Football is a game of winners and losers. To that extent, every week of every season is the same – some teams win, others lose. Even a draw represents “a good point won”, or “two points lost”.
Yet, the “winners” in football – those who achieve genuine success in light of the constraints they are working within – are not always easy to spot. Sure, some winners can be identified immediately – those that are to be found clutching trophies and medals, being rewarded with lucrative contracts, or lauded in the media. But for most clubs, the managers they employ and the players they recruit, success goes unnoticed.
That’s because the majority of football fans (never mind club owners, managers and journalists) often lack a true understanding of the factors that drive success in the game, and just as crucially, those that constrain it. This means that their expectations of what their club can, or should, achieve are often hugely unrealistic.
In order to set out a better way of measuring success in the game – a new way to judge who the real winners and losers in football are – this article considers the different ways we set expectations of our clubs, their managers and players, before proposing a more appropriate approach to measuring achievement in the game.
Setting, meeting and exceeding ‘expectations’ of success
Outside of counting cups, the most common way for clubs, managers and players to be held as successful in the game is to meet, or exceed, “the expectations” of owners, fans and the media over a consistent period of time. But this can be just as problematic a means of measuring success as the size of trophy cabinets, as expectations tend to be driven by irrational and emotional factors – such as distorted views of historical performance, or the size (even passion!) of their fanbase.
To illustrate this point, below we consider two of the most common basis’ for generating expectations of what clubs, managers and players should achieve in the game.
Past glories should equal future success
All too often, the basis for setting expectations of what success would look like for a football club boils down to the emotional connection individuals have with the history of their club. Yet these distant, often distorted recollections of historic success, represent a very unreliable guide to likely current performance.
For example, that Liverpool dominated English football in the 1980s means very little, in and of itself, in 2014. It provides no insight into how capable the current squad is, nor how likely they are to triumph over their competition. And yet, that is the benchmark against which the club, Brendan Rodgers, and his players are often judged, or at best, the lens through which their performance is viewed.
The irrationality of these kind of expectations can run even deeper. Consider Newcastle United – often referred to as one of the “giants” of the English game, the North East club boasts one of the largest stadiums, and fanbases, in the country. And yes, fans can even point to a proud history stretching back over a century, punctuated by a string of iconic names, faces, and trophy successes.
But these periods were, in reality, few and far between. Since 1950, Newcastle have finished higher than 9th in the top flight of English football on just 15 occasions – less than a quarter of seasons they have competed in. That is the same proportion of campaigns that they have spent outside of the top flight altogether during this period – a fate which most recently befell them less than five years ago.
So although long in the past, Liverpool’s fans can at least posit that their historic success means that the culture of their club, its institutional memory and capacity, is one of triumphs and success, and that this is could prove an advantage in their hunt for further domestic success. Newcastle fans don’t even have this. Their recent successes under Messrs Keegan and Robson are hugely overstated in the collective memory, leading to irrational, emotionally driven expectations of what the side should be achieving.
Stability equals stagnation
Just as they can be ill-founded, expectations for success in football also have a habit of shifting extremely quickly. Perceived success one season can very quickly be viewed as mediocrity the next, leading to increased pressure on the board, manager and players to up their game.
To illustrate the point, let’s look at Tony Pulis’ tenure at Stoke City. Together with owner Peter Coates, Pulis oversaw Stoke’s return to top flight football after nearly a quarter of a century in the lower divisions. In returning the second oldest professional club to the big time of the English game, the pair achieved five top 14 finishes in a row. In doing so, Coates and Pulis also took their side to an FA Cup Final, and an extended run in the Europa League – only the third time Stoke had ever competed in European competition.
And yet, by the final year of his reign, fans and the media had begun to ask, “is this it”? This complaint would usually manifest itself in criticisms of the muscular, direct style of football Pulis employed at Stoke, and the accusation that the club were no longer “making progress”.
The performance levels that Pulis had achieved for Stoke, which had been virtually unthinkable just five years previous, were now no longer good enough, with seemingly little regard given for the considerable work required to build, from scratch, the “know how” and capacity at the club to just compete at Premier League level, never mind prosper.
The appetite for continued improvement, and almost more importantly, excitement, is seemingly relentless, irrespective of the constraints clubs operate within. The same phenomena can be seen at Norwich City this season. Fans at Carrow Road, who a few seasons ago were watching League One football, are now increasingly anxious that successive mid table Premier League finishes mean that the club is standing still.
Towards a more rational, empirical approach
In many respects, the debate, joy and heartache that irrational, or emotional, expectations generate represent the very soul of football. But more often than not, they are utterly unhelpful when it comes to objectively assessing the achievements of an individual, or a club, in the modern game. To do this, we need to look at other, more empirical factors which can give us a more realistic basis against which to judge their respective performances.
The key determining factor: the size of a club’s wage bill
Sports economists Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue compellingly that a clubs’ wage bill is the biggest determining factor over where a club is likely to finish in the Premier League. In their book “Why England Lose”, they demonstrated that between 1998 and 2008, a Premier League or Championship club’s total spend on wages explained between 80-90% of the variation in its average league position.
