Despite pressure from fans and media: why clubs should think twice before sacking coaches

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Thursday, April 11, 2024, 3:19 p.m.

When a professional soccer team does not achieve the results it expected, many fans almost reflexively ask for a new coach. Decision expert Professor Johannes Siebert explains why it would often be a bad idea to give in to this demand.

A team is behind and needs two goals in the last quarter of an hour to turn the game around. Faced with this critical situation, the coach decides to replace a forward with a defender. He scores the two goals he wanted and the team wins. Was replacing the forward a good decision by the coach? Many fans, commentators and media are unequivocally saying “Yes!” In case of defeat, they would have vehemently called for the dismissal of the coach, whom they now celebrate for his tactical foresight. From a decision-making point of view, this reaction – however understandable it may seem at first glance – does not make sense.

This becomes clear with a counterexample. Let's assume that Dietmar Hamann, who has long since ended his active career and works as a television pundit, is able to play and is sitting on the substitute bench ready for action. He is replaced by the coach a quarter of an hour before the end of the match, a freeing blow from the rival hits him on the back and the ball bounces into the goal. A similar scene occurs a few seconds before the final whistle. This is how Dietmar Hamann scores the redeeming goal. The team is the winner. Was it a good decision to bring in the “football retiree” Hamann? Certainly not. But perhaps the coach could have made a decision that had a better chance of winning.

At Bayern Munich, for example, Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola sometimes used, as a tactical measure, to order defender Daniel von Buyten, who was very strong in the air, to place him in the center of the attack instead of replacing him with another Forward. Van Buyten tied up two opponents and thus created space for his teammates. Coaches are less praised by fans and the media for these types of measures. The reason for this is that the outcome of the decision is not directly related to the coach's decision, as would be the case if a substitute scores a goal.

About the expert Johannes Siebert

Prof. FH. PD Skilled Dr. Johannes Siebert is a decision scientist and behavioral economist at MCI | The Entrepreneurial School® and private teacher at the University of Bayreuth. In his research, he examines human and organizational behavior in decision making and publishes his results in leading journals. He has worked and managed research and consulting projects for national and international clients in the business, political and social fields.

What matters is the quality, not the result of the decisions

These examples point out the key difference between outcome and quality of decisions. Good decisions by the coach increase the chances of victory. However, the actual outcome of the game depends on numerous uncertain factors, so even the highest quality decisions cannot guarantee victory. The probability of success generally increases if the coach substitutes a proven forward instead of a defender in the constellation described above. However, it cannot be ruled out that this worst decision, the replacement of a “football retiree”, also leads to the desired result of the match.

Therefore, the principle applies in decision theory: the outcome of the decision is not a criterion for evaluating a decision as “good” or “bad.” Rather, the quality of a decision is measured by the extent to which it contributes to maximizing the probability that the desired objective will be achieved.

In recent years, sports science has developed increasingly precise instruments for many ball sports in order to calculate expected goals and thus the probability of game outcomes. Each game scene is evaluated based on the probability that one of the two teams will score a goal. For a penalty meter, for example, the value is around 0.8. This means that on average eight out of every ten penalties are converted. For both teams, the expected goals in the relevant game scenes can be added and compared. If the ratio is 5 to 0.5, you can expect a big victory for the first team. However, the second team may win because they are very lucky.

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To evaluate the performance of a team and, therefore, also of the coach, the calculation of expected goals is better than the actual result of the match. Now, a coach who has to make decisions about replacing players based on the current game certainly does not have the opportunity to calculate the probable results of the game with mathematical meticulousness. But: he can use a lot of relevant information before and during the game to help him answer the question of how likely it is that replacing a certain player will give him victory.

What is important is not only a realistic assessment of the current performance of the designated substitute players. It is also important to have as precise a knowledge as possible of the opponent's characteristic playing styles and strategies in order to correctly evaluate the future course of the game. The extent to which the trainer obtains, evaluates and bases his decisions on such information is an important measure of the quality of his decisions.

Resist pressure from fans and the media.

The board of a football club must also consider these connections if the relevant media and fan ranks ask it to fire the coach. Very often, these popular demands arise after a series of unexpected defeats. These results are not a criterion for the quality of the decision and should therefore not be decisive for dismissal. Only if the board of directors, upon further examination, concludes that the coach has repeatedly made poor decisions, would it be a reason for the club to part ways with the coach.

Of course, this does not mean that repeated defeats are irrelevant when evaluating the quality of decisions. On the contrary, an analysis of the causes of the results of these matches can be of great help when checking the quality of the decisions; for example, if it turns out that a defeat is due to facts that the coach negligently did not take into account when making the decision. his decisions or regarding his probable misjudged the impact. But that doesn't change the fact that the results don't determine whether his decisions were good or bad. In themselves, they are no reason to give in to pressure from fans and the media.

Studies show that, on average, a coaching change has no effect, meaning teams don't play any more successfully than before. Although there are cases in which a “firefighter” came, saw and conquered, the memories remain. However, these cases are outweighed by cases where the firefighter had to resign quietly after a few games or, at the latest, at the end of the season.

When we look back at previous decisions, we are often tempted to make our evaluation depend on positive or negative consequences that had not yet occurred at the time of our decisions. But we must avoid this mistake, and not only because we must be fair to ourselves and not let other people judge us unfairly.

The main problem is that focusing on evaluating the outcomes of decisions distracts from taking a closer look at one's own decision-making behavior. Here we should focus especially on the question of whether (and if so, for what reasons) we have overlooked or misjudged the factors that promoted or caused these consequences. If we can do such an honest analysis, we will learn from it and be able to make better decisions in the future.

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This text comes from an expert from the FOCUS online Circle of EXPERTS. Our experts have a high level of specialist knowledge in their subject area and are not part of the editorial team. Learn more.

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