An introduction to strategic tools in professional football
Jacob Svarrer & Mickey Ølholm
This is the first of a total of four articles addressing the normative behaviour of head coach dismissals as a consequence of poor results. In this series, we will give an introduction to theoretical tools used to analyse football and how we at Optima Football use these tools to build and implement sustainable strategy in professional football. In this article we introduce the overall topics of the series and discuss why termination of head coaches have become the first response when results are not up to expectations.
“20 years ago, a head coach would last between two and three years in a football club, which made him a consistent and long-term member of the organisation. Today the average coach globally last under 17 months. Therefore, clubs can’t rely on the head coach to take all major decisions, but instead develop their own club strategy and hire the right match of a coach to fulfil it.”– Mads Davidsen, founder of Optima Football
Change in management
When a club hires a new head coach, public announcements revolve around the same topics and reasoning. They address the newcomer as the right person for the job. The coach will mention long-term commitments and the importance of stability and results, take Mourinho’s appointment in Tottenham as an example (Burt, 2019). The reality is, however, that a head coach is not a stability-factor. On average, in the Danish Superliga, they survive for 18 months before being sacked. Over the period from June ’16 – November ’19, 15 coaches have been served marching orders, that equates to five pr. season and underlines that a modern coach is not the ideal employee to be in charge of long-term planning.
How often a head coach is dismissed depends on a variety of factors such as competition, pressure and club strategy. When sorting the groupings of the Superliga (Table 1), notice the average amount of dismissals. Excluding the anomaly AC Horsens, 1.57 coaches have been axed pr. survivor in the period. With the sub-top at an average of 0.66 there is a clear correlation between grouping and firing frequencies. This is further highlighted when examining the cycle of coaches. Whilst the cycle is 18 months overall in the Superliga, it is 14 in the survivor group. It can be argued that this stems from the very nature of these clubs. As survivor, they are under a constant threat of relegation. When it becomes pronounced the pressure mounts to replace the coach.
This logic only leads to more questions. Why is letting the coach go the first response? Should the survivor teams prepare themselves for poor results and the subsequent threat of relegation without resorting to spontaneous decisions mid-season? Can it be, realistically, expected for the new coach to achieve better performance from the same resources? Not every survivor can survive. Do the clubs have a long-term strategy that addresses this?
Dismissals has become the normative solution to poor results in football since the existence and usage is no longer questioned. This process is known as normative isomorphism – the theory that a field over time will integrate and assimilate itself as certain tools are imitated and becomes the norm (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). When there is a sacking the debate touches whether it was right to fire this specific coach, however, there is little debate whether the idea of booting the coach and re-hiring a new in order to increase performance is actually advantageous. This norm can be read in firing frequencies as firings are expected, they happen often, and a discussion of a club’s poor performance automatically follows onto a discussion of the job security of the coach. The norm becomes clear, when realising that FC Barcelona with no dismissals since 2003, stands alone with this statistic.
As dismissals often happens as a consequence of results it is interesting that it is next to impossible to conclude whether they lead to better results (Hentschel et al., 2012), examining xG after a change of head coach (Figure 1 and 2) there is examples of just that. Some clubs perform better and others show little-to-no change and some see a negative effect on performance. There is no clear pattern as to who performs better or not, the honeymoon phase is then not given but dependent on other factors (Bell et al., 2013), in short, it is a lottery.
Indications that dismissals are not favourable to clubs is underlined by Hentschel, et al., (2012) who shows findings that while homogenous squads gain a small increase in performance as renewed competition within the squad motivates briefly, however, the boost will fade and leave no staying increase in performance nor results from the change. Combine this with studies made in a variety of countries and sports claiming positive, negative or no effects (McTeer et al., 1995; Fabianic, 1994; Brown, 1982). Our examination of a small sample in Denmark suggest no positive nor negative effects on sporting performance. However, the dismissal harm economics and forces a club with no strategy to re-evaluate their recruitment plans and style of play to adapt themselves to their new coach.
Norms and strategy
The norm stems from an underlying understanding in professional football that dismissals increase performance. This is not based on research but on a common agreement of ‘truth’. Examining a coach’s lifespan in in the Superliga, both the ‘truth’ and its incorrectness is obvious. A survivor coach lasts 14 months in the seat, top level coaches stay on for 17,5 months. For the sub-top it is 35,6 months and top coaches remain in their seat for 41,3 months. Lower level clubs fire often in a desperate attempt to gain the edge over competitors but are unable to reap the benefits. Whether the coaches stay on for longer because they are at a better club, or if the club performs better because the coach stays on for longer is not possible to say from these data, but the thesis of Optima is that long-term planning and a clear vision and strategy will increase performance and will, in turn, optimise the entire organisation, thus priming them to achieve the best possible results.
