Defending the Khans and analytics as they apply to Fulham FC.

“The League Managers’ Association has revealed that in the Championship, where there were 20 dismissals in the recently-completed season, the average spell in charge is just 0.86 years.”

Presumably each of these managers knows exactly what his team needs to do to win when they’re first brought in.

First he’ll use his superior abilities as a coach to make the existing players better. That will be the start.  But then he will note that he now needs to spend a bit of money. A lot if possible. While he is a fine coach and will use his good attitude to do what he can with the players he has inherited from the lesser coach from before, he does need better players if ambitions are to be achieved, they need to be *his* players, players to fit his system.  Five or six of them.  Maybe more.

He’ll do his thing, achieve what he achieves, and when he’s replaced, the next manager will come in with similar ideas.

It’s a culture that results in football clubs wasting a fortune, with money flying all over the place. Here’s Fulham’s recent history of shopping.

We’ve bought 18 players for at least £1m since 2012/13. That’s not a lot, but this is at a time when the club has been lambasted for not spending deeply or wisely enough. It’s inefficient. To see what this looks like at another level, try Liverpool. Or Manchester United.

Coach-loads of players, vault-loads of money, and are these teams any nearer to being where they wanted to be five years ago?  No!

So I don’t think you can blame people running football clubs for wanting to find “a better way of doing things.”

One idea has always been to take spending out of the hands of managers. This is how baseball works: you have the ‘front office’ people making personnel decisions and managers taking what they’re given. Many chairmen – seeing this huge turnover of managers – want to change the dynamic in football via the dreaded Director of Football job, which theoretically ends this silly ‘my players’ cycle of dramatic squad turnover every year, but the cult of the manager is such that few are prepared to risk their reputations without ‘control’. This is fair enough – who wouldn’t take control vs no control? – but it does leave clubs at the mercy of their managers, most of whom will be gone sooner rather than later. But if you want the best managers you have to accept that the best managers will want to choose their players. So the alternative would be to find a manager who’s happy with this, and that probably means someone unproven, so what do you do about that?

Another ‘better way’ is to try to apply some objectivity to transfer dealings. We know very well that not all transfers are ideal: many/most rely on agents, and on relationships between several people, and it’s not a case of seeing player A and offering a fair price for him. As we see above, lots of transfers – most transfers? – are failures, and expensive ones at that.  There has to be a better way.  This can’t be all there is.

The trick would be then to try to improve your decision making, which is what most largish organisations that use money do.  For that you can either find people who are better at making decisions, or you can improve the quality of the decisions that current employees make.  Both, ideally!

This is where we are now, with Fulham (and many/most others) trying to apply a bit of rigour to their recruitment. This happened in baseball a few years ago, made famous by the book/film called “Moneyball” but beginning a long time beforehand.  I could give you a history but you don’t need that.  Suffice it to say that until a few years ago some teams had a tendency to value the wrong things in baseball players and to spend money accordingly.   That left inefficiencies that cleverer teams could exploit, although of course they had to do the other things like scouting well, too.  It was never one or the other.

Baseball is a different sport – people will point that out once in a while – and you can’t compare baseball and football. But this isn’t about taking baseball approaches into football, it’s – if I can be so bold here – it’s about science, about trying to understand more than is known now.  Mankind has a good track record of making surprising discoveries, e.g. harmful effects of smoking, the earth being round, the industrial revolution and where that’s taken us in 100 years, an understanding of the human genome… and so on. Point is, things look complicated until someone makes them less complicated.  Football really isn’t that complicated, although some have a vested interest in making it seem so.

At the moment football clubs throw money all over the place. In transfer fees and wages the cost of business as usual squad building is staggering. An analyst costs about what you’d pay in a week to a good player. Why wouldn’t you try to find efficiency by making use of data, information, etc?  Is the current approach working, really?

Back to Fulham. There is a concern that the manager is in some capacity being overruled by a mysterious American statistician in matters of player recruitment. Now, clearly this is a curious thing. What are we to make of the assertion?

a) that Fulham are blindly entrusting everything to an idiot with a spreadsheet
b) that the statistician has a role but it’s not that black and white.

Okay. What about this ‘overruled’ part?

a) that it didn’t happen
b) that it did happen: Slaviša Jokanović wanted a player but the analysis department said “no way”, Slaviša and walked off just like that.
c) that something happened but we don’t quite know what. Perhaps Jokanović wanted a player but the analytics team found a serious red flag (e.g. this kind of player has historically never done well in the Championship, perhaps he’s even something so banal as an injury risk, perhaps he just doesn’t look like good value). Perhaps there were other reasons.

