Why Kit Symons isn’t necessarily the man to lead Fulham forward

PAY-Brian-and-Shirley-Burnie
Brian Burnie with his then wife.

There was a programme on TV recently in which comedian Jon Richardson looked to get to the bottom of some heavy life issues. One of the three programmes was about money and our attitudes towards having or not having it. In this programme he met a man named Brian Burnie who had amassed a fortune, then essentially gave it away to start his own charity. His wife wasn’t very happy about this and didn’t appear. But his daughter did. Richardson asked her how she felt, the angle being that she would have been in line to inherit this vast fortune, but now was not.

The daughter, a teacher, was fine. She said that at this point in her own life she feels quite content. She is made happy by life’s little things. An example: when you are cycling in the rain and get wet socks. (If you have cycled at all you know what she’s getting at: wet socks can be horrible.) The feeling you get when you get indoors into the warm and take off the wet socks is briefly a magnificent one. In itself the feeling of changing socks isn’t much, but actually, in this context, it’s a good example of a small victory.

I think of Felix Magath’s time at Fulham as a pair of increasingly wet socks. We’ve taken them off and feel better.

The trick here is whether the socks we’re now wearing are what we need.

Here’s why. If you take the old rule of thumb for what Fulham ought to achieve we were clearly not there under Magath. This rule of thumb? That in home games we can expect to beat all but the very best teams in the division, and in away games we will lose to the very best opponents and draw with the rest. This is clearly not *right* in that these things are never so predictable, but if we consider the top six teams the “top teams” that would give us 17 home wins, 6 home draws, 6 away draws and 17 away defeats. Again, it’s not supposed to be a prediction but it works for us here.

FMKS

So by this reckoning we dropped 8 points under Magath and are exactly break even under Symons. We weren’t doing what we should have done then; we are now.

An added wrinkle here is a new-fangled statistic called TSR, or total shots ratio. I’m not going to make any claims for this above and beyond the following from the man who invented it:

http://jameswgrayson.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/introducing-tsr2-4/

http://jameswgrayson.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/predicting-future-performance-revisited/

http://jameswgrayson.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/the-relationship-between-tsr-and-points-over-9-games/

This isn’t me going all weird with stats, it’s someone who has looked at something and established various facts.  You can dismiss these things or you can buy into them – your choice – but for those of us who are even less certain than we were in the past, objectivity can be helpful.

TSR, is short for total shots ratio and in short is the proportion of shots in a game that a team takes. James has tested various things and found it to be the best predictor of future performance he’s come across.

So? Well here’s the thing: Fulham’s TSR under Magath and under Symons hasn’t changed at all. Fulham under Magath were massively under-performing their TSR, which might be bad luck but was probably a function of, well, everything. But the underlying indicators told us that this team wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. We knew that – those of us who weren’t screeching at the internet about wanting our football team back anyway – but it’s still instructive. Magath would argue that this is evidence that the team would have improved in time, and the sensible conclusion is that he’s probably right, or he would be if the aforementioned “everything” wasn’t in the way. (is seven games too small a sample? Yes, perhaps, but James shows here that TSR works quite well in limited datasets too.)

Symons’ team has done what it should. Fulham have taken off their wet socks and are enjoying a welcome cup of tea on the sofa.

So has Symons taken Fulham forward? Yes, in the sense that it was in a very bad place when he arrived. Honestly, I’d probably argue that almost any manager could have achieved the same, but Symons had the advantage (of his own making) of knowing the squad and particularly its young players, so he was able to stabilise the ship almost instantly. That’s to his immense credit. We also have to acknowledge that he’s working with another man’s squad. Magath did a very thorough job of refurbishing the losing squad from last season but got carried away to the point where we didn’t have a lot left. Enough, sure, but not a great deal. This derailed our early season form (to a degree: TSR still thinks we were an alright team getting bad results) and Symons has had to work with the same issue. Again: it looks to all the world as if he’s got Fulham back to exactly where they should be. Well done him.

This is different to taking the club on a level, though, and here lies the problem for Khan’s Headhunters. They have two choices really:

a) the easy way out is to say “give the job to Kit Symons, a Fulham man who the fans like.”
b) the hard choice is to say “Kit’s been brilliant but we think we’ve found someone who can take Fulham to another level.”

I think really they have to take a combination of the two. They identify candidates who would work under scenario B but recommend that Symons keeps his job until at least the end of the season. If Fulham continue to improve steadily Symons is given the job on a permanent basis. If Fulham drop below the current baseline then you thank Kit and move to plan B, which has been teed up for this very purpose.

Kit Symons has done everything right. He has brought a stability to selection; the team is playing in a sensible fashion; the team is selecting its best players; the team is playing quite well. The job of the committee is to look at these achievements and try to value them and establish what they mean in a slightly longer term context.  I don’t think it’s as easy as it sounds.

11 thoughts on “Why Kit Symons isn’t necessarily the man to lead Fulham forward

  1. Damn the statistics – the performances are chalk and cheese compared to Magath’s time. The defence is clearly organised better and the attitude and effort of the players is transformed.

    For me the notion that the Committee are mulling over the claims of Hughton or Clarke and considering dropping Kit for them is horrifying.

    I agree that we are now performing as we should have done but we are doing so with a dozen or so youngsters all of whom have grown up under Symons so who better than him to bring them on.

    Moving forwards to ever higher realms of glory? Who knows but an interesting statistical analysis of managers’ longevity will show that Wenger, Feguson and Dario Gradi apart NO manager lasts for the long haul. Most get sacked within two or three years and those that don’t merely delay that by using a success to get a better job – from which they are soon sacked.

    Kit Symons is proving himself right for now and I think it would be a monumental mistake to look elsewhere.

    I reserve the right to change this opinion after tomorrow’s match.

