Luxury and frugal managers

You remember very random things from business school, nearly two decades on. Usually none of this is academic – the lessons are only “internalised”, not “learnt”. A lot of it is from outside the classroom, silly things someone said or did or posted on the internal bulletin board. Most of the stuff you remember are rather arbitrary things that professors said, and made it seem like something profound.

“Management is like making music”, one professor lectured to us in the first week of classes at IIMB, back in 2004. “First you make music with what you have, and when you don’t have that, you make music with what you have left”. It was rather random, but random enough to stick in my head 18 years on.

It has been another disappointing season beginning for Liverpool. I didn’t watch the Crystal Palace game last night, but I clearly remember feeling at multiple points during the draw at Fulham that this was “like 2020-21 all over again”. The sort of mistakes that Virgil Van Dijk made. The length of the injury list. More players (Thiago) going off injured midway through the game. Nat Phillips starting. And add some new issues – like having your shiny new striker getting himself sent off and suspended for 3 games for a stupid show of anger.

I see the list of substitutes.

  • 2
    Joe Gomez (s 63′)
  • 8
    Naby Keita
  • 13
    del Castillo Adrian
  • 14
    Jordan Henderson (s 63′)
  • 21
    Konstantinos Tsimikas (s 63′)
  • 28
    Fabio Carvalho (s 79′)
  • 43
    Stefan Bajcetic
  • 72
    Sepp van den Berg
  • 42
    Bobby Clark

Yes, there are youngsters (unlike 2021-22) but that is fully understandable. What I don’t understand is seeing youngsters I’ve never heard of. Two games in, I’m already getting the feeling that this will be a really hard league campaign.

I wonder if Klopp is more of a “luxury manager” than a “frugal manager”. These are two very different management styles, requiring very different skillsets. The names are fairly descriptive.

Luxury managers need luxury. They need resources for “option value”. In the corporate context, they need large budgets and space and little control over how they operate. And given all of this, a lot of the time, they deliver big. Yes – there are cases where they spectacularly fail (in which case they don’t stay on in their management jobs), but when they do deliver they deliver big.

Frugal managers don’t need any of this luxury. They are experts at making the most of whatever they have been given. In Ramnath’s words, they are adept at “making music with what they have left”. Any kind of luxury, any kind of optionality, seems like a waste to them. Why pay the option premium when you can get the same payoff through a complicated basket of one deltas?

And just like any other dichotomies (think of studs vs fighters, for example), luxury and frugal managers struggle in the opposite settings. Without the luxury, luxury managers are simply out of their depth. They are necessarily wasteful (a bit like Salah) and cannot produce if they are not able to waste some. However, they win big when they do.

Frugal managers are good at eking out solutions in terms of adversity, but abundant resources can overwhelm them. They won’t know what to do with it. More importantly, they are unable to deal with the expectations of delivering big (which come with the luxury) – they have been experts at delivering small against nonexistent expectations.

What about teams though? If you’ve been used to working for a luxury manager, what happens when you get a frugal manager? And the other way round? I don’t have immediate answers for this but I suppose you will struggle as well?

Mo Salah and Machine Learning

First of all, I’m damn happy that Mo Salah has renewed his Liverpool contract. With Sadio Mane also leaving, the attack was looking a bit thin (I was distinctly unhappy with the Jota-Mane-Diaz forward line we used in the Champions League final. Lacked cohesion). Nunez is still untested in terms of “leadership”, and without Salah that would’ve left Firmino as the only “attacking leader”.

(non-technical readers can skip the section in italics and still make sense of this post)

Now that this is out of the way, I’m interested in seeing one statistic (for which I’m pretty sure I don’t have the data). For each of the chances that Salah has created, I want to look at the xG (expected goals) and whether he scored or not. And then look at a density plot of xG for both categories (scored or not). 

For most players, this is likely to result in two very distinct curves – they are likely to score from a large % of high xG chances, and almost not score at all from low xG chances. For Salah, though, the two density curves are likely to be a lot closer.