We can’t really know though can we? Some seem quite quick to assume the worst, but is this really likely?

I don’t think so.  I suspect the Khans can see that English football is a wonderful thing, but realise that it is ripe for inefficiency finding.    Cost control is not an interesting matter but the days of buying players willy nilly on a manager’s say so then hoping for the best ought to be over.  No, you can’t quantify everything a player does on the pitch and make a value judgement, but you can try, eh?   And if you succeed there’s gold to be had.  If your competition continues to waste money, continues to make bad decisions, well, even if you only find a five point edge a season, that edge could be the difference couldn’t it?  Let’s not forget that the equivalent gains in player purchasing cost BIG money.  Ross McCormack cost 8 figures and might only be worth 5-6 points over an average player each season, after all.  So if you can find good players that others can’t see the rewards outstrip the costs by some way.   It’s worth a try.

We’ve been here before of course.  You don’t overrule your manager unless you have a really good reason.  You don’t not watch players.  You do use all available information intelligently to try to get better at what you’re doing.   That’s a laudable thing and should be encouraged, because it’s not an easy thing to do.  For that reason it won’t always go right but the alternative has been bad for a long time.  Everyone deserves better.  And again: why wouldn’t you try to understand more about how these inefficient processes are going wrong?  Why wouldn’t you try to get better?



19 thoughts on “Defending the Khans and analytics as they apply to Fulham FC.”

    1. Agreed. This uproar seems particularly out of place against the backdrop of how WELL all the new players seem to be playing.

  1. There is nothing wrong with using analytics in a decision making process but you also need to take a hard look at the people during conclusions from the results. If you look at the performance of the Jaguars over the last few years it would suggest that the users are not very good at applying the technology.

  2. Broadly logical, but think about it from a manager’s point of view. When things don’t go well, whose head is the first to roll? You can’t blame them for wanting to, at the very least, live and die by their own decisions, rather than someone’s who job is probably safe.

  3. This system may be beneficial but the club needs to make it clearer to the fans on how it is being processed at FFC just to alleviate any misgivings they may have.

  4. “One idea has always been to take spending out of the hands of managers. This is how baseball works: you have the ‘front office’ people making personnel decisions and managers taking what they’re given.”

    It’s SOP for every sport stateside. Coaches/managers provide varying degrees of input, but GMs often have final say. Many a job has been lost to the push/pull between ownership, front office, and coach. Only the NFL (as far as I know) has the occasional dual coach/GM. And going back like 20 years, outside of Bill Belichick, most coach/GMs have failed spectacularly.

    So apologies that I don’t understand why people want a manager to have total control over personnel decisions. Good stuff Rich.

  5. All well and good if the ones making the decisions are held accountable for them, which I suspect in US sport they are. Here they very much are not. That would need to change first.

  6. I have supported Fulham for long time ,I have see mangers go and come ,Fulham have good start this season , if they want to keep it ,? sack back room staff and let coach do what he pay to do ,he has proved it before with in this league ,otherwise he well walk and where we’ll be Fulham then . We can always ask computer ,who to take who not play well ,and what team put on for our games

  7. For me the issue is apparent conflict between Jocanovic and Kline. We can’t know for sure but SJ’s comments were hardly guarded. He wants the squad strengthened and it doesn’t seem to be happening because, he seems to feel, the process is being blocked. His English isn’t great so we shouldn’t analyse the nuances too much but if a seemingly good head coach is unhappy with the player recruitment process and goes public then the boss (Khan) has to resolve the conflict and given the transfer window has very little time to do so.

    I really hope that’s happening because if not the process will have failed us by leaving us with a squad that’s way too small.

    I do, by the way, agree with your basic point.

  8. Well-executed (and much-needed) piece of devil’s advocacy. Analytics aren’t by nature the guarantor of success on the pitch, but nor are they inevitably an obstacle toward success. If they’ve played a role in identifying Ayite, Aluko, Odor, Kalas, et al, we should be grateful for it. But we’re just more than a week from the transfer window, our transfer activity has stalled, and yet it’s clear that we still have needs, particularly in the event of injuries and to give more options in the heavy pace of a long Championship season — another striker, more depth to backstop the midfield, and help in case either Madl or Kalas goes down. It sounds like Slav wants to address those needs, but the club isn’t responding. It’s one thing for analytics to tell the club that any of Slav’s wish list players are not sound investments, but is Kline then suggesting alternatives? And if he is, and those players don’t pan out, his job needs to be at risk just as the manager’s is.

