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The Lessons of Cruyff
The Dutch, Ajax and Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff passed away yesterday, at 68 years old from cancer.
There have been and will be countless paeans to the man, so I don’t want to crowd that space too much. On a personal note, however, despite, or maybe because of, his flaws and his stubbornness, I can’t think of another footballer and manager I looked up to more than Cruyff. His courage, his conviction, his love of football and his desire for the game to be great are a huge motivator, particularly in a field as divisive as analytics. By force of will, he preached the gospel of Rinus Michels and worked toward a platonic football ideal that many clubs still strive to emulate today.
Cruyff of course was also a famously enigmatic figure, whose haikus on the game were quoted endlessly. One of them was this:
“Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”
I think the same applies to running a football club, an area where Cruyff also excelled and also at times sparked considerable controversy. Despite his irascible and often impolitic nature, he was a glorious exception to the rule that great players cannot also be great managers.
Yesterday, FourFourTwo magazine reprinted their feature on Cruyff’s outsized influence at Barcelona. While I’m a little wary that Cruyff’s greatness will only remembered in the context of his Barca legacy, I think it’s worth highlighting how exactly he transformed the club following his appointment as manager on May 4th, 1988:
- He established a clear hierarchy of power. Cruyff made it clear to the beleaguered club president Josep Lluis Nunez that he and he alone would be in charge of personnel decisions. Cruyff and Cruyff alone would fashion the club in his own image, and his first duty involved releasing 15 players from the team.
- He immediately defined the “Barca Way.” Cruyff didn’t wait and see what his team were capable of, nor did he judge which would be the most successful approach in the league. He simply chose. In a team meeting in July, he laid out the 3-4-3 high pressing, attacking football which would later define both Barcelona and the Spanish national team.
- He ensured the club would recruit and develop players that fit his style of play. Cruyff actively sought players which fit his system, and he ensured Barca’s academy would emphasise the technical qualities it demanded. La Masia would go on to become one the most famous football academies in the world.
Cruyff in part wasted no time laying out this vision because he likely knew it would not yield overnight results—it needed time to succeed. Indeed, as the article notes, Cruyff’s Barca underwent some “teething problems” and several key signings took time to adjust. Yet four years later this crucial work would pay off with the famous 1992 “Dream Team”:
“There was a different spirit and feeling around the club in 1992 – everyone could feel it,” says Eusebio, immense alongside Guardiola in the final. “We’d spent four years working in one direction, adding the odd new player, to change Barça’s history. We were the chosen ones and knew it was our time.”
Yet even more than this, what mattered for Cruyff, Barcelona, Spain and the history of modern football is what happened after Cruyff’s ignominious departure from the team in May 1996: the club did not abandon Cruyff’s approach.
While many clubs might have gone in a different direction, hired a manager with an entirely different set of values, Barca stayed true to the style that defined them under the Dutch manager and former player.
In fact, one can trace the 12 years between Cruyff’s exit and Pep Guardiola’s entrance in 2008 as a long, hit-and-miss process in which the club struggled successfully to preserve Cruyff’s legacy, which paid off spectacularly in an era which produced Xavi, Iniesta, and Lionel Messi. Cruyff’s vision was literally mes que un club. It was bigger than Cruyff himself.
You may be wondering at this point: what does any of this have to do with soccer analytics?
Though Barcelona have long eschewed data analysis in soccer operations (and with a team like that, why wouldn’t they?), I believe that analytics is most effective at clubs where there is a single, well-established long-term vision that does not suddenly change whenever an individual executive, director or manager leaves.
There are several reasons for this.
- Effective stats departments take time to get running. Analytics is not about short term fixes. Many brilliant club analysts spend much of their initial seasons building databases and coding software to fit the needs of the club. In some cases, analysts can’t make effective signing recommendations until more than a year on the job.
- Results don’t come overnight. Analytics is often about making small, marginal gains, and these take time to show results on the pitch. They also improve as analysts collect more and more data over time.
- To be most effective, data analysis requires buy-in from the whole club. If an analyst produces work for a manager who believes it’s useless, or if a director of football does not include their manager in a data-driven recruitment process, even the best analysis won’t produce meaningful returns. Effective cooperation requires a club to share a single vision for long-term success.