What I’m saying is – most strikers score well from easy chances, and fail to score from difficult chances. Salah is not like that. On the one hand, he creates and scores some extraordinary goals out of nothing (low xG). On the other, he tends to miss a lot of seemingly easy chances (high xG).

In fact, it is quite possible to look at a player like Salah, see a few sitters that he has missed (he misses quite a few of them), and think he is a poor forward. And if you look at a small sample of data (or short periods of time) you are likely to come to the same conclusion. Look at the last 3-4 months of the 2021-22 season. The consensus among pundits then was that Salah had become poor (and on Reddit, you could see Liverpool fans arguing that we shouldn’t give him a lucrative contract extension since ‘he has lost it’).

It is well possible that this is exactly the conclusion Jose Mourinho came to back in 2013-14 when he managed Salah at Chelsea (and gave him very few opportunities). The thing with a player like Salah is that he is so unpredictable that it is very possible to see samples and think he is useless.

Of late, I’ve been doing (rather, supervising (and there is no pun intended) ) a lot of machine learning work. A lot of this has to do with binary classification – classifying something as either a 0 or a 1. Data scientists build models, which give out a probability score that the thing is a 1, and then use some (sometimes arbitrary) cutoff to determine whether the thing is a 0 or a 1.

There are a bunch of metrics in data science on how good a model is, and it all comes down to what the model predicted and what “really” happened. And I’ve seen data scientists work super hard to improve on these accuracy measures. What can be done to predict a little bit better? Why is this model only giving me 77% ROC-AUC when for the other problem I was able to get 90%?

The thing is – if the variable you are trying to predict is something like whether Salah will score from a particular chance, your accuracy metric will be really low indeed. Because he is fundamentally unpredictable. It is the same with some of the machine learning stuff – a lot of models are trying to predict something that is fundamentally unpredictable, so there is a limit on how accurate the model will get.

The problem is that you would have come across several problem statements that are much more predictable that you think it is a problem with you (or your model) that you can’t predict better. Pundits (or Jose) would have seen so many strikers who predictably score from good chances that they think Salah is not good.

The solution in these cases is to look at aggregates. Looking for each single prediction will not take us anywhere. Instead, can we predict over a large set of data whether we broadly got it right? In my “research” for this blogpost, I found this.

Last season, on average, Salah scored precisely as many goals as the model would’ve predicted! You might remember stunners like the one against Manchester City at Anfield. So you know where things got averaged out.

Compensation at the right tail

Yesterday I was reading this article ($) about how Liverpool FC is going about (not) retaining its star forwards Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, who have been key parts of the team that has (almost) “cracked it” in the last 5 seasons.

One of the key ideas in the (paywalled) piece is that Liverpool is more careful about spending on its players than other top contemporary clubs. As Oliver Kay writes:

[…] the Spanish club have the financial strength to operate differently — retaining their superstars well into their 30s and paying them accordingly until they are perceived to have served their purpose, at which point either another A-list star or one of the most coveted youngsters in world football (an Eder Militao, an Eduardo Camavinga, a Vinicius Junior, a Rodrygo and perhaps imminently, an Aurelien Tchouameni) will usually emerge to replace them.

In an ideal world, Liverpool would do something similar with Salah and Mane, just as Manchester City did with Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero — and as they will surely do with De Bruyne.

But the reality is that the Merseyside club are more restricted. Not dramatically so, but restricted enough for Salah, Mane and their agents to know there is more to be earned elsewhere, and that presents a problem not just when it comes to retaining talent but also when it comes to competing for the signings that might fill the footsteps of today’s heroes.

To go back to fundamentals, earnings in sport follow a power law distribution – a small number of elite players make a large portion of the money. And the deal with the power law is that it is self-similar – you can cut off the distribution at any arbitrary amount, and what remains to the right is still a power law.

So income in football follows a power law. Income in elite football also follows the same power law. The English Premier League is at the far right end of this, but wages there again follow a power law. If you look at really elite players in the league, again it is a (sort of – since number of data points would have become small by now) power law.

