Football. It's many things to many people; something that binds us, something that divides us, something beautiful, something ugly. It's also an industry that thrives on a very strange sort of mysticism. Making important decisions superstisiously instead of using the copious amounts of information available for analysis.
Some years ago the FA appointed Steve McClaren to the England manager's post based on his recent form. Most fans could have detailed his rather mediocre managing career over a greater period of time than the FA cared to check. So what happened after his appointment? England failed to qualify for the first major tournament under his stewardship and he was promptly dismissed. Any objective reading of his entire managerial career would have shown him unfit for the top job.
The Right Person For The Job
Another aspect of this mysticism is former players who become managers. Kenny Dalglish once retorted to a journalist who was questioning his tactical decisions as Liverpool manager with "Who did you play for then?" Former players who become managers tend to forget that football is a Saturday afternoon game; instead thinking of it more like their own personal Vietnam. You don't know man, you weren't there. The industry overwhelmingly kowtows to this mentality in ways that surely border on illegal. After all, how many women manage higher echelon football teams or are even considered for those positions? Very very few.
Here's the thing though, being a former player has no impact on your managing capabilities. Research done by Stefan Szymanski into 209 managers who were former players showed no correlation between accomplishment as a player with a corresponding level of competence as a manager. Dalglish was great at both, but Arrigo Saachi was a dross footballer turned good as a manager. Jose Mourinho never played as a professional and between 23 February 2002 and 2 April 2011, he went 150 consecutive home league matches unbeaten. Few, if any, players can say the same.
Learning What Works
Another area entirely with entirely the same problem is corner kicks. Other than the short pass to a fellow player there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of corner kick. Kick the ball in at the near post (inswinger) or into the middle of the box (outswinger.)
The data department at Manchester City Football Club analysed hundreds of corners from various leagues across the world to measure the efficacy of these two approaches. Having eventually boiled the data down into information they approached manager Roberto Mancini to give him their findings. Which is what you do if you're the data department.
The findings showed that the inswinger was vastly more successful in scoring goals. Unfortunately Mancini was not that receptive and said that as a former player he just knew that the outswinger was more effective in scoring goals. So off went the data team, back to their underground lab, probably wondering why City bothered with a data team at all if their work was overridden by the anecdotal leanings of the senior staff.
So in both these instances, and many more, football chooses to overlook a large corpus of data in favour of what one individual feels is right or what they can immediately recall. This is called Availability Heuristic. It's a mental shortcut that pulls recent or memorable information in preference to anything you might actually have to, well, think about. It's prevalent in many sectors, and many people and should be accounted for in decision making. Does the data bear out the anecdotal recollections?
When the FA hire McClaren based on his recent success rather than sustained performance it is because collectively they remember who did well in the recent season, but not who has been consistently good for the last five years. Although McClaren was second choice for the job, he should never have been on the shortlist in the first place.
And Mancini? Well, he can be somewhat forgiven for thinking that outswingers are better, though not when presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Inswinger corners tend to go in more because the ball is at the goal line, it needs only the slightest tap from
Gary Lineker any player, and it goes in. It's scrappy, somewhat dull and not that memorable. Outswingers place the ball far from the line but crucially allow for far more spectacular and memorable goals.
The corner is taken and the ball sails into the eighteen yard box, picking out the sole unmarked player who forgoes any degree of control and hurls himself sideways through the air, the leather slippered foot of his flying volley connects with the ball and powers it between every obstacle in the box, the ball catches fire, such is its ferocity of pace, incinerating the back of the net and then part of the stands leading to the match being called off as the stadium is hastily evacuated for health and safety reasons and the match rescheduled.
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