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Soccernomics: Why do we even bother?

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Currently reading Soccernomics. I'm sure a number of you have read the book. It is co-authored by Simon Kuper, the man behind the awesome "Football Against The Enemy". For those who havent, here's what the ad blurb has to say about its content:

Why doesn't the United States dominate soccer internationally...and how can it?

Which is the best soccer nation on Earth?

Who has the most passionate fans?

What impact does soccer have on suicide rates?

Which sport will dominate the Earth? NFL or the English Premier League?

Why are the people who run soccer clubs so dumb?

These are some of the questions that every soccer fanatic has asked. Soccernomics answers them. Written with an economist's brain and a sports writer's skill, it applies high-powered analytical tools to everyday soccer topics, looking at data in new ways, revealing counterintuitive truths about the world's most loved game. It all adds up to a revolutionary way of looking at soccer that could affect the way the game is played internationally.

Where does this connect to Football Manager? Everywhere. There are chapters dealing with transfers, club business - managers. In one chapter of those it is seemingly found that it is above all a club's wage budget that in almost every case determines the success - not only in the short-term, where luck, injury and bad form can influence, but over the long-term. Hence the reason why the authors looked at data over various seasons and tiers in English club football and come to that conclusion. They also didn't take knock-out competitions into account, where surely it would have been found out that say Real Madrid compared to its budget is a constant underachiever.

Still the aforementioned conclusion of the studies being: Club managers, when Saturday comes, barely make a difference on a team's performance. It is mostly the amount of wages a club spends (that is quality of players) determining the results. In fact, they found that the clubs' spending on salaries explained 92 per cent of their variation in league position. There are managers that continuously overachieved (with Clough and his stunts at Derby and Nottingham obviously being the prime example), but most managers didn't make a bit of a difference. It must be noted that they found that on average managers don't last two years at a club, so firstly most managers don't ever have the chance to truly make a difference at a club and then secondly the authors only took those managers into account that managed I think at least five seasons in the English game (you remember the odd one-offs yourself). On the website of the Financial Times, Kuper put it more bluntly:

We would have a deluded obsession with football managers.

No idea what Moyes and Sir Alex are really doing.

And thus FM and FM players are, if you will, to an extent guilty of buying into glorified media myths, of believing in the none-influence of pep talks, of obsessing with iconic images of the one hero changing the day and fortune and leading us all to the promised land. Well, or at least the first Cup final in thirty years.

Thoughts?

P.S.: Whilst I don't think FM's simulation of AI managers is sophisticated enough (sure, you've got prefered formations for AI managers, Wenger has edited traits into the DB that makes him more prone to take a look at youth, Sir Alex has an edited preference for mind games. and there's probably a bit more to it): I did edit Mourinho to Augsburg, Wenger to Freiburg, and let former Bayern player Alex Zickler take over from Heynckes. Bayern, employing the most expensive club of the Bundesliga by far, finished first – whilst Augsburg und Freiburg were relegated. It took transfers of Messi and Ronaldo to Augsburg to get them to Europe. Similarily, you will find holidaying and leaving everything to your assistants will more often than not at least make you meet expectations on the pitch. Simon Kuper might enjoy the game, after all. ;)

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I'd like to take this opportunity to announce my retirement from Professional Football Manager Management.

Really interesting post. Good job :p

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Very interesting post though I'm not surprised. I always try to build a club financially in order to improve the wage budget over time rather than spending big on transfers, preferring to move the club forward gradually. My argument would be that clubs with large wage budgets are the ones who can afford the best managers as well as players, facilities, scouting etc.

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Very interesting post though I'm not surprised. I always try to build a club financially in order to improve the wage budget over time rather than spending big on transfers, preferring to move the club forward gradually.