What this means is that if you can define “marginal returns to additional skill”, at this far right end of the distribution it can be massive. For example, the article talks about how Salah has been offered a 50% hike (to make him the best paid Liverpool player ever), but that is still short of what some other (perceptibly less skilled) footballers earn.

So how do you go about getting value while operating in this kind of a market? One approach, that Liverpool seems to be playing, is to go Moneyball. “The marginal cost of getting a slightly superior player is massive, so we will operate not so far out at the right tail”, seems to be their strategy.

This means not breaking the bank for any particular player. It means ruthlessly assessing each player’s costs and benefits and acting accordingly (though sometimes it comes across as acting without emotion). For example, James Milner has just got an extension in his contract, but at lower wages to reflect his marginally decreased efficiency as he gets older.

Some of the other elite clubs (Real Madrid, PSG, Manchester City, etc.), on the other hand, believe that the premium for marginal quality is worth it, and so splurge on the elite players (including keeping them till fairly late in their careers even if it costs a lot). The rationale here is that the differences (to the “next level”) might be small, but these differences are sufficient to outperform compared to their peers (for example, Manchester City has won the league by one point over Liverpool twice in the last four seasons).

(Liverpool’s moneyball approach, of course, means that they try to get these “marginal advantages” in other (cheaper) ways, like employing a throw in coach or neuroscience consultants).

This approach is not without risk, of course. At the far right end of the tail, the variance in output can be rather high. Because the marginal cost of small increases in competence is so high, even if a player slightly underperforms, the effective monetary value of this underperformance is massive – you have paid for insanely elite players to win you everything, but they win you nothing.

And the consequences can be disastrous, as FC Barcelona found out last year.

In any case, the story doing the rounds now is that Barcelona want to hire Salah, but given their financial situation, they can’t afford to buy out his contract at Liverpool. So, they are hoping that he will run down his contract and join them on a free transfer next year. Then again, that’s what they had hoped from Gini Wijnaldum two years ago as well. And he’s ended up at PSG, where (to the best of my knowledge) he doesn’t play much.

The first heart attack

Gerard Houllier is no more. The man who led Liverpool to the “cup treble” in 2001 passed away following a heart operation. Supporters of the club might remember that he had had yet another heart operation when he was managing Liverpool, and the impact of that heart attack on the club was serious.

I’m reusing a graph that I’d put here a couple of years back. This shows Liverpool’s Elo Rating (as per clubelo.com) over the years, with managers’s reigns being overlaid on top.

Notice the green region towards the right – it says “Houllier”, and it has one massive up and one massive down. Actually I’m going to re-upload this graph to blow up the Premier League period.

Liverpool’s Elo Rating in the Premier League period

Now you can see that there are two separate regions marked “Gerard Houllier”, with a small gap that says “Phil Thompson”. This gap represented Houllier’s first heart operation. Notice how, before his heart operation, Liverpool had been on a massive upswing, on their way back nearly to the levels where they had started off in the Premier League (they had last won  the league in 1990; compare to the first graph here).

And then the heart attack, and heart operation happened. Houllier’s assistant Phil Thompson took over and held things (here is Thompson’s tribute to Houllier). And then Houllier came back and he and Thompson became joint managers (the “orange” region here). And Liverpool’s rally was gone. The 2001-2 season was gone.

Looking at this graph, with the full benefit of hindsight, Houllier’s sacking in 2004 (to be replaced by Rafa Benitez) seems fully justified. And then notice the club’s steep fall under Benitez after Xabi Alonso got sold in 2009.

I’ve said here before – these Elo graphs can be used to tell a lot of footballing stories.

Yet another initiation

I’m still reeling from the Merseyside derby. It had been a long time since a game of football so emotionally drained me. In fact, the last time I remember getting a fever (literally) while watching a game of football was in the exact same fixture in 2013, which had ended 3-3 thanks to a Daniel Sturridge equaliser towards the end.

In any case, my fever (which I’ve now recovered from) and emotional exhaustion is not the reason today’s match will be memorable. It also happens to be a sort of initiation of my daughter as a bonafide Liverpool fan.

