Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Dalglish v Hodgson - It's no contest.

Kenny Dalglish Liverpool 2010/11 Liverpool V FC Steaua Bucharest (4-1) 16/09/10 UEFA Europa League Photo Robin Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom


AT the press conference to announce Roy Hodgson as new Liverpool manager, chairman Martin Broughton went to great lengths to explain the long, considered process the board had gone through when deciding who should get the job.

He talked about the track record, reputation and experience that all pointed to Hodgson being the right man.

Yet if the board went through such an extended process, how could they miss the chance to bring the most successful football manager in recent history to Anfield? No, Alex Ferguson didn't apply for the job – but, according to a respected football statistician and economist, the best manager of his generation did.

There are many ways of measuring the best manager. The easiest is to count up league championships won – and Ferguson has won 11, at least double his nearest current challenger.

But it's taken him 25 years to win those titles. How many would Bob Paisley have won if he'd managed us for 25 years instead of just nine? After all he won it seven times in his comparatively short time in charge. Read that again – seven in nine years.

Ferguson had been United manager for seven years before he won his first title.

How about looking at how often managers win the title and the average finishing position of the clubs they manage. This can at least make it a more level playing field for bosses that haven't been around since football was in black and white.

Take Ferguson, on average he wins 0.44 top-flight championships per season. You can't win 0.44 of a championship but his record of 14 top-flight titles from 32 seasons with Manchester United, Aberdeen and St Mirren works out at 0.44 championships per season.

Look at his finishing positions in those seasons: 8, 4, 1, 2, 2, 3, 1, 1, 11, 2, 11, 13, 6, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 1, 3, 1, 3, 3, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2. That's an impressive run of form and equates to an average finishing position of 2.8.

Again, you can't come 2.8th in the league but you get my drift. So a championship roughly once every two seasons and an average of finishing in the top three makes SurAlex a pretty good yardstick.

Semi-pro title

Arsene Wenger is another manager talked of in hushed tones. Yet in 24 seasons of top-flight management it is surprising he has won just four titles, meaning he wins 0.17 titles per season.

On that count Ferguson is more than twice the manager Wenger is. Looking at his top-flight formline, Wenger teams have finished: 11, 18, 19, 1, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 6, 3, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 4, 4, 3, 4, 3 for an average finishing position of 4.2.

There wouldn't have been many complaints had Wenger been sitting next to Broughton in a new LFC tie at that press conference. But what of the man who did get the job?

It's tricky to assess Roy Hodgson's career in the same way as the “Big Two” because much of his top-flight experience has come in semi-professional leagues.

It's ridiculous to value a mid-1970s Swedish semi-pro title alongside winning the Premier League. To make a sensible comparison we can look at the seasons when Roy managed in the top flight in England and Italy at Blackburn, Udinese, Inter Milan and Fulham.

Some allowances have to made in these figures as he has been sacked in mid-season by three of those clubs. Hodgson's finishing positions in the English and Italian top-flight reads: 7, 3, 6, 19, 14, 17, 7, 12. That's 0 titles per season and an average finishing position of 10.6.

Even allowing for the small sample those are not particularly impressive figures. So the candidates for Liverpool manager this time around must have been a modest bunch if someone who has yet to win a top-flight title and whose teams finish mid-table got the job. Not so.

According to respected football statistician and author Stefan Szymanski, the best manager of the past two decades and more had thrown his hat in the ring.

Szymanski compiled a database of football statistics from 1974-1995 and calculated that Kenny Dalglish has the best record of all managers in English football.

Modest resources

He looked at factors such as spending on player wages, the number of players used in a season and the proportion of home-grown players in the squad. Dalglish was particularly good at getting the best out of relatively modest resources.

Szymanski said: “The assumption is that anyone can buy their way to the top of the league, but you have to be Kenny Dalglish to do it cheaply.”

How useful those skills could be for the current Liverpool manager in these cash-strapped times. Granted, his study was completed in the mid-90s before Ferguson had really got going at Old Trafford.

And it came just before Kenny's “disastrous” - © all newspapers - spell at Newcastle United. A spell so disastrous it featured a second-place Premier League finish and an FA Cup Final in less than three seasons.

So I applied the manager test to Kenny Dalglish and the results were something of an eye-opener. In completed top-flight seasons as manager, his finishing positions were: 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1, 2, 13, 2. The fourth came in Blackburn's first top-flight season and the 13 was his second term at Newcastle when Alan Shearer suffered the injury that he never really recovered from.

Even with that blip, Dalglish has won 0.36 titles per season with an average finishing position of 2.8. So a very similar record to Ferguson even after his run of success in Kenny's absence.

It's twice the title return that Wenger has managed and is in a different league to Hodgson. This excellent record seems to have been forgotten – when the editor of this very magazine was interviewed on Radio Merseyside, the presenter asked him about “Dalglish's average record last time he was Liverpool manager”.

Why didn't the club roll out the red carpet when Dalglish said he wanted the job? Just look at his record again – not only did he keep the Liverpool dynasty rolling, he took a midtable second division club and won them the league.

He spent a few quid doing it but considerably less than Alex Ferguson did to bring success to Manchester United.

And is it a coincidence that Ferguson was only able to dominate English football when Dalglish was out of the way? His mind games didn't seem to work in those days.

The reason given was Dalglish's “10 years out of football”. This is a reasonable caveat but it's not like he's forgotten what to do – he wouldn't have come in on day one to ask when we were playing Coventry and Sheffield Wednesday.

The passing over of Dalglish for Hodgson was a puzzling one but Kenny hasn't gone away. Would he be happy to hold the fort until the next permanent manager is identified? Could he provide the short-term boost that could secure a place in Europe or even a cup win?

It could be a gamble worth taking. And on the evidence of the statistics, not actually that much of a gamble.