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comment Don’t mind the league table – managers are being judged by performances, not just results


Brighton's manager Graham Potter gestures on the touchline during the recent English FA Cup fourth round tie against Blackpool. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP

Brighton's manager Graham Potter gestures on the touchline during the recent English FA Cup fourth round tie against Blackpool. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP

Brighton's manager Graham Potter gestures on the touchline during the recent English FA Cup fourth round tie against Blackpool. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP

It sounds like the opposite of everything we believe about football to say that although Crystal Palace beat Brighton earlier this week, in the eyes of many sporting directors Graham Potter was the winner.

When Pep Guardiola spoke glowingly about Potter recently – suggesting his success would “help the world of football” – he reflected this new way of thinking about the game.

Guardiola’s remarks demonstrated that while there is no ‘right way’ to win matches, there is a right way to play to attract the attention of the elite.

“He is maybe the best English manager right now,” Guardiola said of Potter. “He showed to all other managers, to all of football, how to show courage, to be brave and play good football.”

Why is Guardiola so taken by the methods of a coach who is currently fifth from bottom of the Premier League?

An era’s fashion is set by those at the top. Our game has evolved to ensure any coach craving a Champions League-calibre team in the near future is more likely to be noticed if they favour Guardiola’s highly technical, possession-based approach, or the high pressing and counter-pressing of Jurgen Klopp.

We are particularly impressed when coaches do this with relatively limited resources. They are afforded more slack and favourable reviews from their peers, supporters and most of us in the media.

We have seen over the past 10 years that, like Guardiola in this case, sporting directors will look beyond results and use other key metrics to identify top-class coaches.

One of the most contentious indicators is that of expected points (xPTS), calculated by the number of chances a team create and concede.

Before last week’s Brighton-Palace game, we highlighted on Monday Night Football how only four clubs better Potter’s side based on those criteria.

As a detail rather than basis for a definitive conclusion, this fascinates me. Such statistical breakdowns can never be used to determine how every game was won and lost, but the underlying trend has a value to a club’s technical department, particularly when assessing future managerial candidates. They may not be able to watch or re-watch every match a target has overseen.

Generally, whether you like the indicators or not, these figures reflect a coaching philosophy and tend to reaffirm what our eyes tell us.

Unsurprisingly, Manchester City are well ahead this season on all measures because they always look like scoring most and conceding fewest.

Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds are fifth for expected goals scored, but second bottom when it comes to the number expected to concede. Again, anyone seeing Leeds play would predict this.

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The three sides currently creating fewest chances, according to the data, are Crystal Palace, Burnley and West Brom. Is it a coincidence each of these clubs is managed by those who have spent much of their career trying to shift a negative perception of their defensive style?

For Roy Hodgson and Sam Allardyce, it made their respective appointments at Liverpool and Everton unpalatable to fans expecting a coach more in tune with their identity.

Sean Dyche is the longest-serving manager in the Premier League, appointed at Burnley in 2012. Dyche has done an amazing job. Yet the fact he has been there so long shows that despite each of the other 19 Premier League clubs having countless managerial changes, none of the so-called ‘bigger’ teams have given him a chance.

If Brendan Rodgers were to move on from Leicester City in the next year or two, I am certain Potter would be more likely to replace him than Dyche. That’s despite Burnley finishing five places higher than Brighton last season, and on course to finish above them again.

I am not making that observation to be critical of Dyche, a manager I believe has performed extraordinarily at Turf Moor to retain the top-flight status of a side often tipped for relegation.

It is the reason rather than justification for this contradiction which interests me – that a manager outperforming Potter in successive years will not receive the same glowing testimony from Guardiola, and continuously finds himself ignored for top-six jobs.

Whatever we think of the statistical metrics, it matters to the directors making the decisions and looking for substance as well as style.

That’s why Rodgers got the Liverpool job in 2012, after just one year in the Premier League with Swansea. Mauricio Pochettino was offered the Tottenham Hotspur position after finishing eighth with Southampton.

Roberto Martinez has excelled as Belgium manager because his employers looked beyond a disappointing final year at Everton. Mikel Arteta was given a chance at Arsenal on the basis of being a Guardiola disciple, fitting the ideals of his new club.

Even Klopp, despite his credentials being established after two Bundesliga titles, was helped in his interview to become Liverpool manager in 2015 when the owners were armed with data showing his Borussia Dortmund side deserved to finish higher than seventh in his last full season in Germany.

That’s why when the next Premier League jobs become available in the tier of wealthier clubs who expect annual European qualification, I expect Potter and Southampton’s Ralph Hasenhuttl, today in 14th and 16th in the Premier League table, to be under consideration.

Beyond their disappointing position now, there are enough performance measures to suggest if they had more quality in key positions – the kind which normally cost more money than they have at their disposal today – they would excel at a higher level.

When Brighton replaced Chris Hughton with Potter, they did not make the change because they thought the new man would lead them into the top six.

They did it because they wanted more entertainment, even if they accumulated the same number of wins and points as in previous years.

I’ve often said I have never seen football in terms of a right and wrong way to play because our sport goes in cycles, and what is trendy today might look out of date in 10 or 20 years.

Across the board, football is most interesting when styles and cultures clash, coaches adopting vastly opposing strategies to get the most of the talent and resources. It would be boring if everyone played the same way.

For me, the best way is the one that most effectively achieves a club’s objectives set out at the start of a season, each having different definitions of success.

And while Brighton fans might disagree, it is the unpredictability of a game in which a team can dominate for 92 minutes and still lose in the 93rd that keeps us glued to it. It might seem an anomaly that Potter’s reputation is flourishing while Hodgson spent post-match on Monday justifying the manner of his win.

But at the highest level, sporting directors will study the data as much as their eyes, the process of one complementing the other sure to expand.

Because of that, wherever Brighton finish this season, Potter is unlikely to be short of admirers and future job offers.

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