 

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Initiating @abherikarthik to the Merseyside derby. #ynwa #lfc

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It’s been a sort of trend in recent times (at least since the lockdown) that Liverpool games have been scheduled for late evenings or late night India times.  That has meant that I haven’t been able to involve the daughter, who on most days goes to bed at seven, in the football.

She has seen me watch highlights of Liverpool games. She admires the “Liverpool. We are Champions” poster that I had ordered after last season’s Premier League victory, and have since stuck on the walls of our study. She knows I’ve been a fan of Liverpool for a long time now (it dates to more than eleven years before she was born).

However, till date, after she had truly started understand stuff (she is four now), we had never watched a game together. And so when it was announced that the Everton-Liverpool game would be held at 5pm IST, I decided it was time for initiation.

I had casually slipped it to her on Tuesday (or so) that “on Saturday, we will be watching football together. And we will have drinks and snacks along with it”. And then on Wednesday she asked me what day of the week it was. “So how many days to Saturday”, she asked. When I asked her what was special about the coming Saturday, she let out a happy scream saying “football party!!”. On the same day she had informed her mother that we both were “going to have a football party on Saturday”, and that her mother was not welcome.

She’s spent the last three days looking forward to today. At four o’clock today, as I was “busy” watching the IPL game, she expressed her disappointment that I had not yet started preparing for the party. I finally swung into action around 4:30 (though a shopping trip in the morning had taken care of most of the prep).

A popcorn packet was put into the microwave. The potato chips packet (from a local “Sai hot chips” store) was opened, and part of its contents poured into a bowl. I showed her the bottles of fresh fruit juice that I had got, that had been pushed to me by a promoter at the local Namdhari’s store. Initially opting for the orange juice, she later said she wanted the “berry smoothie”. I poured it into a small wine glass that she likes. A can of diet coke and some Haldiram salted peanuts for me, and we were set.

I was pleasantly surprised that she sat still on the couch with me pretty much for the length of the match (she’s generally the restless types, like me). She tied the Liverpool scarf around her in many different ways. She gorged on the snacks (popcorn, potato chips and pomegranate in the first half; nachos with ketchup in the second). She kept asking who is winning. She kept asking me “where Liverpool was from” after I told her that “Everton are from Liverpool”.

I explained to her the concept of football, and goals. Once in the second half she was curious to see Adrian in the Liverpool goal, and that she “hadn’t seen the Liverpool goal in a long time”. Presently, Dominic Calvert-Lewin equalised to make it 2-2, giving her the glimpse of the goal she had so desired.

At the end of the game, she couldn’t grasp the concept of a draw. “But who won?”, she kept asking. She didn’t grasp the concept of offside either, though it possibly didn’t help that Liverpool seemed to play a far deeper line today than they have this season.

I’m glad that she had such an interesting game to make her “football watching debut”. Not technically, of course, since I remember cradling her on my lap when Jose Mourinho parked two Manchester United buses at Anfield (she was a month old then), and that had been a dreadful game.

A friend told me that I should “let her make her own choices” and not foist my club affiliations on her. Let’s see where this goes.

 

Front Five, Back Five

I recently realised that there are two ways in which you can describe a team’s formation in football. The traditional way is to describe it in terms of the number of defenders, midfielders and attackers. 4-4-2 and all that (speaking of which, I don’t think I’ve mentioned here at all about The Paper, a new venture I’ve started with Suprio Guha Thakurta, where we dissect one piece of India business news every day. Subscribe here if you aren’t yet a subscriber. In yesterday’s edition, we used Inverting The Pyramid to describe India’s National Education Policy).

Back to football, so you can describe teams as 2-3-5, or 4-4-2, or 4-2-3-1, or whatever. However, in the last few months, maybe since Jose Mourinho took over at Spurs, I’ve discovered another way of describing a football team. It’s not that elegant, I must admit, and it takes more effort to describe it. This is what I call the “back five, front five” method.

