Applying 'Floor Raising' & 'Ceiling Raising' to Football Coaches
Is Big Sam as good as Pep Guardiola?
My piece on floor raising and ceiling raising for footballers got the response I wanted, generating a lot of conversation and debate. Some loved what I’d try to do and felt the translation of basketball concepts worked; a few were skeptical of its application to football; while others figured that it needed more fine-tuning.
I remain unsure about the success of my efforts and am sympathetic to the argument that these ideas doesn’t transfer well across sports, though I ultimately believe that there is relevance to analyzing football this way.
However, when it comes to coaching, I would posit that the value of portability becomes much clearer and less controversial. This has to do with the value of coaches themselves and the nature of the modern game and how the latter influences what it takes to win as an organization and the viability of certain tactics.
To explain this in depth, I will be publishing a three-part series, two of which will be for paid subscribers only:
In anticipation of the EUROs and the content I will be creating for that tournament, I am offering a special discount that will be redeemable until the final on July 11th.
Below is the intro to the general concepts and the theory behind my thinking — free for all.
Most Teams Aren’t Trying to Win (Titles)
A key difference between any European football league and the NBA is that the former contains a group of teams (anywhere from 70%-90% of the division) that will never aspire to win the competition over the course of several decades — or even a lifetime — thanks to insurmountable financial disparities. The NBA certainly has franchises that appear to be in that boat, but, theoretically, through the draft, revenue sharing, salary caps, etc., any side can become a contender over the course of several years if they play it smart (the prime example being the Toronto Raptors, who won a title in 2019 despite only existing since 1995).
By contrast, the best shot Eibar will ever have at glory is probably in a domestic cup.
This means that, while (competent) NBA teams will always want coaches that push them over the edge in the quest to win a championship, there is a stark contrast in the goals different football clubs want their managers to achieve.
Elche, after barely surviving the drop in La Liga this season, want someone who will help them stave off relegation once again; Celta Vigo need someone who can lift them into the European places and compete in cup competitions; and Real Madrid require a leader who will provide them the edge that wins it all.
In other words, some teams want floor raisers — coaches who can elevate more average players by making the whole greater than the sum of its parts — and others desire ceiling raisers — those who can make a squad of superstars that tiny bit better.
Talent Has By Far the Biggest Impact on Winning
Too often we act like coaches are the sole ones responsible for results when trying to rank greats or when debating who should be hired or fired. We may not like it, but the truth is that they have far less control than we’d like to admit, especially in the modern game, where their duties have been handed off to other positions (Director of Football) and limited to what happens on the pitch.
As outlined in this article by John Muller, the sporting director (or whoever is in charge of making transfer decisions) impacts winning more than a coach because they decide what kind of talent a team possesses — and talent is the overwhelming factor in any side’s success.
So yeah, roster spend matters most, then injuries, then maybe coaching and other stuff at the margins. That’s the general takeaway from studies that have tried to measure managerial skill. Just to give you a sense of the scale of the elements here, one 2017 paper estimated that a major increase in spending improved a team’s performance by around 8.5 points, an injury crisis could cost 8.3 points, and keeping or losing a manager was generally worth plus or minus a single point. With all due respect to Johan Cruyff, who famously said he’d never seen a bag of money score a goal, coaches don’t score goals either. Players do. And bags of money can be exchanged for players’ services.
It doesn’t matter how great your coach, DoF, facilities, or fanbase are if you’re trying to win a trophy with Jonjo Shelvey and Miguel Almirón and not Kevin de Bruyne and Phil Foden.
This has big implications for the kind of coach you want depending on your situation. Who cares if you have a big-brained idea if stars like Luka Modrić and Cristiano Ronaldo hate it and that friction causes them to underperform. Similarly, who gives a toss if someone who doesn’t move the needle much (*insert player you hate*) dislikes the system? They can be benched or sold for the greater good.
Given that there was a little confusion with this in my last article, I want to emphasize that a mix of qualities is possible (as part 3 will show) and often desirable — it all depends on the specific context: the quality of the squad, the direction and leadership at the top, financial resources, season or multi-season goals, and the personalities involved.
To dig into that context and see who makes the best floor raisers, ceiling raisers, and floor and ceiling raisers, I present:
PART 1 — Floor Raising: June 9 (PAID)
PART 2 — Ceiling Raising: June 10 (FREE).
PART 3 — The Balance Between Floor and Ceiling Raising: June 11 (PAID).