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Who are the most skillful coaches in Europe?

Photo: Paul Robinson

Photo: Paul Robinson

It’s been a while since I posted anything here about coaches. I have a lot of love for coaches, even those with whom I haven’t always agreed. Their job is tough, especially when they have to deal with recruiting, tactics, man-management, the media, and even renting the training pitch. Some coaches get paid a ton, but most of them don’t. They all endure crushing pressure and huge emotional swings. The only “bad” coaches are the ones who are cruel, prejudiced, or lazy. But there are still discernible differences in skill.

There’s an adage in soccer that only a small number of coaches can make a team perform much better or much worse, and most coaches won’t make much difference at all.* If this is true, it’s because the really unskilled coaches get found out pretty quickly, and making a team perform at the peak of its potential is actually quite difficult. To see who might make a difference, though, I’ve found it helps to narrow down the criteria.

So I’m going to put everything aside except one attribute: the ability to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, once the squad is chosen, can the coach get more out of the players than their individual metrics would suggest was possible? I’m looking for coaches who give their squads a synthetic rather than an additive quality.

Here’s how. I often use two models of the game to assess performances by players and teams. Over the course of a season, I can look at these models to see whether a coach is over- or underperforming in attacking and defending. If he (and hopefully soon she) overperforms in both models for attacking, he gets a flag. If he overperforms in both models for defending, he gets another flag. He can get up to two flags per season.

For simplicity here, I’m going to look only at completed seasons. This introduces some bias, since coaches with poor results may be fired in midseason. But I think it’s important to look at coaches when they’ve been able to put their stamp on their squads, without having to deal with too much baggage from their predecessors.

I’m interested in two attributes: the rate at which a coach accumulates flags, and the number of seasons over which he compiles that rate. For this reason, a coach with six flags from three seasons (100% rate) might be as interesting as a coach with eight flags from five seasons (80% rate). The former has a higher flag rate, but the latter has achieved a good rate over more seasons.

Here are some of the top names from a selection of European domestic leagues, going by the number of seasons of data that I have:

Eight seasons: Klopp (87%), Mourinho (75%)

Seven seasons: Pochettino (79%), Allegri (79%), Guardiola (79%), Lieberknecht (71%), Simeone (71%)

Six seasons: Mendilibar (92%), Vitória (83%), Jesus (75%), Montella (75%)

Five seasons: Neuhaus (100%), Sarri (80%)

Four seasons: Enrique (100%), Kauczinski (100%), Avci (87%), Bosz (87%), Gunes (75%), Schmidt (75%), Deila (75%), Verbeek (75%)

A few things are interesting to me here. First, the most familiar names do seem to be good coaches, which is reassuring. Among the less familiar names, several come from the 2. Bundesliga: Lieberknecht, Neuhaus, and Kauczinski. It’s possible that the coaches there are doing a particularly good job of developing young talent, or just that Germany makes good coaches. There are also a couple of coaches on the list who haven’t always won a lot of games. But winning isn’t what we’re measuring here; we’re looking for coaches who win more than we’d expect by looking at their players.

Finally, there are some coaches currently out of work: Montella, Bosz, Verbeek, and Neuhaus. My list obviously doesn’t say anything about their personal situations, but they might be worth a look for clubs who find themselves in the market already this season. And of course, a club can design a more bespoke search: looking for a coach who’s very strong on defending, for example, if the squad has a fine attack but is leaking goals. Either way, this is a filter that can appraise one aspect of the many that go into a head coach or manager’s job – just one more box to tick.

* Oddly enough, I used to say the same thing about American presidents and the US economy.