The pity is that real managers often don't have the time to do such. Or rather: the pity is that FM doesn't emulate this. It is likely impossible (and not desirable) to do that in a video game anyway, there is nothing significant at stake for you, except the time you spend on the game. And in reality managing must be quite a stressful job, not somebody sitting down on a chair, munching on potatoe chips whilst negotiating virtual contracts that don't translate into figures that might really come back to haunt them in some future. But whilst managing clubs in areas of particular football interest proves problematic all by itself due to the pressure applied by outside sources (media, fans) day in day out, and managers can at best try to balance short-term immediate success and long-term planning, the standard procedure in FM saves is always approaching a job as if it was certain that you'd be keeping it for seasons to come. And once you've settled in, you will more than likely be. If you don't you can always start a new save.

I still think that's an area that can be improved upon. The key perhaps is somehow putting more emphasize on the manager's own career path, rather than the club he's at. It's fun building a (or your favourite struggling) club from the ground up and getting it promoted, that is a huge appeal and shouldn't go away. However, previously players would deliberately negotiate cheapest possible job contracts for their virtual selves so that they wouldn't put additional burden on the club. Whilst this translated to less safe jobs, as cheap contracts mean you're cheap to get rid off as well, that is not the kind of thinking that should be encouraged by a game called Football Manager, if you ask me. :)

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Well Soccernomics deals a lot with averages of statistics and we all know that in general the bigger clubs will win. But that's what makes us so often root for the underdog, as long as our club isn't the favorite, because we hope that the statistics won't hold true for that day. In the end all you can do is trying to grow your team into a powerhouse over time and it's what I love about FM. It takes time now, like in RL to grow a club at least financial, which is also the reason why I don't understand clubs who change their manager every few years, this way for most teams nothing will ever change.

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The link on Moyes and Ferguson kinda doesn't ring true when you contrast the differences in performance and style of the Man Utd team under Ferguson vs Moyes.

It's well agreed that Ferguson was a manager who eked out points from his team, could assemble a world beating team with a bunch of 'average' players. Whereas Moyes hasn't/can't.

So yeah, I don't think soccernomics has it right at all, the manager makes a difference. To re-iterate, the environment, culture and atmosphere of a club under Ferguson and Moyes will be as different as night and day. That applies to Graham vs Wenger, manager A and manager B.

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Well, as Flohrinho said, this is all focusing on data. There is another chapter in which it is argued that data doesn't support the claims of penalties skewing a game. There are obviously going to be games in which a penalty massively skews the outcome and where thus the result goes completely against the run of the game. However, on average it was found that penalties don't make a difference. That is because penalties are awarded deep into an opponent's half. To have a chance to get one, you need to penetrate the box. Thus, in comparison to games where no penalties were awarded vs in those that were, the winning percentages weren't skewed any. A favoured side was roughly as likely to win in matches with penalty or without, and the same went for the supposed underdog. However, this is on average.

In the same sense, the measurement of managers doesn't take a look at individual matches. But perhaps you could argue that in the long run, on average, it is maybe the fewest of managers making fully a difference on results. No doubt a manager also has a big influence on club culture, playing style and much more, but this is purely looking at the bottom line that ultimately matters in any sports: results. Most evidently performed exactly what was expected of them, i.e. accordingly to their squad quality/budget. There are few that overperformed. (Kuper is exaggerating for effect when he argues in the links above that he could pick up United and run them just as well, if only he had the profile and reputation). But similarily to the penalty scenario, occasionally there is going to individual games in which the manager is going to make all the difference, in the same way that occasionally a penalty proves a game changer vastly against its run. This is something to consider.

It's certainly an interesting book, reminds me of the German "Die Fußballmatrix" which no doubt was influenced by it (it is also directly quoted by I think Kuper in the updated edition of Soccernomics I bought). It's also not written by a scientist or theorist, this is a journalist pairing up with an economist, and it shows, luckily. Whereas a man of mere science is prone to stack number upon number, Kuper backs them up with anecdote and brings them to life with looks at football current and past. The thing about football is that that there is little science backing anything up. That is no doubt partly influenced by habit (everybody has been doing things a certain way, so that must be the right way). But perhaps also by the very nature of the game.

