball fast and smart City aims to get themselves as close to goal before shooting as this heightens expected goals (xG) of an attempt on goal. By playing a short passing game and working their way close to goal the quality of each attack elevates as the product of the offensive action has a higher xG than the average attack in the Premier League.
Eventually, even a side like City will experience losing possession. However, because of the short passing game, the City team will be within a relatively small area of the pitch allowing for a quick recovery of the ball with a quite high success-rate since the opposition now has to get the ball out of the area mainly occupied by Manchester City. Regaining the ball high on the field sparks the team directly into the attacking phase, possibly even with a displaced defence thus easing the way to the goal. The short passing game, then, is not just about passing. It is about the placement of the team and the insurance of the ball. If lost it can be recovered before the other side can get control of the ball and the game.
Fewer passes before a defensive action is taken is central as it disrupts attacks before they can amount to any threats as well as create an opportunity for the counterattack as the opponents are caught off-balance. For a quick recap, the City SoP is short passing, getting in close to goal before attempting a shot and quick recoveries deep in the opposition’s territory. Breaking that down and finding relevant statistics we end up with a formula for Guardiola’s City (see Table 1).
The formula involves quite a few negatives as these are numbers preferably kept low as pr. Guardiola’s tactics. This means that we end with a negative number. Adding 100 at the end of the formula keeps the index readable without influencing results. Our data stems exclusively from WyScout and dates back to the 2015/2016 season the last season before Guardiola took over at Ashton New Rd. Working with this formula and knowledge of data, we can now begin to analyse the effect that Guardiola has had on both Manchester City and the Premier League.
We have included all Premier League teams who have been consistently in Premier League for the period. The reason for this is that we define Premier League as a field and an occasional participant in this field will only be influenced by a marginal degree compared to the teams who are influenced by Manchester City on an ongoing basis playing them regularly.
The formula itself cannot constitute proof on whether this playing style is the key to Pep Guardiola’s success, nor is it the intention of the paper to do so. Applying the formula to all sides allow us to compare to which degree Manchester City separates themselves from the rest of the Premier League in SoP and whether there is a tendency towards the City SoP as Pep Guardiola continues to be successful in the Premier League.
What is isomorphism?
“[A] constraining process that forces one unit in a population to resemble other units that face the same set of environmental conditions.”DiMaggio & Powell (1983 p. 149)
Isomorphism describes how organisations within the same field over time develop towards homogeneity. Isomorphism develops in different ways within a field of institutions and organisations.
A field is defined as: “suppliers, resources, consumers, governing bodies, and organisations that produce services similar to one another” (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, p. 148). Organisations within the same field compete for resources, political power, and recognition (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). Globally, the best organisations gain the most resources, political power and further gets recognised the most. By rewarding the most successful, the remaining ones will be inspired by them, which creates the isomorphic effect (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). Isomorphism happens in three distinct ways where we will touch upon the two of them; mimetic and normative isomorphism.
Normative and mimetic isomorphism
As football becomes increasingly more professionalised the footballing organisations, institutions and governing bodies develop patterns of normativity. This can be ideas of the ‘right’ way of playing football or it can be a desired structure of a football club (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). On a global scale, normative isomorphism has happened as the discrepancies in football across the globe vanishes. In 1924 when Uruguay debuted at the World Cup and entered the field of international football, the tempo and elegance of South American football were unheard of in Europe. Today change in pace and elegance is not confided to Uruguay or South America but has become one of the norms of elite football as the field becomes increasingly more homogenous (Hansen, 2014).
Often a new era in football is introduced by pioneers. Guardiola can be described as such a pioneer. Having won titles in La Primera Division, 1. Bundesliga and the Premier League, including Champions League along the way, his mark on top tier football is obvious. The immediate success often leads to other clubs, teams or organisations mimicking the style or structure of the pioneers and thereby legitimising the new ideas as a successful part of the footballing field. Mimetic isomorphism becomes more pronounced as a field increases in competitiveness. The need to eliminate the competitive edge of the opposition naturally increases alongside the level of competition (Alm & Storm, 2019).
The isomorphic process
The thesis is, that as Manchester City is reforming football and their SoP is a massive factor in their success and as such other members of their field will seek to adopt City’s successful tools – their Style of Play. As a spearhead for developing a new style of football, Manchester City will inspire the Premier League to imitate their SoP to disarm their competitive advantage and gain an increased performance themselves.
