West Ham’s 2015-16 season officially begins today when they face Andorran side FC Lusitanos at Upton Park (the game will actually be streamed live on the official West Ham website). Newly appointed manager Slaven Bilić will watch from the stands, ushering in the post-Allardyce era of West Ham football.
It is probably more telling of the state of football than of West Ham in particular that Allardyce was, prior to his removal, the second-longest tenured manager in the Premier League. Though he remained unpopular with many fans throughout his four years at the club, it is hard to argue with the fact that his West Ham sides produced the most attractive football seen at Upton Park in at least a decade.
Even more worrying is the record of recent teams that have sacked Allardyce. Both Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United were relegated in the season following Allardyce’s departure. Nor is this pattern coincidental. According to the data analysis at transferpriceindex.com (the publishers of Pay as You Play), Allardyce is quite simply without peers as a manager of mid-to-bottom-table Premier League sides. Their final model (I believe developed by Zach Slaton) suggests that from the beginning of the Premier League through 2011-12, Allardyce’s teams have, on average, finished with 5 more points a season than their finances would predict. From 2003-04 on (the “post-Abromovich era” of “financial doping,” so to speak), Allardyce actually improves to 6.7 additional points per season, a performance that is roughly comparable (in financially equalized terms) to Carlo Ancelotti’s time at Chelsea.
That’s a stunning impact for any manager, and particularly for one who has consistently worked with limited resources. (If you’d like to dig deeper into the numbers, scroll down to the end of this post.) But that 5-7 points only tells half the story of replacing Allardyce once you realize that the owners in charge of firing a manager who is quite demonstrably the best man for the job are also the ones deciding who will replace him. If you lack the vision to recognize Allardyce’s value, how likely are you to make a good decision about his replacement?
Sullivan and Gold’s first effort at selecting a manager was Avram Grant, who on average has cost his teams 7 points a season (these numbers include his time at both Chelsea and Portsmouth). As an overall record, that’s marginally worse than Gianfranco Zola’s -6.7 points per season.
One would hope that Bilić will be a better manager than Grant was. His Croatian national side and his tenure at Beşiktaş suggest competence with occasional flashes of superiority, and he will certainly start his tenure with more fan sympathy than did Allardyce. But whether he can consistently outperform West Ham’s financial limitations remains to be seen, and it will be at least one more season before the team can begin reaping the potential economic benefit of the Olympic Stadium.
Sullivan and Gold appear to be gambling that a more popular manager will make for a better run-in to the Olympic Stadium and thus drum up greater support to begin filling this larger venue. Provided Bilić can deliver a mid-table finish, this strategy may well pan out. Moreover, West Ham’s financial position is much better than it has been in the past, which means that Bilić may be working from a somewhat better financial position than Allardyce was even before entering the Olympic Stadium. The recent acquisition of Dmitri Payet from Marseille, along with moves to keep Winston Reid, Aaron Cresswell, and (knock on wood) Alex Song at least suggest he will have a solid team to work with, even with the likely departure of Stewart Downing.
Nonetheless, I remain nervous about what the new season holds, especially with the possibility of a debilitating Europa League campaign as well. Firing Allardyce was a dangerous move, and Hammers fans can only hope that they can break the relegation pattern of his previous ex-employers.
Sam Allardyce and the Transfer Price Index
Pay as You Play, or the Transfer Price index, offers an effort to determine the impact of money on winning in the Premier League era using transfer fees as a proxy for the expected financial outcome of teams (Surprise: money makes almost all the difference). For Americans, who are more used to the (probably better) measure of player salaries–and who also expect teams to “trade” players rather than “sell” them (that makes indentured servitude much less demeaning, right?)–this may seem like a potentially skewed model. Indeed, Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics made precisely this suggestion, arguing that transfer fees bore little relation to a player’s worth in comparison to wages (Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing, anyone?).
Zach Slaton, however, writing for the Transfer Price index, made the case that in fact transfer fees and wages over time are closely correlated, so that these apparently diverse methods of measuring a team’s financial value are probably fairly similar in the long run. I believe that it was Slaton who also developed the refined approach used on the website for evaluating managers, last updated at the end of the 2011-12 season. Whomever is responsible for developing it, that system is based on “residual” points per match and season, or the number of points above or below a team’s predicted point total, rather than on the price per point earned, as was the primary focus of the 2010 book’s analysis.
By whatever measure used, Allardyce is a special manager. In the 2010 book, he effectively tops the list of “overachievers” (West Ham great John Lyall’s brief Premier League tenure at Ipswich comes in slightly ahead of Allardyce’s more substantial record, though he fares far less well when measured in terms of residual points). In fact, Allardyce ended up paying less than half the expected cost per point. This result comes despite the fact that his partial year at Newcastle is included in the data, a team so detrimental to its managers’ performance that the book includes a chapter called “The Newcastle Effect.” While at Tyneside, Allardyce paid seven times what he did per point during his Bolton Wanderers tenure.
In February 2012, Slaton offered an updated listing of the best Premier League managers of all-time, according to the revised system. Allardyce made 15th in that list, effectively tied with David Moyes (at 14th) with 5.1 residual points per season. The only managers above him who did not manage top 4 sides were Nottingham Forest’s Frank Clark and Leeds United’s Dennis O’Leary. This is what Slaton had to say about Allardyce at the time:
Allardyce has a well-earned reputation of managing well above financial expectations. His final four years of his six year tenure at Bolton saw him improve team performance versus the m£XIR model each year, with his final year generating a 0.522 points per match overperformance (+19.84 points over a 38 match season). Allardyce’s half season at Newcastle United was tumultuous, with a poor run of form around Christmas sealing his fate. Even with that poor run of form he was still on track to earn 0.226 points per match more than his transfer expenditures suggested (+8.59 points per season). Perhaps the greatest misalignment between expectations and performance came at Blackburn. Allardyce took a club that was sitting 19th in the table and led them to a 15th place finish. He followed up with a 10th place finish the next season. With the purchase of the club by the Venky group in November 2011, Allardyce was sacked on December 13th with the club sitting in the 13th position and 5 points clear of the relegation zone. The outrage amongst the media and other managers was loud and well placed. All Allardyce had done was steadily improve the club’s fortunes against the expectations set by transfer expenditures: -0.185 in 2008/09, -.089 in 2009/10, and -0.04 in 2010/11.
When those results were updated to reflect the 2011-12 season in July, Slaton went on to calculate the Post-Abromovich era performance noted above, in which Allardyce’s stock rose further, despite still containing his time at Newcastle (because Allardyce was then managing West Ham in the Championship, his overall numbers did not change). Moyes, by comparison, dropped to 4.6 residual points per season.
As this was the last report from the Transfer Price index (and because I am far too lazy to attempt to extend this analysis on my own), Allardyce’s performance at West Ham in the last three years hasn’t been integrated into the model. Still, it is difficult to believe that purchases like Diafra Sakho and Alex Song would not continue his impressive run of value.