  2. The problem with TSR is that it doesn’t take into account the kind of shot that is being taken. For instance, if Fulham were to take 10 shots all from over twenty yards away, while their opponents take 10 shots all from inside the six yard box, both teams would have a TSR of .5. However, which team is more likely to be putting the ball in the back of the net?

    TSR works as well as it does, because the kind of shots teams take tend to even out over time. However, that’s not always the case (especially in a small sample size). A better method is to calculate expected goals. One of the best models has been developed by American Soccer Anlaysis. However, I don’t have the data for the Championship to run this model for Fulham. By my eyes however, the quality of Fulham’s shots have improved since Kit took over and the quality of the shots the opponents have taken has gone down. Eyes can be liars however, so I could be totally wrong.

    I do agree with one thing. Kit should probably be given the job for the full year. Changing managers once again is probably going to lead to the kind of turmoil that won’t help the club at all. I have confidence that Kit will be good enough so at worst Fulham end up somewhere safely midtable. At that point, you can decide if there’s a better option out there.

    1. I find this to also be an issue with the ever-relied upon hockey metric of CORSI — basically shots for minus shots against. This is gospel in hockey analytics anymore, but for me the key is always context.

      Shots for/against has its place, and I’d say it’s generally indicative of who’s controlling the balance of play. Over a period of type (sometimes a single game, sometimes a season), the better teams typically don’t get out-shot.

      However, in micro displays, especially over a small sample like this, I don’t think differential does a service to the turnaround (I’ve admittedly witnessed over an even smaller sampling) under Symons.

      Something to really take into account, and it’s something you (Rich) mentioned in a match report earlier this year (Millwall maybe?): when you’re ahead in a match, you’re normally willing to absorb more pressure and surrender a few more, if less threatening, shots to avoid the risk of being caught out. Likewise, when trying to climb back, there’s a tendency to have greater possession, take more shots.

      So if Fulham is now winning/drawing matches and the shot differential is similar, maybe this indicates the team not needing to press for more offense later in games?

      Using the really rude math below, Magath had the side up in matches for all of 45 minutes in seven league matches, Symons has had them up for 168 minutes in six league matchs. With Magath, they trailed for 406 minutes, under Symons they’ve trailed for 131 minutes.

      Magath (just Championship, since that’s the TSR we’re using):

      Ipswich – Down at ’32
      Millwall – Down at ’12
      Wolves – Down at ’15
      Derby – Down at ’23
      Cardiff – Up at ’22, tied at ’55
      Reading – Down at ’15 (also down a man)
      Forest – ‘Down at ‘9, level at ’51, up at ’65, level at ’77, down at ’79 (so mostly chasing)

      Symons:

      Blackburn: Down a man at half, down at ’58
      Birmingham: Down at ’38, level at 63, up at ’71
      Bolton: Up at ‘9
      Boro: Down at ’46
      Norwich: Up at ’22
      Rotherham: So many lead changes… ended up chasing the game for all of 12 minutes.

      Just a thought, but it may explain why things don’t seem to be that much different under Symons using TSR, but why the results and eye-test show so much differently.

  3. Another statistical concept to this might additionally argue against Kit: Regression to the mean. After a run of really bad performances (or a really bad coach), *anyone* (or even no one) would be an improvement. Given a team with the quality that our top XI, we should expect to be doing better than we were doing under Magath. While I’m mixing this up a bit (regression to the mean assumes a certain randomness and is therefore non-causal and it’s certainly true that Magath was a causal factor), I could have gone in and improved performances, just because of regression to the mean (and the fact that I’m not Felix Magath). So I like Kit and I hope they announce his season-long appointment. He deserves it and we should, just by virtue of the quality of the squad with no Magath, not be relegated. Then, depending on where we are in the table, we can reassess whether Kit is the right man for the longer term.

  4. I gave no doubt that Kit will be appointed for the longer term (esp. if we can beat Charlton). I also think that they will add a ‘wise head’ as a ‘Director of football’ or something similar to assist Kit.

  5. Maybe you’re right, but I’ll take any old pair of dry socks at this point. It’s been such a long trudge through the mud with managers that if all he provides is some stability that’s fine with me for now.

  6. Our master plan is to beat the premier league system (size and wealth matters) by developing an exceptional crop of relatively affordable youth players. Being in the championship is not necessarily a bad thing for this development, but it’s a real league not U21 football. My concern is we lose sight of the bigger plan for pragmatism, best manager for championship and a lot of movement in January for best championship players. I think the factor to consider is the learning curve and speed of adaption that the new squad and in particular the younger players can make. For this task I think kit is your man, but not necessarily head coach. The results we are seeing may now be more in keeping with a norm (7 th in current form) but they ignore the potential of the youth. The kids may not kick on, but the Rotherham result told a hell of a lot more than TSR. The delay in selecting Kit suggests maybe Rich ‘s choice b is the plan. Although Mr K is heading to London next week so maybe that’s the reason for delay. My biggest concern is we lose Kit’s involvement in the first team if someone else comes in.

  7. To quote Joni Mitchell ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.’ This is particularly apt here. A true Fulham man who is uniting the club after 7 months of mis-management at every level by a mad megalomaniac. Some say we need experience – fine on a DOF level. Kit Symons has been a winner with the U21s & U18s – those with experience over the past 3 years have not performed. So going back to the socks – they’re hanging above the fireplace ready for the right feet to engage. Most know who’s feet those should be.

  8. Think it’s worth looking at the outliers too.

    Under Magath, the range was -11 to +11. That’s absurd in just 7 games.

    Under Kit it’s -5 an +8. Still a lot of variance (thanks to the Bolton home 3-0 rout), but much less wacky.

    Did Charlton affect Kit’s TSR at all?

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