Part I: Arrivals and Departures
This past week and a half has been particularly interesting in the realm of sports management turnover. I don’t follow many sports, so I’ll confine myself to some headlines from two professional sports I follow closely – football (soccer) and hockey.
– Dave Nonis takes over (again) for his best friend Brian Burke after the Toronto Maple Leafs decide that four years without measurable results is enough for Project Truculence(TM)
– Nigel Adkins discovers watching telly that he’s been replaced by Mauricio Pochettino in the same week his Southampton had drawn Chelsea and beaten my Aston Villa to pull themselves out of the relegation zone
– Current Queen’s Park Ranger (still mired in relegation campaign) and New Zealand defender Ryan Nelsen is announced to Toronto FC fans as their new head coach – effective sometime soon, maybe – because TFC Big Cheese Kevin Payne believes he’s the greatest leader ever, or something
– Meanwhile, Montreal Impact, in their quest to constantly undermine TFC, hire lauded and experienced (not to mention quadri-lingual) Swiss manager Marco Schaellibaum
– Like a kid on a gap year, former Barcelona manager and current backpacker, Pep Guardiola has decided on where he wants to go “once this crazy trip is over” and has decided on a little club in Bavaria
Part II: Connecting The Dots…or Xs and Os
Just reading through those moves raises valid questions. We can ask about track records and experience – what qualifications exactly does an appointment require? What makes success happen? Can you catch lightning in a bottle? Can you do it twice? How much value can we ascribe to personality and character and how much do we attribute to the environment that a manager operates in?
I’ll start with Dave Nonis, who finds himself getting promoted for the second time upon the departure of his best buddy and mentor Brian Burke (the previous time this happened was in Vancouver). Burke’s management record is a mixed bag. On one hand, he won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim. On the other hand, he signed Colton Orr to a four-year contract worth $1M per season in Toronto, with the ostensible goal of making his team tougher (despite this being a sport whose sole objective is to put the puck in the other team’s net while stopping that team from putting it in your own net – skills that Colton Orr lacks). Does this make Burke a good or a bad manager? I don’t know. Dave Nonis managed the Vancouver Canucks for three awful seasons, yet his moves (along with earlier Burkean moves) set the platform for the team that came one win away from the Stanley Cup. Is Nonis a good or a bad manager? I don’t know.
On England’s south coast another manager was given the surprise/not really a surprise boot, in that Nigel Adkins, like Brian Burke, probably deserved to be fired at some point, but the timing of his actual dismissal was startling. Adkins had led Southampton through successive promotion campaigns raising them from Football League One (known as the Npower League 1 for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) all the way up to the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes). But – with the exception of doubling wins over my sadsack Aston Villa – Southampton have struggled mightily. Firing Adkins in November would have been unremarkable. In fact, that is exactly the kind of crazy manoeuvring that Queen’s Park Rangers (where Toronto FC Head Coach Ryan Nelsen patrols the backline) employed to fire Mark Hughes and install Harry “I Only Can Commute From Bournemouth” Redknapp.
Is Harry Redknapp a good manager? Well, the bare statistics don’t really support the claims that he’s any better than Mark Hughes. Here’s what we know: as manager of QPR, Hughes won 27% of the matches. Redknapp: 27%. Maybe the lesson is that QPR are not a very good team. Which makes the announcement of their defender, Ryan Nelsen, as the head coach of Toronto FC more problematic than if say, out of the blue, TFC had announced David Beckham as their next coach. At least he is known as a winner. Nelsen’s connection to Toronto and MLS comes from their new President Kevin Payne, who established a pretty stellar reputation for winning at DC United (where Nelsen once played). Payne is basically asking for his new club’s supporters to credit him all their goodwill early in his decision. Yes, Nelsen is a risk, with terrible optics in timing and experience, but Payne believes that he has the tools to be a successful MLS coach – something he knows a little about, as he was the dude that gave Bruce Arena (widely regarded as the most successful American football manager) his start.
Risky business, giving someone with no experience a start, but what we know about management (if we know anything) is that experience doesn’t always work. That’s why Marco Schaellibaum in Montreal and Pep at Bayern may not be the slam-dunks (wrong sports analogy) everyone is writing them to be.
Part III: Experience, Exschmerience
As regular readers are well aware, I follow Aston Villa. This is a painful, if not unifying lifestyle (I at least know that both Ozzy Osbourne and David Cameron are supporters). This season has seen the entry of Paul Lambert as the manager.
Lambert is bright, articulate, and has an interest in developing young talent while playing an expansive, attacking style. Sounds great, right? Here’s his managerial record: 354 games, 147 wins, 86 draws, 121 losses. Win percentage: 42%. Those are impressive numbers, buoyed mostly by managing such powerhouses as Livingston, Wycombe Wanderers, Colchester United, and, of course, his last club, Norwich City.
It’s Lambert’s time at Norwich that led to his hire at Villa Park. He led the Canaries to the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) and made an impact, finishing mid-table in 12th place. They scored a lot of goals, but let in just as many, so Lambert’s appointment was meant to signal a more open style that would result in goals, goals, goals (if you count goals conceded, he’s partly delivered). Last year, Villa also struggled, but scored more goals, while conceding fewer than they have this campaign.
In Lambert’s absence, Norwich, under new manager Chris Hughton, have scored less, conceded more, but sit at 12th. So, uh, is Norwich just as good as before? Is the rest of the league worse? Can we make sense of any of this?
Other movers and shakers in the off-season make judging the effect of management, at least with a cursory glance, extremely difficult.