In his early days at Spurs, Jose sort of surprised us by the way he set up the team. We all expected a 4-3-3 (or even a 4-2-3-1) given his history. It was still a nominal 4-2-3-1, but it was highly asymmetrical. Right back Serge Aurier was given license to attack, while left back Ben Davies stayed back. So the “front five” (players responsible for attack) were centre forward Harry Kane, wide left forward Heung Min Son, the attacking midfielders Dele Alli and Lucas Moura, and Aurier.

In other words, it was the 3-1 of the 4-2-3-1 and the right back that constituted the front five for Spurs under Jose. The remaining two defenders and two defensive midfielders were the “back five”, responsible for holding the position when the front five went on attack.

Now, Jose has tweaked his formation several times after this, but once I had seen this front five back five description, I couldn’t “unsee” it. Every team’s formation fit nicely into a front five and a back five.

Liverpool and Manchester City both play with nominal 4-3-3s, but that doesn’t tell you how different these teams are in the way they attack. Well, for both, the front line of three are all attackers, but the interesting thing is who joins them.

For Liverpool, it is the full backs Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson. The job of the entire midfield is to be part of the back five (though they do join attacks in turns), which makes their job very different from similar midfielders at other clubs. Check out this statistic, for example:

Manchester City (and Guardiola’s Bayern Munich before them) do it differently. For them, all the back four are part of the back five, assisted by one of the midfielders. The other two midfielders (most commonly, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in the last two seasons) are part of the attack (Pep  calls them “twin eights”).

Manchester United struggled for most of the season, trying out different formations and not being particularly good at it until they landed Bruno Fernandes in the winter break. That, along with the emergence of “wide striker” Mason Greenwood meant that they’ve since adopted a front-back policy similar to their City rivals. The resurgence after the pandemic break was spectacular.

So think about it – the reason nominally similar formations might play very differently, or why nominally different formations produce similar styles of play, is that they interpret the front five and back five differently. Maybe it doesn’t work for all teams, but this is a good framework to describe teams.

Night trains

In anticipation of tonight’s Merseyside Derby, I was thinking of previous instances of this fixture at Goodison Park. My mind first went back to the game in the 2013-14 season, which was a see-saw 3-3 draw, with the Liverpool backline being incredibly troubled by Romelu Lukaku, and Daniel Sturridge scoring with a header immediately after coming on to make it 3-3 (and Joe Allen had missed a sitter earlier when Liverpool were 2-1 up).

I remember my wife coming back home from work in the middle of that game, and I didn’t pay attention to her until it was over. She wasn’t particularly happy about that, but the intense nature of the game gave me a fever (that used to happen often in the 2013-14 and 2008-9 seasons).

Then I remember Everton winning 3-0 once, though I don’t remember when that was (googling tells me that was in the 2006-7 season, when I was already a Liverpool fan, but not watching regularly).

And then I started thinking about what happened to this game last season, and then remembered that it was a 0-0 draw. Incidentally, it was on the same day that I travelled to Liverpool – I had a ticket for an Anfield Tour the next morning.

I now see that I had written about getting to Liverpool after I got to my hotel that night. However, I haven’t written about what happened before that. My train from Euston was around 8:00 pm. I remember leaving home (which was in Ealing) at around 6 or so, and then taking two tubes (Central changing to Victoria at Oxford Circus) to get to Euston. And then buying chewing gum and a bottle of water at Marks and Spencer while waiting for my train.

I also remember that while leaving home that evening, I was scared. I was psyched out. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. This was a trip to Liverpool I had been wanting to make for the best part of 14 years. I had kept putting it off during my stay in London until I knew that I was going to move out of London in two weeks’ time. Liverpool were having a great season (they would go on to win the Champions League, and only narrowly lose the Premiser League title).

I was supposed to be excited. Instead I was nervous. My nerve possibly settled only after I was seated in the train that evening.

Thinking about it, I basically hate night trains (well, this wasn’t an overnight train, but it started late in the evening). I hate night buses as well. And this only applies to night trains and buses that take me away from my normal place of residence – starting towards “home” late in the night never worries me.

