On Sunday two ex-footballers with conservative haircuts will send their teams out at Wembley to kick off the English season. Chelsea will face Manchester United in the Community Shield, but the game will also be cast as a clash between their managers: Chelsea’s Carlo Ancelotti and United’s Alex Ferguson. There is particular interest in Ancelotti because he is new, and in Ferguson because he is old. These two are the stars of the day. Which one will lead his team to glory this season?
Neither will. The obsession with football managers is misguided. Hardly any of them make any difference to results. The institution of manager is something of a con-trick. Ferguson and Ancelotti are best understood as marketing tools.
The fact is that players’ salaries alone almost entirely determine football results. Stefan Szymanski, economics professor at Cass Business School, studied the spending of 40 English clubs between 1978 and 1997, and found that their spending on salaries explained 92 per cent of their variation in league position. The team that pays most, wins.
Only a few managers, such as Brian Clough or Bill Shankly, consistently perform better with their teams than the wage bill suggests that they should. Sometimes a manager outperforms when he is the only one in a country who possesses new knowledge. That’s why Arsene Wenger did so well in his early years at Arsenal: nobody else in England then knew as much about foreign players, or what footballers should eat. Similarly, Guus Hiddink outperformed with South Korea, Australia and Russia because he taught these teams the latest European football know-how.
However, no such knowledge gaps exist in English football any more. Everyone in the game now has access to best practice. The Premier League is like a market with almost perfect information.
In English football now, managers could probably be replaced by stuffed teddy bears without their club’s league position changing. The manager serves chiefly as a marketing device to fans, media, sponsors and players. He is the club’s spokesman. Totemic faith is invested in his powers. As there isn’t much he can actually do, the key thing is that he looks the part.
This means first of all that he must be male. He is also almost always white, with a full head of hair conservatively cut, aged over 35, and a former professional footballer. Clubs know that if they choose someone with this profile, fans, media, sponsors and players will approve. There is no evidence that having been a good player (or being white with a conservative haircut) is an advantage for a manager. Yet clubs can discriminate against non-footballers, women and blacks with impunity, because even if they appointed the smartest black female non-playing manager on earth she would barely affect results.
If I managed United I would probably get about the same results as Ferguson does. However, the fans, media and players wouldn’t accept me. Ferguson’s accomplishment is not winning, but keeping all the interest groups united behind him for so long. They back him because of his personality, and because he seems to incarnate United. That is Ferguson’s secret, and not any notional effect he has on football results. If you are able to stay manager of the world’s richest club for 23 years in an era when money determines results, you are guaranteed to stack up trophies.
One day a club will stop hiring managers, and allow an online survey of fans to pick the team. That club will probably perform well, because it will be harnessing the wisdom of crowds, and because it can use the money it saves on managers to raise players’ salaries.
However, that day is a while off. Football is in hock to tradition. Just as a Stone Age tribe needs a shaman, and an investment bank’s trading floor needs an economist, a football club needs a manager.
The writer is co-author of the new Why England Lose: And Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained, published by HarperSport