Is there any sports in which people pray to a higher being granting their club its blessing this frequently? A deflected shot a minute from time can destroy everything that's gone beforehand, and there are very few sports in which in a one-off match an amateur can outscore a team of fully professionals. There are comparably little patterns to play, certainly absurdly little compared to, say, Baseball, even American Football, and a lot is influenced by randomness beyond control and pattern. As such it seems a lost cause to find reasoning in numbers produced by such "randomness", apparently, or at least very very difficult. Still what personally surprised me wasn't the authors' conclusion that money talks in football, that is a no brainer. But that they concluded that, as said, a clubs' spending on salaries explained 92 per cent of their variation in league position. That doesn't leave much headroom for much else. Let alone the manager. Still, what about those 8%.... :)

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Great read. While I play I'm always spending the majority of my time on the business end of my club. Mostly because that's what I went to uni for and regardless of the game I play, if there is any currency involved, that takes over for me rather than the true goal of the game.

But I digress. While I'm playing fm and eventually able to sign the guys I truly want, I'm sitting here cursing Liverpool. How can I get all of this done so fast and they cannot splash the cash on anyone this year?! Especially this January?? Oh yes. This is a game and they are participating in real life. I think i shall go fetch more cashews and beer.

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The idea that it's all about money is true in the aggregate. But there are exceptions. Look at Everton for example. For years they've done better than their competition. The point is most of us play FM to be the exception, not to be the average. At the high end, it seems to me Man City is playing way better now than under Mancini while as noted United are playing worse under Moyes.

But I think that article makes a very good point about something. The focus on team talks and press conferences and mind games and team meetings and all that is misguided in FM. Instead of spending so much effort with that, I think the game would be much better served by improving statistics, tactical feedback, training methods and scouting. That's what actually matters.

I think this line kind of hurts Simon Kuper's credibility and understanding of the subject: "If I managed United I would probably get about the same results as Ferguson does."

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Just as a side note - is Soccernomics a good read? I love the financial side of football and was given the book as a present. Haven't got around to reading it yet.

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It suggests that in a realistic football manager game leaving the running of the club to your assistant while you go searching for a tycoon takeover to buy the club should be the winning strategy. ;)

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You have left out a very important point the book makes about players wages, and that is that the economic market for players wages is one of the most efficient wage markets in the world. The wage a player recieves is an exact representation of how good he is compared to other players. So whilst it is true that the authors are saying that, basically, the club with the biggest wage budget will dominate (and vice versa), it is also true that simply the club with the best players will dominate (and vice versa). Which shouldn't come as a surprise either.

If you liked this book, you should also read 'The Numbers Game'. In my opinion, that one is even better. It analyses football statistics and tactics to the bone in a very readable way (although a bit of knowledge about statistics beforehand is advisable). This title is even more applicable to FM in my opinion.

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It's suits in offices talking football around money which I detest but mainly because they're right.

I think for FM as well, for some too much is looking at tactics, team talks, training and expecting miracles or a 'one way wins' strategy. It's a blindingly obvious case where if you have better players than the opposition (with which comes a financial cost) then you'll win more than you don't whether you're a Jose or Big Sam.

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I did read the book some time ago. Player payroll "explains" 90% of wins/losses, I think they claim. What this means is that there is probably not a large variable which is totally independent to player payroll. It is likely the authors are simplifying a bit too much. Manager pay is probably a pretty good indicator, too, it is just unlikely that some clubs pay a much higher fraction of their total payroll to one side (players/staff) then the other. That is the data they would have to look for to determine which (player or staff) payroll is more important. (Maybe they did this and I cannot recall the results - I checked google scholar really quick and can't find an instant answer).

I think they addressed this point, or I read about it elsewhere:

The market for managers is pretty efficient, as well as the market for players.

So what happens is that, on average, managers preform around where you would expect for what they are paid. When one is really successful, they move to a bigger club, and when not they move to a smaller club. At any given time, there are under- and over- preforming managers, just like players, but aggregating over a large data set, that averages out.

One way to look at this is: the money spent on the manager (or, perhaps, total staff) may predict the average league position nearly as well as player payroll. For the sake of argument, let's pretend all teams pay 8 times as much in player payroll as staff payroll (no idea what the number would be). In that case, looking at either payroll would yield equal results: thus looking at either you would say "that variable explains 90% of wins".

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