This anxiety possibly started when I was in IIT Madras. I remember clearly then that I used to sleep comfortably without fail while travelling from Madras to Bangalore, but almost always never slept or only slept fitfully when travelling in the opposite direction. While in hindsight it all appears fine, I never felt particularly settled when I was at IITM.

And consequently, anything that reminds me of travelling to IITM psyches me out. I always took the night train while travelling there, and the anxiety would start on the drive to the railway station. Even now, sometimes, I get anxious while taking that road late in the evening.

Then, taking night trains has been indelibly linked to travelling to Madras, and something that I’ve come to fear as well. While I haven’t taken a train in India since 2012, my experience with the trip to Liverpool last year tells me that even non-overnight night trains have that effect on me.

And then, of course, there is the city of Chennai as well. The smells of the city after the train crosses Basin Bridge trigger the first wave of anxiety. Stepping out of the railway station and the thought of finding an autorickshaw trigger the next wave (things might be different now with Uber/Ola, but I haven’t experienced that).

The last time I went to Chennai was for a close friend’s wedding in 2012. I remember waking up early on the day of the wedding and then having a massive panic attack. I spent long enough time staring at the ceiling of my hotel room that I ended up missing the muhurtham.

I’ve made up my mind that the next time I have to go to Chennai, I’ll just drive there. And for sure, I’m not going to take a train leaving Bangalore in the night.

Afcon in winter

As well as Liverpool is doing this season, there are already clouds on how good next season could be. The reason is the moving of the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) to January-February, which means Liverpool will be without three key players (Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita) for over six weeks of the season.

When asked about it at a press conference last week, manager Jurgen Klopp went off on a massive rant (paywalled) about scheduling, and FIFA and UEFA and everything.

The other thing is it doesn’t help African players. We will not sell Sadio, Mo or Naby now because they have a tournament in January and February — of course not — but if you have to make a decision about bringing in a player it is a massive one because before the season you know for four weeks you don’t have them. That’s a normal process and as a club you have to think about these things. It doesn’t help the players, for sure.

This is a very valid second-order impact of having the African Cup of Nations in the middle of the European season. As the timing of the AFCON gets regularised in winter, European clubs will be loathe to hire Africans into their leagues. And that is bad news for African footballers.

While elite players such as Salah or Mane might never be in the need for a job, the problem with the unavailability mid-season is that clubs will start accounting for that while making decisions on recruitment.

The marginal African player playing in the second or third division in a major European footballing country will find it marginally more difficult to get a next good contract. The marginal African player at the top of his country’s league will find it marginally more difficult to get recruited to a (nowadays coveted) European club.

And as African players play less for European clubs (this will happen in due course), there will be fewer African role models. Because of which fewer African kids will want to take up football. Because of which the overall level of football in African countries will go down.

This is the problem with dependence on external factors, like African football does with European football. That the best African footballers want to play in Europe means that the wishes of Europe will automatically have an impact on football in Africa. This means that Africa cannot schedule its continental tournament at the time of the year that is most convenient to it without impacting its own players.

This is a rather common problem. A quick analogy I can think of is the impossible trinity of macroeconomics – an independent monetary policy, free capital flows and a fixed exchange rate. The moment you peg your currency to another, what happens in the other currency automatically starts affecting you.

So what should African Football do? Clearly, climatic conditions mean that for most of Africa it’s optimal to host the tournament in (the northern hemisphere) winter. Clearly, there is no point of hosting such a tournament if the best African footballers don’t take part. But doing so will marginally jeopardise the marginal African footballer. And that is not good for African football.

There are no easy answers to this puzzle.

Studs and Fighters and Attack and Defence

The general impression in sport is that attack is “stud” and defence is “Fighter“. This is mainly because defence (in any game, pretty much) is primarily about not making errors, and being disciplined. Flamboyance can pay off in attack, when you only need to strike occasionally, but not in defence, where the real payoff comes from being consistent and excellent.

However, attack need not always be stud, and defence need not always be fighter. This is especially true in team sports such as football, where there can be a fair degree of organisation and coaching to get players to coordinate.