Liverpool, under Brendan Rodgers, sit in 8th place right now. At this same time last season, under Kenny Dalglish, they sat in 8th. Liverpool are rebuilding, goes the narrative. So if we don’t move anywhere, but it gives the appearance of movement, does this count? (Note: I think this is how Brian Burke can walk away from four years in Toronto, with no on ice improvement and still claim changes in the right direction)
Last season, Rodgers was managing Swansea City. At this point last season they were in 10th place. Currently, under Michael Laudrup, they sit in 9th. Is Laudrup better than Rodgers? Has that team changed at all? They’ve scored 8 more goals, most likely attributed to Laudrup’s signing Michu, goal machine. But overall, pretty much status quo.
Andre Villas-Boas is having a whale of a time at Tottenham, regaining his reputation after being sacked at Chelsea last spring. Tottenham sit at 4th place and everyone is praising Villas-Boas as a man reinvented. This time last year, Harry Redknapp (of the bottom dwelling QPR) was leading Tottenham at 3rd place. So, is Villas-Boas a good manager? Is Harry? Can we just assume that Spurs are a decent club?
Chelsea, under their second manager since Villas-Boas left, Rafa “Caretaker” Benitez, currently sit 3rd. Same time last year: 4th.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s hard to read results from how these teams perform. Is there a natural resting spot for these clubs based on their personnel that having a good or bad manager might only affect the result of a game or two over the course of a half season, and maybe three or four over the course of a year?
Paul Lambert might actually be a pretty decent manager, but this current Aston Villa side are not a very good team. With enough time, careful management, and astute shaping, it could improve.
It’s certainly not the side that Martin O’Neill led to three straight 6th place finishes. But, then again, those players aren’t really around any more. That young core seem to have found new homes at higher placed clubs (Ashley Young at Manchester United, Gareth Barry and James Milner at Manchester City), while Martin O’Neill isn’t having the easiest of times at Sunderland (14th place, four places below where they were this time last year).
Part IV: Seeing The Forest For The Trees, Etc.
I think Lambert is on the right track. His win percentage at Villa (35%) isn’t great, but it is markedly better than the man he replaced (Alex McLeish’s 21% winning percentage was the worst in club history). I hope he is given enough time to work his project and deliver results. I also hope that doesn’t involve relegation, which would be devastating for a club of Aston Villa’s prestige and size (even if their current position doesn’t reflect it).
There have been some nice silver linings this season. The emergence of Ciaran Clark as not only a first team regular, but a leader on the field is terrific. The additions of Ron Vlaar, Matthew Lowton, Ashley Westwood and, of course, Christian Benteke have been pivotal to the makeup of the squad and look to be central figures at the club, both now, and hopefully in a brighter future. And, last, the re-emergence of Gabriel Agbonlahor and the makings of a reclamation project in Charles N’Zogbia seem to be underway. All of these things have been in no small part, due to Lambert.
Part V: Addendum to a Twitter Conversation
The Ryan Nelsen hiring actually started an interesting exchange between a friend who happens to be a professional basketball coach.
To paraphrase (I think): my friend, Coach P sees hiring of Nelsen as a reflection of state of homegrown coaching in Canada. I see it more as farce of Toronto FC organization (which has gone through 8 head coaches in less than 7 years).
To be serious, though, there are obvious concerns about whether or not we are developing enough coaches in Canada, and this is a concern that I believe exists outside of soccer and finds itself in most sports as well. I can speak to this a bit based on my personal knowledge of what’s going on in rugby (where I’ve got coaching certification and have also been involved in club development) and what I’ve observed in other sports.
There is always going to be the issue of trying to convince people to get started. It is a slog, requiring an extensive amount of time, with little thanks, and hiccups along the way. Former Canadian soccer captain and current analyst Jason de Vos raised the issue about whether this appointment of Nelsen gives the wrong message to aspiring coaches in Canada. Because Nelsen has no experience and no accreditation, it gives bad optics.
On the other hand, Nelsen has competed at the highest levels and has observed the work of some of the best managers in the game. The hope is that he will be able to set the tone, and with the assistance of a team of coaches (often overlooked in most discussions of sports management is the involvement of many contributors – it’s why someone like Dave Nonis keeps taking over for his departing boss) will be able to change the culture of losing in Toronto. It’s along these lines that TFC brought in Torsten Frings (and quickly made him captain), despite his poor English skills, he spoke a universal language of success.
The longterm goal is that while Canadian soccer develops, it will develop people in all roles, on and off the field. But, in terms of capacity and ability, we may need to be honest in what we can deliver on internally right now. My hope is that TFC (and Montreal, Vancouver, and the NASL’s Edmonton and soon to be Ottawa) build their organizations with sharp, aspiring coaches throughout their academies, who might rise to take over at the highest level. Toronto’s current staff includes Canadian assistant coaches such as Pat Onstad and Jim Brennan. Perhaps they might eventually prove themselves worthy of a higher role.
However, one need not look further than the national team vacancy left by Stephen Hart to see the limitations of what an internally developed manager can currently deliver on. Hart, a product of rising through Nova Scotia’s provincial ranks, simply was not an astute enough manager to win qualification to the World Cup because he was outmatched by the other CONCACAF managers. With the obvious exceptions of Mexico and the United States, there should not be another country in the region that Canada shouldn’t be able to compete with.
Maybe, when the next World Cup qualifying cycle comes round, we will be capably led, whether by a homegrown solution or an import. Because, I don’t know whether experience matters or not, but I can be convinced by results.