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May 11, 2013

Bochum's razor

I have it on pretty good authority that a 71-year-old coach has announced his retirement this week, having been in charge of a team - the same team, actually - for more than a quarter of a century. And not without a bit of success, it should be added.

It appears to support a theory a sizeable part of the football world adheres to. This particular part consists of journalists, scientists, many players and, well, coaches. Their theory says that those clubs that stick by their coach will eventually be rewarded and that the widespread hire-and-fire mentality is, in fact, counter-productive.

Every few years somebody undertakes studies to look into the matter and they usually support this view. In April of 2011, for instance, a group of German academics from the Institutes of Sports Science, Physical Chemistry and Organic Chemisty (whatever that is) in Münster and Kassel, respectively, published an article with the snappy title "Usefulness of Dismissing and Changing the Coach in Professional Soccer".

The scientists looked at 14,018 games - all Bundesliga matches played between 1963 and 2009 - and applied an intricate analysis method they had developed themselves to determine whether or not teams improved under a new coach.

This sounds easier than it was. Most previous studies simply used the number of points collected before and after a sacking to arrive at a conclusion, but the Münster/Kassel combo instead zeroed in on goals scored or conceded, arguing that "the number of points contains a larger random contribution than the goal difference", meaning collecting more points could be down to simple luck but scoring more goals must have something to do with improved performance.

In any case, the finding of this study was pretty much the same as one conducted by the Dutch scientist Ruud H. Koning in 2000. Koning, who had naturally used the top-flight in Holland as the basis for his work, concluded with remarkable banality: "We find that the performance of a team does not always improve when a coach is fired. In some cases, new coaches perform worse than their fired predecessors."

His German colleagues were a tad more specific: "The underlying team fitness [= quality] does not improve due to coach dismissal," they said. "The increase immediately after the coach dismissal can be completely traced back to a simple statistical selection effect (regression towards the mean)." They added: "Changing the coach during the summer break results in the same nil effect."

However, there is another sizeable part of the football world that says this is all utter baloney. This particular part consists primarily of fans and chairmen. They maintain that long-term statistical analyses are of no interest whatsoever to them because normally all that counts are the next few weeks.

Put differently, this second theory says that sometimes changing the coach has a positive effect, sometimes it has no effect, sometimes it has a negative effect. While this may ultimately even out - and result in said "nil effect" - in the bigger picture scientists look at, it means that a club in crisis has a one-in-three chance of turning things around if they sack their coach. Of course, according to this common-sense argument there is also a one-in-three chance that things will get worse. Yet these are actually pretty good odds for someone who faces an unpleasant fate and wonders what he can do before it's too late.

Which leads us to the most famous moustache in the German game.

Between 1984 and 2009, Peter Neururer coached fifteen clubs at various levels of the league pyramid. The only club that kept him longer than two years was VfL Bochum. Neururer led the team to some of the biggest moments in club history between 2001 and 2005: topping the Bundesliga for three weeks in 2002, qualifying for the UEFA Cup in 2004. The fans dubbed him "Peter the Great" and loved the silly victory dances - adaptations of Michael Jackson's moonwalk - he would perform in front of the home stand. But ultimately Neururer became just one more victim of the hire-and-fire mentality and he moved on to other clubs.

In October 2009, he was sacked by Duisburg - and suddenly no new offer was forthcoming. He did what football men do in these situations. He played golf and used his eloquence (some might prefer the term "garrulousness") to find work as a pundit on television. He also rode across the USA on his beloved Harley Davidson and released a book about his life, written by a Hamburg-based journalist.

In the summer of 2012, Neururer's heart suddenly stopped beating on a golf course in Gelsenkirchen. He spent three days in a coma, but got out of it okay. He said he was still hoping to get back into coaching. He said he would even coach in the third division if somebody made him a decent offer. There was none. Most people in the football world considered him as good as retired at just 57 years of age.

His old flame, meanwhile, was in trouble. After a decent start to the 2012-13 season in the second division, Bochum sank down the standings like a stone. In March, the team dropped to 15th place, just two points above the relegation play-off spot. Then they lost the next four games on the trot.

To call the situation desperate would have been an understatement. When the team played promotion favourites Brunswick, only 12,000 fans showed up. Two weeks later, when Bochum lost 3-0 at home to Aue, there were just 10,000 people at the ground. They were singing: "Third division, here we come!"

It was a situation in which you don't consult academic studies. It was a situation in which a one-in-three chance sounds like great odds. With six games left in the season, Bochum fired their coach - and hired Peter Neururer. "I'm glad to be back, I'm back home" he said. Then he added: "I've done quite a lot as a coach, but I think this is the most difficult job I've ever had. All we can do now is work, work, work."

Six days later, Bochum won 3-0 away at Cottbus. Five days after that, more than 26,000 fans came out to see Neururer's first home game. Bochum won 3-0 again. A week later, the team won 1-0 at Sandhausen. Then, last Saturday, a sell-out crowd of 28,400 watched Bochum take on mighty Cologne. Many of them wore fake moustaches to honour Neururer and his trademark cookie duster.

On the half-hour, Bochum conceded their first goal under the new coach to fall behind 1-0. Deep into the second half, the team turned the game around with two goals in fifteen minutes to rack up their fourth straight win. Suddenly Bochum are in a position where they can secure second-division survival as early as this Sunday. Asked how he had managed to revive a dying club, Neururer said: "We have created a spirit of togetherness." Which remids me that the most interesting aspect of the Münster/Kassel study mentioned earlier never even made the mainstream news. Towards the end of the paper, the authors say: "The impact of coaches as 'fitness producers' [= performance enhancers] for the teams is limited and is most likely (on average) much smaller than 15% as compared to other factors (like the team wage bill), determining the quality of a soccer team." It gives a stunningly precise answer to a question I have posed here many moons ago (see: The true contribution of a coach, August 11, 2009), namely how important a coach really is to the success of a team.

Much smaller than 15%. There are people who will buy into this. But they are not from Bochum.

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