Would you rather be a Leicester City or a Southampton?
Would you rather move up from League One to the Premier League in half a decade through a well-thought out club philosophy and an intelligent recruitment and development policy honed over several seasons; earn a few consecutive seventh or eighth place finishes and the promise of something more one day; get some worthy European experience in the Europa League; and gain financial security through transfer fees from selling players at their peak?
Or would you prefer to Blackburn it to glory, coming back from the first promotion in a decade and near-relegation to a miraculous Premier League win on the back of a handful of smart decisions, with a team that happened to click with the right players and the right tactics under the right manager at the right time, just as a few big clubs imploded for reasons known/unknown?
I know; that’s probably not fair on Leicester City.
But for argument’s sake, let’s say that, outside of some very intelligent (and let’s be honest, lucky) recruitment decisions involving the likes of Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante, Leicester’s unlikely title run this season is mostly a happy accident.
It’s not far-fetched. Claudio Ranieri himself admitted in the Player’s Tribune his goal this season was survival, 40 points. This was before his famous motivational ‘pizza party,’ which spurred one the biggest sporting stories in domestic football in recent memory.
Though several esteemed analysts like Dan Altman and now Will Gurpinar-Morgan have worked out the ‘how’ of Leicester City’s success, but we don’t know the ‘why’—was this a tactical revolution deliberately instilled by the powers that be, or was it more organic, a club working a balanced, unique approach in a league where too many big clubs have tried and failed to forge victory either through brute force spending or pseudo-tiki-taka possession football?
I think there’s good evidence it’s the latter. Not that it should make any difference to fans of the club or lovers of old fashioned football romance. Flags—as my baseball loving friends love to say—fly forever. While many of us are on board with the Foxes winning the Premier League in the most financially imbalanced era in English football history, very few, probably out of politeness, are talking about what this could mean for Leicester’s long-term future. But even if Leicester crap the bed between now and May, it’s important consideration. After all, think many Blackburn supporters would likely trade their championship winning 1994-95 season for a little more stability over the last two decades.
Yet that’s not a fair comparison, of course, because the financial rewards for winning the Premier League are many multiples greater in 2016 than they were in 1995. Which means Leicester City are about to embark on a fascinating experiment: the little club that could, already on very good financial footing everything considered, is going to need to figure out what to do with all that extra money.
Not only does a title win means a huge chunk of the TV rights pot, but it could spur increased attention from commercial sponsors eager to latch onto the underdogs of the decade. Then there’s that little midweek cup competition called the Champions League.
On paper, these are all very good things. But money in football invites tremendous pressure to do something. The club will be pushed to answer these questions:
- The added fixtures from their European adventure will require the squad to beef up; even with the success of their recruitment efforts, how do they do so without wrecking team chemistry?
- What do they do, beyond giving him the contract of the century, to keep Ranieri at the helm? How do they find a suitable replacement who won’t mess everything up? Or is the manager secondary to what makes Leicester effective?
- Should Leicester increase their backroom staff, adding video and data analysts, nutritionists, scouts etc? Or is part of the cause of their success this their lean operation with little distance between ideas and action (right now the coaches and PAs share an office, for example)?
- What is Leicester’s long-term player succession plan? How will it replace key players like Jamie Vardy and Danny Drinkwater?
- Should Leicester City invest more money in academy facilities? Paying down old debts, particularly to local businesses that bailed them out x years ago? Wage increases? Transfer fees? Stadium improvement? How much for each?
The problem is, if LCFC’s title run is like this magic souffle that came out of nowhere, even the slightest change can bring it crashing down. Unlike Southampton, they’ve reached the promised land really, really early—almost by accident—and they need to quickly figure out how to keep the good times going. A lot can happen in a summer, even more so for an emotionally exhausted club on the back of one the most famous wins in sporting history, jinx jinx jinx.
Ultimately it will be the club’s Thai owners King Power who will answer (or likely already have answered) these questions. Having read Swiss Ramble’s assessment of their current finances, their strategy has been to absorb major losses in return for maintaining squad stability. And in this we have a glimpse of a potential LCFC ‘philosophy.’ This is not a selling club.
However, the risk is King Power will spend the summer transfer window in an arms race. From that same post:
The club’s ambitions are altogether different these days. Indeed, following promotion to the Premier League in 2014, chairman Vichai Srivaddhanapraba outlined his plans for Leicester to reach the top five. He said: “It will take a huge amount of money, possibly £180m, to get there. That doesn’t put us off. I am asking for three years, and we’ll be there.”
At the time, that looked like a ridiculous statement, but the reality is that his club has achieved this objective in less time and after spending significantly less money.
So there’s always the threat the club will bypass its ostensibly successful scouting network under Steve Walsh and goes to town on wasting what will be substantially improved revenues on amortized transfer fees for big name players.
But the Ramble gets to the crux of things at the end:
Much will depend on the club’s ability to hang on to its talent. Marc Albrighton, the energetic winger, acknowledged that players like Vardy, Mahrez and Kante would be wanted men, but gave a good argument for them staying: “Their dream must be to play for one of the biggest teams in Europe, as every player’s is, but why would you want to leave this club at the moment? It’s building something special. We are establishing ourselves as a top-four team and they are a massive part of this.”
His view is backed-up from a financial perspective, as there is no longer any compelling need for clubs like Leicester to sell their prize assets. In particular, Leicester will see a significant increase in revenue, based initially on their Premier League success this season, then the new TV deal in 2016/17 plus big money from the Champions League.