  9. Thanks for putting some perspective on this issue. I’m extremely happy with Jokanovic’s coaching and he deserves our support, but that shouldn’t mean blindly giving him anything and everything he asks for. It seems a bit harsh to call the back office out for denying requests without also pointing out that they approved the 6-7 brand new promising starters that are here – Aluko, Ayite, McDonald, Odoi, Kalas, Button and Madl. There’s no argument we need more depth, but why wouldn’t we stick with the system that helped us pick up these 7 players?

    It’s amazing to me that we can whine in the midst of what has been such an enjoyable season to watch after what we’ve lived through since Jol’s last season.

    Undefeated so far. Who’d have bet on that a month ago?

  10. If football was only down to statistics Leicester City would have been relegated last season. Why did they become Premier League Champions, At odds of 5000-1? Because the excellent Chairman, Vichal Srivaddhanaprabha, believed and backed his manager to be able to put together a winning side.
    Jokanovic is the best manager we’ve had since Mark Hughes left, leaving because he accused Al-Fahyed of “having no ambition”; El-Fahyed, as we now know, was preparing to sell up. The time when. Shahid Khan should have made proper analysis of the state of the squad, was during Due Diligence, which should have shown that club narrowly avoided relegation and needed large investment, probably in the region of £40m, in new players in order to maintain position in the Premier League He either bought blindly or thought he could get away with the minimum of investment. After there was a steep learning curve which lead to terrible decision making, which led to panic buying and relegation. Of course the Chairman tried to put in emergency measures to stop the club falling over the precipice, ‘throwing good money after bad’. He had inherited a perfectly good squad that needed four or five experienced players, plus a wonderful youth team. Instead, on terrible advice The Butcher of the Bundesliga came in, managed to get the team relegated and destroyed the core of the team. Bad decisions all round.Employing Kline is another terrible decision

    Employing Kline sounds fine, in business the world is full of useless MBA graduates who find an angle to work as overpaid consultants. The NHS is full of them. They undermine both doctors and patients. The same is true here: undermining both the Manager and The Fans. There is something fundamentally wrong when a fine team manager who has the foundation of a successful promotion team, is having to miss out on players he thinks will give him success. If Kline blocked James Wilson coming to Fulham, on loan on the recommendation of Mourinho, this is a travesty. Wilson would have been great signing: he had played extremely well for United; and would have learnt a lot about the Championship last season. I don’t think it is vital that the fans back and get behind Jovanovic. He is doing a great job. If on the other hand, Kline is not responsible for transfers this must be made clear, the Chairman should make a statement fully backing Jovanovic above Kline It is unsettling for everyone.The Leicester City Chairman is a Thai, who encourages harmony and team spirit, which reaches down through the club. Hence the odds of 5000-1 were smashed and history was made with a piece of magic. Craven Cottage needs to be a Theatre of Dreams, not an extension of the Wolf on Wall Street.

    1. Much to digest and will do so tomorrow. But worth noting that leicester are as advanced as anyone with analytics and do use them significantly.

  11. Two requirements for someone with the Kline remit being of value: 1) crunching the data to good effect; 2) communicating and liaising effectively with key colleagues. They don’t come more key than the Head Coach. So even if the theory expounded by Rich is endorsed by most respondents, nor queried in principle by me either, its implementation runs the danger of doing much harm alongside the good right now at FFC. Those concerned need to emerge from behind their computers, and in one case need to be summoned in from the training ground and any issues need hammering out decisively. That is their boss’s task, ideally Khan and if not, Mackintosh. Presumably that will have happened today and if not it’s dereliction of duty. While there is a case for saying that practically any business is a ‘people business’ some are more so than others and a football club absolutely is. Until the club stops being disfunctional behind the scenes, much of the good work being done — visibly by Jackonovich and quite likely by Kline too — will count for a lot less than it should.

  12. I have felt for a long time that all is not well behind the scenes at FFC, this latest fall out simply confirms my suspicions that Mr Khan has not got a grip on the club – or if he has, that he doesn’t ‘get it’. I don’t know anything about Mr Kline but I do know that when it comes to recruitment capability is of course important, but it is usually chemistry and an ‘x’ factor that makes the difference, neither of these can be quantified in the same way as goals, assists and km covered.
    Yes, we have a group of promising players and a decent manager right now but we’ve had some real duffers too since Mr Khan arrived, presumably Mr Kline was involved in the selection of some of them too?

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