Average league positions vs wage expenditure relative to the average (Kuper and Szymanski)
This is largely just a case of observing the market economy in action. Kuper and Szynmanski’s analysis simply confirms that a club’s desire or ability to pay for the best players will be the overriding determinant on where they finish come the end of the season. Over the long term, the clubs with the best players will tend to finish highest in the league. This has significant implications for how we view the achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, and most recently, Roberto Mancini at Manchester City – as we have examined in more detail here.
But what does this mean for assessing the performance of those clubs we have examined in this article? To provide a recent snapshot, at the end of the 2011-12 season, Liverpool boasted the 5th highest wages in the Premier League, some way behind those being paid out by the top four – yet they finished that season in 8th position – 14 points worse off than they would have needed to reach the Europa League spot.For their part, Newcastle boasted the 8th highest wage bill in the top flight that season, but finished that season 5th, narrowly missing out on Champions League football.
So looking at this season alone, Newcastle exceeded expectations, while Liverpool could be said to have failed to achieve the level of performance fans should reasonably expect.
By finishing 12th, despite having the second lowest wage bill of all Premier League clubs, Norwich significantly over-performed in 2011-12. Stoke had the 14th highest wage bill, and true to that, finished 14th. Viewed against the baseline of their wage bill, both enjoyed successful seasons, regardless of how fans, or the media, responded.
A series of other, supporting factors
Yet wages data alone cannot give us a fully rounded basis for judging success. Even if Kuper and Szymanski are right that such figures account for 80-90% of performance over the long term, that still leaves up to 20% which is determined by other factors. Although harder to quantify accurately, the most important of these are likely to be:
Transfer spend: Linked to a club’s ability to pay the wages required to attract the best players, clubs also need to unlock negotiations with such talent in the first place, and that invariably will mean paying transfer fees to the clubs which hold their registration. And although by no means always the case, better players tend to be expensive.
While a less reliable proxy for quality than wage data, an ability, or willingness, to spend big in the market is a key determinant of whether a club has a hope of consistently securing top players.
David Moyes may not have won a trophy in his managerial career to date. But his achievement of leading Everton to seven top eight finishes in a row between 2006 and 2013, despite a net transfer spend of just £17m during that period, and as at 2012, only the tenth highest wage bill in the league, should not be underestimated.
Institutional and operational stability: Alongside being dependent on wage and transfer fee spend, clubs can also be reasonably expected to perform better if they benefit from a degree of stability in terms of the structure of the club, and in terms of personnel.
Such stability allows for a consistency of leadership and strategic direction at the top of the club, and more practically, an embedded scouting networks to be established, players to develop and improve, and a coach’s tactical vision to be translated into action on the pitch.
Chelsea have boasted one of the largest wage and transfer bills in the Premier League over the past decade, but their achievements in winning three Premier League titles, numerous cups and even a Champions League title, are all the more remarkable given the upheaval in the dugout and on the pitch that has characterised so much of the Abramovich era at Stamford Bridge.
Institutional and operational capacity: And as well as stability, clubs must have the capacity to perform well should circumstances become challenging, or to move from one performance level to another.
Having this depth of resources allows for clubs to plan properly for the future, and on a day to day level, cope with the demands of injuries and suspensions, the rigours of preparing for games in multiple competitions and respond to the challenges of competing consistently at a higher level.
The performance of a string of recently promoted clubs within the Premier League – from Stoke City and Norwich City, to Swansea City and Southampton – has been notable and well commented upon. But it is even more impressive when one considers that all have managed to repeat this success beyond one season, despite having little recent Premier League experience, or proven capacity to operate as a top flight club.
Given the inherently contested and shifting nature of setting, meeting, or surpassing, expectations in football, devising a comprehensive model for judging club success and failure in the modern game is almost certainly an impossible task.
But we don’t have to settle for the status quo – that is, measurement against irrationally set, emotionally driven, expectations.
By assembling a different set of more rational, empirically driven criteria for setting expectations of success, an indicative model is possible. This model has a club’s wage spend over the long term at its heart. The work of Kuper and Szymanski provides a strong evidence base to suggest that this will be, in reality, the key determinant in team performance. Finishing consistently higher than your wage bill suggests most certainly represents success for club officials and manager in charge during this period.
Do so without spending large sums in the transfer market, while chopping and changing between managers and players, or while not boasting significant institutional capacity and experience, and that over-performance is magnified further.
Of course, the emotion and passion that drive the majority of discussion and disagreements about football will continue. And for the time being, cups and medals still represent the clearest, most tangible measure of success in the game, and will dominate column inches for the forseeable future.
But neither tell you very much about the true context within which owners, managers and players are operating, the constraints that they face, and the successes they may achieve in defying them. To take these into account, we need a broader, rationally based, and empirically driven, model for measuring achievement in football. This article has identified some of the foundation stones that it should be built upon.