Aston Villa and Analytics as a Hail Mary Play
Though there are some positive models to draw on (Southampton FC, FC Midtjylland), it may be more instructive to look at a club where an analytics project clearly failed: Aston Villa.
The details on their specific approach to data analysis are unclear, but we do know that American owner Randy Lerner found religion on analytics and recruitment late on in his ownership. Former Arsenal front office man Hendrik Almstadt became Villa’s first ever sporting director in July 2015, nine years after Lerner first bought the club, and a year after Lerner hired former Arsenal commercial exec Tom Fox as chief executive.
Lerner made his M.O. clear in an interview with the Times in 2015:
“For clubs like Southampton and Swansea, their ability to sell players at premium prices wisely has been, to my mind, a key part of their ascent and their increasingly established position in the top half.”
Yet he seems here to be confusing a symptom of Southampton’s and Swansea’s success with its cause. The rise of of Southampton for example over the last six years had little to do with “net spend,” or “exploiting the liquidity of bigger clubs”, but with the painstaking work of establishing a coherent club philosophy which is reflected at every level of the club hierarchy and in scouting, player development and managerial hires.
And while we should consider the very real possibility that that Almstadt’s methods were flawed, they may have been at the very least rushed—his recruitment drive ahead of the 2015-16 season appeared to begin halfway through the summer transfer window, in July 2015.
This raises a few questions:
- Did the club’s transfer targets suit Tim Sherwood’s preferred style of play? Did Sherwood have significant input in the player selection process?
- What was the size of the player database? What was the criteria in filtering out targets? Which predictive metrics, if any, were used in selection process?
- Were players vetted by on-the-ground scouts?
We can’t know the answers to these questions, but it’s hard for me to believe this kind of in-depth work could have been accomplished in a mere six weeks.
Of course, Villa didn’t have the luxury of time, but then again they rarely have in the last decade. As the Swiss Ramble pointed out this week in a masterful analysis of Villa’s finances, Lerner’s late switch to the Southampton model came after years of hit-and-miss:
[Lerner’s] strategy has swung from one extreme to another since he bought the club in September 2006. Initially, he poured in money to support [manager Martin] O’Neill’s hefty spending, though this resulted in an unsustainable wage bill. Then, he engaged reverse gear, turning off the financial taps and looking to cut the wage bill with a focus on youth development. This was no more successful, so he is now once again pushing the boat out; only he’s doing it very badly.
Exploiting market efficiencies with better data doesn’t work as a hail mary play. It requires experimentation, preparation, trial and error, and buy-in and input from everyone involved, including the manager. It takes time—and the stomach and wiggle room to withstand some short term losses—to be effective.
Had Villa made this transition several years ago, or had combined it with a feasible (and more expensive) short-term plan for survival, they may given themselves the extra season needed to crawl out of their current mess.
Instead, Almstadt has left the club along with Tom Fox after former KPMG exec Steve Hollis took over as chairman (though head of recruitment Patrick Riley has stayed). The reason? They don’t fit in the “new model,” which Hollis failed to outline in great detail.
Ironically, a data-driven, youth-focused approach might have served Villa well in the Championship, but now we’ll never know. Villa, never a fan of the long game, have changed philosophies yet again.
Models, strategies, schemes. “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”
Process vs Results
It’s a cliche in the football world to talk about process versus results, but Ted Knutson speaks to it well here in an interview with Simon Farrant at this past February’s Opta Forum. Notice too how Knutson’s discussion on integration precludes the idea that it is a long term battle.
His remarks echo those of Coventry chairman and analytics author Chris Anderson in a recent interview with Adam Bate on Sky Sports:
“Obviously, we’re not a Swansea yet or a Southampton yet or a Bournemouth yet. But they’re all clubs who’ve had a difficult period and been able to turn it around. Our ambition is to become one of those clubs. But for that to happen we have to build these solid foundations.”
Much of that, according to Anderson, involves getting accurate feedback on the team’s underlying performance compared to their table position, as well as “avoiding bad decisions.” Anderson is laying the groundwork of basic stability, upon which the club can grow. It takes time, experimentation, and prudence to maintain. It’s not a quick fix.