Dearieme points us to this Simon Kuper piece in the FT: Time to End Our Deluded Obsession with Club Managers. From it, we learn that
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.
So far so good; that’s about what you’d expect. Managers improve the teams they have, who then climb the table, increasing the club’s turnstile and reward income, allowing them to improve the team, and so on until they hit the back of the queue represented by the clubs who did well in the early years of the Premiership and didn’t subsequently do a Leeds.
But if you read the article, you find that Kuper wants to brush aside the remaining 8%: his argument falls into 3 parts.
- “The team that pays most, wins”.
- But here is a list of managers who buck the trend. And most recently, Wenger and Hiddinck have bucked it by knowing things that the other managers and teams didn’t.
- “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”. So we revert to part 1. and begin to loop around, and the team with the most money wins.
But 3. is self-evidently absurd. Kuper’s argument derails itself. Football always thinks it’s at the end of history, and then gets caught out completely by something left-field.
(Just within scouting, significant unevenness reveals itself even within the big four, where Arsenal’s knowledge of African youngsters is greater than Liverpool’s, Liverpool’s of Spanish youngsters greater than Manchester United’s, and Manchester United’s scoop on the Balkans and the Brazilians beats Chelsea’s. And that’s just scouting).
I don’t think Szymanski’s wrong, because he leaves room for such irregularities, and he leaves room for Leeds and Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham and the other members of that almighty host who paid the wages and bought the bullet.
In the very long run, it isn’t how much players are paid, it’s the size of the city divided by the number of its significant clubs, the optimal number of clubs being two. The city has to have been a major centre of manufacturing at some point in its history, and ideally will not primarily have been a port. Discuss.
Finally, and just for the sake of fairness, Simon Kuper is in my opinion alongside Jonathan Wilson as the best sports journalist in the UK. I own and reread all of his books. I don’t agree with him here, but I can’t even pretend to match his knowledge, experience, imagination and reach in his coverage of football.