What Should We Expect from Head Coaches?

We argue that a head coach's decision to adopt an attacking style, despite their team's inability to effectively compete using such tactics, might reflect poorly on their talent ID.

What Should We Expect from Head Coaches?
Photo by Jeffrey F Lin / Unsplash

Talent Identification (Talent ID) — For this essay, I define Talent ID not merely as spotting capable players but as understanding which environment maximizes their abilities.

The Matter

Last week, football consultancy MRKT Insights released an article outlining how significant a coach's (purported) style was to elite coach recruitment.

In the piece, Tim Keech explains that the strong similarities in how top clubs interpret and play football means they typically target the same subset of elite coaches – those whose style tends towards attacking football:

"They control possession, they are used to breaking down deep defences, they tend to play a high defensive line and look to regain the ball high up the pitch. They also have technically proficient players with good athleticism."

Specifically, the essay explains this stylization is not benchmarked by just outcome but intent. One of these metrics, MRKT Insights writes, "deliberately excludes xG and other factors that measure effectiveness, we just want to know the style."

Hence, coaches who set their teams up to play attacking football, but struggle to compete are still looked at favorably when prospecting roles at the bigger clubs.

It's these kinds of evaluations that renders Roberto de Zerbi atop most of managerial shortlist despite his sub-par season with Brighton, and the same kind that has, in part, earned Vincent Kompany a move to Bayern this summer after his relegation with Burnley.

And the argument kinda adds up. Tim concludes that:

"...good teams, play good football, with good players."

So, head coaches might be incentivized – for career progression sake – t0 (try to) play good attacking football, even at the expense of their club's immediate prospects.

In this essay, I explore how a head coach's decision to adopt an attacking style, despite their team's inability to effectively compete using such tactics, might reflect poorly on their talent ID.

My Take

In response, I argue that for a coach (and their team) to sufficiently demonstrate attacking intent, the composition of player profiles in the squad is more important than the quality of the players themselves.

What do I mean?

A semblance of attacking football could be engineered with aligned, albeit less skilled, profiles.

First, you need a group of players whose innate tendencies tend towards one that facilitates attacking football.

For example, if you have a goalkeeper and defenders who are predisposed to playing out from the back, midfielders who are cautious in possession, and forwards comfortable with pressing and receiving short passes, you can craft a team that is designed—if not fully equipped — to play attacking football, regardless of their overall quality or the practicality of this approach.

It might not work; the players might not have enough quality to successfully compete in that level. Yet, the alignment could still positively impact style metrics.

Conversely, it's more challenging to showcase this attacking intent with a center-back whose first instinct is to clear the ball, a traditional save-and-hoof goalkeeper, or midfielders who are exclusively ball-winners. Even though these players might be empirically better or capable of delivering superior results in a slightly modified system, they do not fit the attacking mold.


Imagine you have a hearty stew and two options for eating it: a toy-sized fork and knife set or a large, adult-sized spoon. The tiny fork and knife represent the aligned, but worse players attempting to play attacking football. While they can manage to eat the stew, it will take many small bites and a lot of effort to consume a significant portion. This style of eating might be aesthetically pleasing or satisfying, but it's not the most efficient way to consume the meal.

On the other hand, the large spoon represents the more pragmatic approach with better players. The spoon is much larger than the toy fork and knife, and it can easily scoop up a substantial amount of stew in a single bite. This is similar to how the better players can more easily and efficiently deliver results, even if their style isn't perfectly aligned with attacking football.

If we assume our metric to be the amount of food consumed per scoop, the large spoon will clearly outperform the tiny fork and knife set. In the context of this essay, this means that while the aligned players might be able to execute an attacking style, the more pragmatic approach with better players will likely yield more points and better results overall.