This piece in The Athletic (paywalled) gives an interesting instance of how attacking can be fighter, and how modern football is all about fighter attacking. It takes the instance of this weekend’s game between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool F.C., which the latter won.

Jack Pitt-Brooke, the author, talks about how Liverpool is fighter in attack because the players are well-drilled in attacking, and practice combination play, or what are known in football as “automisations”.

But in modern football, the opposite is true. The best football, the type played by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City or Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, is the most rigorously planned, drilled and co-ordinated. Those two managers have spent years teaching their players the complex attacking patterns and synchronised movements that allow them to cut through every team in the country. That is why they can never be frustrated by opponents who just sit in and defend, why they are racking up points totals beyond the reach of anyone else.

Jose Mourinho, on the other hand, might be fighter in the way he sets up his defence, but not so when it comes to attacking. He steadfastly refuses to have his teams train attacking automisations. While defences are extremely well drilled, and know exactly how to coordinate, attackers are left to their own forces and creativity. What Mourinho does is to identify a handful of attackers (usually the centre forward and the guy just behind him) who are given “free roles” and are expected to use their own creativity in leading their team’s attacks.

As Pitt-Brooke went on to write in his article,

That, more than anything else, explains the difference between Klopp and Mourinho. Klopp wants to plan his way out of the randomness of football. Mourinho is more willing to accept it as a fact and work around it. So while the modern manager — Klopp, Guardiola, Antonio Conte — coaches players in ‘automisations’, pre-planned moves and patterns, Mourinho does not.

Jurgen Klopp the fighter, and Jose Mourinho the stud. That actually makes sense when you think of how their teams attack. It may not be intuitive, but upon some thought it makes sense.

Yes, attack is also being fighterised in modern sport.

Two steps back, one step forward

In his excellent piece on Everton’s failed recruitment strategy (paywalled), Oliver Kay of the Athletic makes an interesting point – that players seldom do well when they move from a bigger club to a smaller club.

During his time in charge at Arsenal, George Graham used to say that the key to building a team was to buy players who were on the way up — or, alternatively, players who were desperate to prove a point — but to avoid those who might see your club as a soft landing, a comfort zone. “Never buy a player who’s taking a step down to join you,” Graham said. “He will act as if he’s doing you a favour.”

This, I guess, is not unique to football alone – it applies to other jobs as well. When someone joins a company that they think they are “too cool for”, they  look at it as a step down, and occasionally behave as if they’re doing the new employer a favour.

One corollary is that working for “the best” can be a sort of lock in for an employee, since wherever he will move from there will be a sort of step down in some way or the other, and that will mean compromises on the part of all parties involved.

Thinking about footballers who have moved from big clubs and still not done badly, I notice one sort of pattern that I call “two steps back and one step forward”. Evidently, I’m basing this analysis on a small number of data points, which might be biased, but let me play management guru and go ahead with my theory.

Basically, if you want to take a “step down” from the best, one way of doing well in the longer term is to take “two steps down” and then later take a step up. The advantage with this approach is that when you take two steps down, you get to operate in an environment far easier than the one you left, and even if you act entitled and take time to adjust you will be able to prove yourself and make an impact in due course.

And at that point in time, when you’ve started making an impact, you are “on the way up”, and can then step up to a club at the next level where you can make an impact.

Players that come to mind that have taken this approach include Jonny Evans, who moved from Ferguson-era Manchester United to West Brom, and then when West Brom got relegated, moved “up” to Leicester. And he’s doing a pretty good job there.

And then there is Xherdan Shaqiri. He made his name as a player at Bayern Munich, and then moved to Inter where he struggled. And then he made what seemed like a shocking move for the time – to Stoke City (of the “cold Thursday night at Stoke” fame) in the Premier League. Finally, last year, after Stoke got relegated from the Premier League, he “stepped up” to Liverpool, where, injuries aside, he’s been doing rather well.

The risk with this two steps down approach, of course, is that sometimes it can fail to come off, and if you don’t make an impact soon enough, you start getting seen as a “two steps down guy”, and even “one step down” can seem well beyond you.