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Mar 9, 2014

Laudrup vs. Monk - were Swans right to act?

It's been over a month since Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins sacked Michael Laudrup, and the fans are still arguing the toss. Although it's still very much early doors in Garry Monk's reign, I thought it might be interesting to compare the two managers' figures to see if, on paper at least, anything has really changed.

Since the Swans priority is avoiding relegation from the league, I'll only be looking at league games. Monk's figures are fairly straight forward, since he's only been in charge for four league matches. Laudrup was in charge long enough to allow for several interpretations of the data, and since many regard last season's Capital One Cup victory as a milestone in Laudrup's Swans career (put simply, the side were excellent before, terrible afterwards), I have also looked at Laudrup's figures before and after that victory.

The categories I'm concerned with in this article are goals scored, goals conceded, set piece goals scored, chances created, and points. I'll be looking at per-game averages for each of those categories. Firstly, let's look at Laudrup's stats:

"Laudrup's

The most significant numbers here are goals conceded and points. Overall, Laudrup's Swans never outscored their opponents. The swing between last season's 1.3 goals conceded per game and this season's 1.5 might seem minuscule, but it is significant, especially considering Laudrup's side were only scoring 1.2 goals per game. In other words, this season Laudrup's Swans had started to leak more goals than last term without scoring more to compensate. The figures are small, but over time, a side that is routinely outscored is not going to win many football matches.

Laudrup's points per game numbers tell a similar story. Last season's 1.2 is by no means amazing, but this season's 1 might actually be considered sack-worthy in itself. As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski explain in their book Soccernomics, "the average club earns 1.3 points a match [...] a club sacks it's manager when it averages only 1 point a match". If we look at Laudrup's figures for the periods before and after the cup win, the picture becomes even clearer:

"Laudrup's

Laudrup's figures before that win were certainly superior. It was the only period in which his side outscored their opponents (1.4 to 1.3), whilst the team's points per game tally was 1.4, greater than the average posited by Kuper and Szymanski. The after figures only corroborate the story: outscored 1.1 to 1.5, with a miserable 0.9 points per game. That's relegation material. Now let's look at Monk:

"Monk's

There are two significant figures here: goals scored, and set piece goals scored. With two goals per game, Monk's Swans are scoring 0.6 more than Laudrup's best. Monk's Swans are also four times more likely to score from set-pieces. The two phenomena are related.

Laudrup's disregard for set pieces is backed up by his figures in this category. In his first season as Swans boss -- a successful season by any measure -- his side scored the fewest set-piece goals in the Premier League. The change under Monk's stewardship has been immediately obvious, not just on paper, but seen on the field.

The one extra chance Monk's Swans are creating per game is probably coming from set-pieces too, which has led to more goals, and more points (Monk's Swans are hitting the 1.3 average). Monk's defence is no better -- it's been as bad as it ever was under Laudrup -- but unlike Laudrup's Swans, Monk's have scored enough to offset that problem.

So was Jenkins right to sack Laudrup? Monk's early figures are an improvement, but as Kuper and Szymanski have it, "any statistician can predict what should happen after a low point: whether or not the club sacks its manager, or changes its brand of teacakes, its performance will probably regress to the mean. Simply put, from a very low point, you are always likely to improve. The club may have hit the low because of bad luck, or injuries, or a tough run of fixtures [...] whatever the reason for hitting a low, things will almost inevitably improve afterwards. The new manager rarely causes the pendulum to swing. He's just the beneficiary of the swing."

Although I mostly agree with Kuper and Szymanski, I would argue that in this instance, Monk's set-piece diligence is responsible for at least some of that swing. Greater set-piece focus has led to the other improvements (goals scored, points per game, chances created). Would it be fair to say that a little more concentration on set-pieces could have saved Laudrup? The numbers say yes.

Perhaps Laudrup got bored after hitting his peak early with that cup win. His side was never the same again. Laudrup brought more than tactics to Swansea. He brought players, prestige and connections which the Swans might find themselves missing come the summer. In terms of the product on the pitch, however -- and but for better set-pieces -- Jenkins was probably justified.