This leads me to be generally skeptical about the talent ID of coaches who deliberately choose to implement attacking football at clubs without the squad muscle to compete. Here’s my case:

  1. Compromising Quality for Fit: It suggests that these coaches might have overlooked potentially better players in favor of those who fit their system but are objectively of a lower standard. This preference for style over substance could be detrimental in the long run.
  2. Risk of Repetition: As is the case with any habit, there's a tendency for such coaches to replicate this strategy (1) at more prominent clubs with greater resources –  leading to underutilization of possible talent.

The Core Concern:

Earlier in this piece, we saw the referenced claim:

"...good teams, play good football, with good players."

I offer an elevated version of that and say:

"[the best] teams play good football with [the best] players."

The indicators for good (attacking) football may change, but the best teams will always employ the best (or better) players.

Hence, if a coach consistently opts for worse players under the guise of maintaining a specific style, they might be compromising the potential for even greater success. This approach warrants concern because it could limit both the tactical flexibility and overall capability of the team at higher levels of competition or under another head coach.

Archive from May 24, 2024

2 boys in red and black soccer jersey playing on green grass field during daytime
Photo by Alliance Football Club / Unsplash

Why a Coach's Talent ID Matters?

Coaches aren't necessarily required to know the best talents from other teams; a well-established network can often supplement this knowledge. However, it is crucial for any coach to possessing a keen eye for identifying and utilizing the talents within their own squad effectively.

For example:

  • Coach A may see player X's potential as a secondary forward, leveraging their agility and attacking instincts.
  • Conversely, Coach B might utilize the same player as a deep-lying playmaker, focusing on their ability to distribute the ball and control the tempo of the game.

This variance in perception underscores the value of this Talent ID —a coach's ability to discern and harness a player's strengths in a way that most benefits the team.

Evaluating Coaches Through Player Development

When assessing the effectiveness of head coaches or managers, it is also prudent to focus on how they manage and develop specific players currently under their guidance. Key questions to consider include:

  • Has the role of player X changed under the new coach? If so, how?
  • Are players performing better or worse in their new roles?
  • What trends can be observed in player performances across different positions?

For instance, some coaches have a track record of developing outstanding fullbacks. This could be due to:

  • A special aptitude for spotting and nurturing talent in that particular position, or
  • The implementation of tactical systems that naturally enhance the skills and roles of fullbacks.

NB: there are several factors that determine our perception of 'player development' – so the aforementioned guidelines are non-exhaustive. This remains a working document.

Aligning Coaching Choices with Team Needs

Recognizing these distinctions is critical when selecting a coach for your squad. It's not just about a coach’s reputation or past successes but understanding how their specific approaches to player development and tactical deployment dovetail with the existing talents and strategic goals.

Archive from Jan 21, 2024

Talent ID=f(Trust, Appreciation)

Talent ID isn't just about being spot-on in one's assessments — it's about trust and appreciation. The meteoric rise of phenoms like Lionel Messi isn't solely because someone was 'right' about their promise – but because someone recognized and valued their unique abilities. This appreciation, rather than mere validation, is what nurtures superstars. Athletes who achieve greatness are often those whose talents are not only acknowledged but also treasured within an ideal environment.

It's important to understand that scouts and coaches don't bestow athletes with abilities or determination. Instead, they provide the scaffolding of trust and belief in which these athletes can flourish.

This makes it challenging to delineate what really constitutes 'talent development' – if at all 'talent' is the appropriate descriptor. Instead, the emphasis should be on qualifying and philosophizing about what constitutes a conducive environment for development – one that considers the actors, dynamics, and overarching purpose.

For instance, when coaches and scouts probe into a player's family background and upbringing, their goal is to appreciate the player's humanity. This deeper connection helps to build a shared sense of purpose, essential for fostering a nurturing environment.

Good Coaching Boils Down to Trust

Trust isn't just about believing in a player's ability; it's about nurturing a relationship where the player feels valued and understood, thereby unlocking their potential to excel both on and off the pitch.

Archive from October 22, 2023

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Who is the Writer?

Joel A. Adejola is an undergraduate at the University of Kansas (KU), studying Engineering and Philosophy.