The first question we must ask in order to prove or disprove our thesis is: Is Manchester City the best Premier League has to offer? With 2 national championships out of three possible and three national cups in as many years for Guardiola’s City side, it is at least arguable that Manchester City right now represents the top of English football alongside current Premier League leaders Liverpool FC. It is, therefore, a reasonable assumption that City is representative of the best in the field of English football. Fairly it must be included that, in cup-tournaments, luck and random interference has a much higher influence on the game since one bad performance can eliminate a side. However, having won three cups in two years and continuously qualifying from the Champions’ League group-stage, City’s performance in cup-tournaments cannot be written entirely off as luck. Further, whilst the nature of success in cup tournaments might be different than success in league-structures, it is still an indication of a successful team and might therefore contribute to the imitation of the City side. To summarise, it is not the intention of this paper to conclude what makes City a better side, or whether that is an accurate assessment, it is the purpose of this paper to argue that mimetic isomorphism takes place in professional football so as to create knowledge for qualified discussions on the future of football.
To imitate Manchester City there must be something to imitate. In Table 1 the Pepdex is presented as a way of defining the Manchester City SoP. Applying that to the Premier League it is clear that Manchester City is above and beyond the rest when it comes to following their SoP (see Figure 2). City scored 60.51 on the Pepdex in Guardiola’s first season in Manchester, steadily rising to 65.12, 66.58 and 67.47 defining a clear SoP and thus giving the English clubs a path to follow if they should so decide (see Figure 2). Interestingly FC Bayern Munich scored 63.11 in Guardiola’s last season to give an almost linear development of his SoP from then until now, underlining his unique approach to football. Establishing that City and Guardiola confides in a defined playing style and that they, at least in recent years, represent the very top of English football, we can now begin to investigate whether they are being imitated.
The Imitation Game
After just one season in charge of City, Guardiola’s influence on Premier League is evident. The tendency is clear. As shown in Figure 2 the clubs subject to our research have adapted their SoP towards the City Style. Especially the long pass percentage is on a decline that has dramatically increased over the past 3 seasons (see Figure 3). There is a strong indication that the Premier League is being influenced strongly by the success of Manchester City. Highlighted not only by long pass percentages. The recent success of Liverpool correlates with them adopting key principles of the City Style. As seen in Figure 4 their similarity to Guardiola’s City has increased dramatically this season. There is not enough data to conclude that this is because they play City-football, but it is interesting that as Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool becomes similar to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City their performance increases, landing them at a current pole position as Premier League enters the international break.
An argument could be made that whilst City is spearheading the development of the short passing and high-pressure football, they are merely the best at it as a result of increased funds. In this case, they are not being imitated but rather they are a part of a normative isomorphic develop-ment. This argument is legitimate, it is, however, the opinion of the authors that City does indeed have a significant economic advantage over, for instance, Bournemouth, but not an advantage over Manchester United and Arsenal to legitimise such a significant discrepancy in the SoP if they are not pioneering but merely taking part in a normative translation.
It is not the intention of the authors to indicate that we can say Sean Dyches is consciously trying to imitate Manchester City or that Jürgen Klopp wishes that he could lead a team identical to Manchester City. We are concluding that there are signs of mimetic isomorphism in the Premier League due to data that shows the Premier League as a whole is making moves towards the City SoP. This isomorphic change is visible in every parameter of our Pepdex-formula, not just as a whole (see Figure 3) and as such it may be attributed not just to chance but to a process that is well described in organisational theory and backed up by empirical data. Guardiola’s success – national and international – can then be assumed to have had a significant impact on the field of English Top-Tier Football as seen in other fields where a success of an organisation leads to imitation within fields of similar constraints.
Usage of knowledge
Whether organisations in football will admit to it, or whether it is even a conscious act or not, mimetic isomorphism is an ongoing process in football. It might not always be as visible as it is presented in this paper and it might not be on entire tactics. It is, none the less, a constant factor. Knowledge of how football changes provide invaluable navigational tools when managing changing structures and insight in the process of change gives a head start when planning and implementing a new philosophy, strategy and style of play in a football club. Recognising the process of isomorphism can be crucial in gaining a competitive edge. As a purely academic exercise imagine if Premier League, instead of mimicking Manchester City, would have drawn inspiration from Leicester. Now armed with the knowledge of mimetic isomorphism one can analyse that change and make a conscious decision whether to follow or not based on information on that specific SoP and not just whether it is seen as ‘right’ within the field of top-tier English football. In general, implementing strategies and philosophies in the world of football requires a clear path ahead and knowledge of how football is changing is fundamental in laying down the right path for the future of a successful football club.
Alm, J. & Storm, R.K. (2019). Isomorphic Forces and Professional Soccer Standadizations: Instruments of Governance for Municipal Investments? in: International Journal of Public Administration, vol 42:3 (pp. 185-194).U.K.: Routledge.
DiMaggio, P.J. & Powell, W.W. (1983). The Iron Cage Revisted – Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields in: American Sociological Review, vol 48 (pp. 147-160). USA: American Sociological Association.
Hansen, J. (2014). Verdensspillet – Fodboldhistorie fra de første spark til verdensmesterskaberne. Denmark: Syddansk Universitetsforlag.