I think this is partly correct. In the short term, LCFC is probably better off making very careful, vetted additions for sane, football-related reasons rather than going on a spending bonanza.
But even if your star players stay, chances are they will age, they will slump, regress, pick up injuries. Or, as sometimes happens in football, things that worked last season may not work this season, for no discernible reason. You still need a succession plan for the team.
But neither should the team be rigid about the “kind” of player they want—they just need to be good, not good players who are about to be not so good, or bad players who look like good ones. Simple!
It’s here where I think the club has a major asset in Claudio Ranieri. Over at Sky Sports Adam Bate, who counts as one of my favourite journalists in the game today, wrote a column on Ranieri this past week which had me pumping my fists on the air. It also pissed me off, because wish I had written this:
Philosophies and cultures don’t so much seep from Premier League walls but instead are things to be imported at a price. Superstar coaches have the cure and clubs want their medicine. They’re the ones ready to adapt.
Ranieri however is an uber pragmatist. His methods don’t involve setting intricate playing philosophies; they involve letting footballers sort things out themselves. Thinking! Listen to this:
“I have a lot of admiration for those who build new tactical systems, but I always thought the most important thing a good coach must do is build the team around the characteristics of his players. So I told the players that I trusted them and would speak very little of tactics.”
This is, as Bate writes, similar to Diego Simeone’s approach at Atletico Madrid. But it also reflects the approach laid out by Thomas Tuchel, in a fantastic article by Rafa Honigstein this week. Rather than drill his players in rote training exercises, he forces them to think things through on their own through a never ending array of challenging exercises. It’s less about a top down, critical approach, says Tuchel. “My role is that of a service provider: I’m here to help and support the player.”
Nor is Ranieri or the first team coaches “analyst-phobic.” In this fascinating Opta piece, we learn they share the same office, inviting cross pollination of ideas.
The problem is, of course, that open-minded coaches like Ranieri are not a dime a dozen. Leicester should take a page from Southampton and begin scout (on paper) suitable managerial candidates to replace him. So for that, you need a managerial profile.
It’s not just players and managers either; Leicester have already had their analyst staff raided by Spurs and Arsenal alike. There’s no harm in taking the time to develop a database of both current club analysts but also public figures like the recently available Nikos Overheul and Ted Knutson.
Thankfully, Leicester City have a director of football in Jon Rudkin whose job will ideally be, alongside the club’s owners, to answer those questions in a way that puts the club on the best long-term footing possible. He can work with Walsh to make use of the public work by a handful of analysts, including the two I cited above, who have broken down the mechanics of Leicester’s success, one based on an efficient counterattack, to help develop a wider potential player profile for their scouts to consider.
Even if Leicester City spends the summer laying out a long term vision based on this unexpected financial boon and does nothing else, I think they will be in vastly better standing to reap the rewards from their unlikely Premier League adventure.
This is not about some convoluted “process”, or buzzwords or mission statements or whatever. It’s just about planning for the inevitable. It’s doing what smart lottery winners do—avoid making too many decisions too quickly, but thoroughly research all the options available.
When Football Analysts Stop Worrying and Just Screw Around
Thom Lawrence has been doing some fun stuff for a while now at his site DeepxG using fairly simple event data in smart ways to try to take a look at things from different perspectives. Probably the more involved of late is his PATCH metric which is a really cool way of evaluating defenders, but I quite like his more recent Time to Shot approach, if not for the complexity than the reasoning behind it, which is novel to say the least.
Time to Shot is as simple as it sounds—how long on average before your team manages on average to take a shot, and how long to concede? Lawrence however measures this in relation to what he calls ‘game states’—not in the ‘up one/down one goal’ way it’s usually used, but in after ball recoveries, interceptions, tackles, etc.
Though Lawrence promises these will become part of a regression model down the line, he isn’t after some xG beating super metric. Rather, the aim seems to be the simplicity of the concept, particularly when it comes to communication:
My hope is that ‘time to shot’ outputs are much easier to communicate, especially in neutral situations, than tiny probabilities. An xG from some possession far from the goal of about 1 in 1000 for and 1 in 3000 against is pretty hard to visualise. But if I tell you a specific game state is on average 120 seconds away from a shot for and 360 seconds away from a shot against, it’s a bit more grounded in reality.
I like this because, hey, it’s new, it’s interesting, and it’s more evidence that there is a lot of fun stuff that can be done with basic event data before we go off marching into the glorious Valhalla that is player tracking data. And, as ever, if TTS sharply departs from, say, xG, we can look more closely to get a sense of what’s going on, and thereby generate a potentially valuable insight.
Other beautifully simple but novel approaches lately include Ben Torvaney’s look at the Zone 14 copout popular in English football, as exemplified by Middlesborough. There isn’t nearly enough of this kind of “low hanging fruit” analysis, even if it turns out teams like Boro and others are perfectly valid in opting at times to pass in dead space out wide when in attack.
The other little fun bit of work that everyone has, for some reason, overlooked was Martin Eastwood’s brilliant application of the Google pagerank algorithm to rating football clubs. This may not seem particularly interesting except that counterintuitive rating methods can reveal undervalued clubs, and in turn, undervalued star players.
I think there isn’t nearly enough of this kind of play in the analytics world, perhaps as everyone is concerned with ensuring they’re respected by their peers or their work is taken seriously in the wider football world, meh boring.