In Optima Football strategy refer to the organisational strategy of a club and style of play. Clear and structured organisational strategy alongside clearly defined style of play provides the necessary stability for a club’s ability to plan and decide on long-term recruitment- and academy – plans. A strategy and a clear style of play is not a guarantee of success. It is a necessity to withstand institutional pressure and as thus to be able to build and improve a sustainable football club and to be able to compete over time.
Football as a pressure cooker
Institutional pressure is defined as the expectations to follow formal and informal rules, norms and guidelines for organisations within a field (Meyer & Rowan, 1977). Football clubs experience coercive pressure from regulatory agencies such as the FA and UEFA. They experience normative pressure such as the expectations for teams to boot head coaches in case of lacking results, build academies and handle recruitment (the player/agent system), etc. from the entire field, including, but not limited to, the media, the fans and other clubs. Institutional pressure is not something that can be easily categorised but must be considered as a whole. In general, expectations and exposure are two generators of pressure; the expectation to perform and the exposure of a club will create pressure for them to obtain the required results, or to take action such as terminating the coach’s contract in order to legitimise themselves in their field (Scott, 2014; Oliver, 1991). To withstand pressure, a club must present strategic responses (Oliver, 1991). FC Nordsjælland of Denmark have a clear strategy which is thoroughly implemented in their organisation and as such, they are often able to deflect the pressure of lacking results.
“A strategy is a common agreement – involving multiple decision-makers whom are mutually accountable. When responsibility is shared amongst several people, external pressure too, is distributed. The strategy acts as our daily compass. Setting the course towards our vision and assuring that we are staying on track.”– Flemming Pedersen, Technical Director at FC Nordsjælland
The Sorting Hat
Our sorting of football clubs into their groupings can seem like the hat of Hogwarts. The methodology is not clear but seems to work. The mechanics will be clarified in the competition article, but briefly, it can be said that clubs have been sorted based on results and expectations from the last three years in four groupings leader, potential league winner (top 3-5), top level competitors, or survivors. The groupings will be more thoroughly defined in the related article.
The idea of sorting is that even though football clubs play against each other in the league they are not necessarily competing. For instance, Watford is not competing against Liverpool, even when they play one another. Rather, Liverpool is competing against leaders and the potential winners and Watford competes against other survivors.
Depending on league structure, number of teams, and competitiveness in a certain grouping, clubs will be exposed to higher or lower levels of competition. In Denmark, the survivors (9-14 and top 3 of the NordicBet Liga) compete for safety at 10th position. The difference from the top of the survivors’ table to the bottom is 0.33 points/game (see Table 2), throughout a season that is 10.56 points. A club can go from safety to relegation in just four out of 32 games. This puts tremendous pressure on the club, which, due to the norms of football, is transferred directly to the job security of the head coach.
The idea that there is a force that pressures clubs into specific patterns can, of course, be provocative as it might suggest that clubs have no agency over their actions. This is not the case, our intention with these articles is to show a behavioural pattern to provide knowledge and tools for clubs to optimise their procedures. We believe that by increasing knowledge and analysing football through institutional theory we achieve a better game of football as clubs will be aware of their actions and the consequences of those.
In the next article, we will address competition. We will show how we categorise clubs and attempt to show how these categorisations correlate with the firing frequencies and attempt to explain why these correlations happen.
Bell, A., Brooks, C & Markham, T. (2013). The performance of football club managers: skill or luck? Economics & Finance Research: An Open Access Journal, 1, 19-30
Burt J. (2019). Jose Mourinho admits he would ‘love’ to coach Spurs for five years before going home to manage Vitoria Setubal. From telegraph.co.uk. Downloaded 3. December 2019.
Brown, M. C. (1982). Administrative succession and organizational performance: The succession effect. Administrative Science Quarterly, 27, 1–16.
DiMaggio, P.J. & Powell, W.W. (1983). The Iron Cage Revisited – Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields in: American Sociological Review, vol 48 (pp. 147-160). USA: American Sociological Association.
Fabianic, D. (1994). Managerial change and organizational effectiveness in major league baseball: Findings for the eighties. Journal of Sport Behavior, 17, 135–147.
Hentschel, S., Muehlheusser, S & Sliwka, D. (2012). The Impact of Managerial Change on Performance. The Role of Team Heterogeneity. CESifo Working Paper Series 3950, CESifo Group Munich.
McTeer, W., White, P., Persad, S. (1995). Manager/coach mid-season replacement and team performance in professional team sport. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 18, 58–68.
Meyer, J.W. & Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony. American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 83, No. 2 (Sep., 1977), pp. 340-363
Oliver, C (1991). Strategic Responses to Institutional Processes. The Academy of Management Review. Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jan., 1991), pp. 145-179
Scott, R.W. (2014). Institutions and organizations: ideas, interests and identities. Fourth edition. Los Angeles, US: SAGE.