On Monday, Sigi Schmid resigned from the head coach position of the LA Galaxy. He is the winningest coach in the history of MLS.
U.S. Soccer through the newly appointed U.S. men's national team general manager Earnie Stewart has been looking for the best choice for the head coach. The USA did not qualify for the World Cup 2018 under the leaderships of Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena. Both coaches had to leave their posts.
The question to ask in both cases is whether the players or the coaches to blame for the failure of the team. Would changing the coach have a positive impact on the performance of the team? These are not easy questions to answer.
In this article we will try to look at the relation between players, coaches and the performance of team from various examples around the world.
We have to make a distinction between a head coach for a club and a head coach for a national team. There is a major difference between the qualities required for each. One can develop a team with limited resources he/she has over a season, the other has an unlimited resources with little chance to develop them over time. There are cases where a coach has been successful with both national teams and club teams.
My friend and associate, Fatih Terim, won the UEFA Cup with Galatasaray in 2000. He also coached the Turkish men's national team to the semifinals at Euro 2008. He also had less successful spells with Galatasaray and the Turkish national team. Definitely, one cannot over-generalize that there are club coaches and national team coaches and one cannot be successful in both.
What is clear is that there is a clear correlation between the quality of the players and the success of the team. Let us start looking at some examples for the clubs.
An article in Business Insider indicates that money really does buy championships. In 2012, 56 percent (29 of 52) of the clubs in Europe that had the highest payroll in their leagues won the domestic title. Seventy-seven percent of them finished either first or second. This was an article from 2014, but I doubt that much has changed since than other than payrolls going up even further.
Naturally, one can argue about the correlation between the quality of a player and his/her salary, but one cannot find a better relation than this one in a capitalistic world. If you look at the last couple of years of the quarterfinalists in the Champions League, you will see the same teams and they are mostly from the top five leagues in Europe. One of those teams is Real Madrid. With Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid won one La Liga title, three Champions League titles, one FIFA Club World Cup and two UEFA Super Cups. He did this in only 30 months.
What is interesting is that he started coaching in 2014 with Real Madrid’s second-tier team. Can we now conclude that one can become a great coach if one is a great player? Well how about Diego Maradona and his coaching career?
How about Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho and their playing careers? Maybe one can conclude that Real Madrid had an incredible team and Zidane did the correct touches and the fine tuning to be one the most successful coaches in the history of soccer. We will observe what he does with his next team. Naturally, his next team will also be one of the teams with the highest payroll. If U.S. Soccer had the resources to hire Zidane to be the head coach of men's national team, would the USA play at least a semifinal in the World Cup in Qatar? It will take a small miracle for that to happen, but then small miracles do occur; like not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
To find the “real” successful coaches you have to look at overachievers. Overachievers are those coaches who do better with players with less average wages than their competitors.
The best example that comes to my mind is Diego Simeone of Atletico Madrid. The Argentine has been Atletico Madrid’s head coach since 2011. During his tenure, he won two Europa League cups, one UEFA Super Cup and one La Liga championship. Also, his team played twice in the Champions League final. In 2016, the total salaries of Atletico’s major competitors, Barcelona and Real Madrid, were 372 and 307 million euros, respectively. Atletico’s total salary budget was a mere 137 million euros -- less than half Barca’s and Real Madrid’s salaries. Clearly, Simeone is an overachiever.
Kuper & Szymanski in their book “Soccernomics” cite a work done by Szymanski about over- and under-achieving coaches -– or managers as they call them in England. It spans a period of 1973-2010 and all four professional divisions. It covers managers who at least worked in the leagues for five or more seasons to knock out the luck element. There were 251 managers that fell into this category. He examined their performances against their players’ wage bills. The top six over-achieving managers in English soccer (between 1974 and 2010) are Bob Paisley, Ferguson, Kenny Dalglish, Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez and Bobby Robson. Out of the top six, two are not from the UK. Especially the non-top clubs of Europe with lower wage bills should look for over-achieving coaches to get their money’s worth.
How about the nationality of the club coaches in Europe? It is obvious that except for the EPL clubs, the other top five league clubs like to work with coaches of their own nationality. In La Liga, there are five Argentine coaches; all others are Spanish.
Serie A has all Italian coaches except one Spanish coach. Both the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 are dominated by German and French coaches, respectively. One can explain the case of EPL by the cosmopolitan nature of players and owners of the league. What is interesting is that there are eight Latin American coaches in the top five leagues in Europe but none from Brazil.
Does sacking a coach and replacing him/her with a new coach help a team’s downward spiral? That is what most owners/presidents do after a series of bad results without actually looking into their player base’s performance and quality. In Anderson & Sally’s “The Numbers Game Book” they refer to a Dutch study carried out between 1986 and 2004 for the Eredivisie. The results showed that “even without sacking the manager, the performance of the control group bounces back in the same fashion and at least as strongly as the performance of the clubs that fired their managers…. The idea of sacking managers is a panacea for a team’s ill is a placebo.” On the other hand, if a group of players decide that the coach to be sacked, the coach will be sacked; the team with a new coach will do better but only for a short while.
Now if we look at the national team coaches we see that in both 2014 and 2018 World Cups out of the 32 national teams competing in the World Cup 13 coaches were not from the same nation. On only one of the eight semifinalists in the last two World Cups was the head coach was a foreigner: Roberto Martinez from Spain was Belgium's head coach. Both winning head coaches of the 2014 and 2018 World Cups had long tenures with the national team before hoisting the Cup: Joachim Loew had eight years and Didier Deschamps had six. On the other hand, the 2018 finalist Croatia’s head coach, Zlatko Dalic had a short tenure of only eight months.
There are “foreign" coaches who had been successful with various men's national teams of emerging soccer countries. One who comes to one’s mind right away is Guus Hiddink, who coached the South Korean team to a fourth place on home soil in the 2002 World Cup. Hiddink then coached Australia while also coaching PSV Eindhoven. At the 2006 World Cup, Australia moved on to the knock-out round first time in its history. He later joined the Russian federation as the head coach of its national team. Russia reached the semifinals of Euro 2008 and lost to eventual winner Spain. Hiddink’s successful career as a “foreign” coach of national teams ended after 2008. He coached Turkey and the Netherlands without qualifying them for Euro 2012 and Euro 2016.
To summarize: You cannot generalize the relation between players, coaches and the team’s performance. Nothing is black and white; you have all the shades of grey.
The coaches are an important part of the professional game, but their successes clearly depend on the quality of the team players. The over-achieving coaches can sometimes do miracles but there are limits to that. Their successes will be cyclical but not sustainable. For sustainable success stories, you both need good coaches and good scouting/development systems to find the best players available. Unfortunately, the best players have a high price tag for professional clubs.
For national teams, a coach who is local seems to be the correct answer; at least someone who knows the idiosyncrasies of the local soccer community. Especially for national team coaches, a long tenure seems to work better. It is clear that terminating Klinsmann’s contract and appointing Arena did not qualify us for the 2018 World Cup.
For the 2026 World Cup, we must start detailed planning for the development of a new generation of players. We have eight years to plan and execute. The new and young U.S. men's national team that beat Mexico, 1-0, gave us hope. Once you have very high quality players, then you might not need over-achieving coaches to create miracles. With a highly skilled team that has been developed over the eight years and a good coach who can create the correct environment, I believe we can make at least the semifinals in 2026.
Ahmet Guvener (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX.