Has Claudio Ranieiri out-foxed his rivals?

How much credit for almost a season of performances, which even the most foolhardy of supporters could not have dreamed of, can be meaningfully attributed to good management? We ask the experts: management academics!  

A year ago things were looking pretty ominous for Leicester City Football Club. Having easily won promotion to the top flight of English football in 2014, they very quickly established themselves as clear favourites to drop straight back down to the second tier. With 25 games played, the club had accumulated a mere 17 points and were propping up the table, 6 points short of clear safety. Shortly afterwards, they strung together a remarkable run of performances, avoiding relegation and winning over many neutrals to their direct style of play. By way of congratulation, Nigel Pearson, the manager who presided over last season’s great escape, wasn’t given the keys to the city. Instead he was sacked. Theories abound as to why this happened but ‘fundamental differences in perspective’ was the club’s official explanation.

Today, in one of the beautiful game’s most spectacular reversals of fortune, the Foxes now sit on top of the Premier League table with 53 points: that’s over 3 times more than the amount they had this time last year. Last year they were clear favourites to go down. At the moment, they are now among the favourites to take English football’s most coveted prize. If Gary Lineker, Leicester’s greatest ever footballer, as well as one of the club’s fans, couldn’t see this coming then we can all be similarly forgiven. And yet here we are.

Much grey matter has been expended on trying to account for why this change has come about. The club didn’t sign many new players, the opposition hasn’t weakened in any obvious way and the supporters remain as passionate as they’ve always been. So what else might it be? Pundits have emphasised the benefits of a simple approach in an era of complicated formations and playing styles. TV journalists have surveyed the city for views. Sport sociologists have insisted that the moral of Leicester’s story is that money isn’t everything in the modern game. The key to the puzzle remains elusive.

Perhaps it is all down to the manager? Claudio Ranieri, Pearson’s replacement, consistently plays down the significance of his own contribution to the club’s recent successes. Is this a shrewd attention detraction move, as some have suggested, on his part? Or is there really more to Leicester’s recent fortunes than the wiliness of their Italian silver fox?

Let’s begin our brief survey with the views of Stephen Wood, a long time Leicester season ticket holder and Professor of Management at the School:

Supporting City has always been a form of relaxation for me, a way to get away from work. Back in the 1970s, when I was a PhD Student, I was advised by Gibson Burrell to do what they were doing in the famous Leicester Sociology Department at the time: studying football from a sociological perspective. I told him that I didn’t want to do that: football was my hobby then, as it is now. Today, I’m reluctant to apply management theory to recent developments at my beloved team.

Nonetheless, despite such misgivings, he went on to say:

Standard work psychology and performance theories would certainly not reduce the difference over the past year to changes at the top. The abilities and motivation of the players is just as important as good leadership and contemporary theories stress that the key element, too often forgotten, is employee involvement: the coordination between people, in the form of teams. Consider the closely knit groups at Manchester United which Alex Ferguson used to preside over. Leicester players make the point again and again that the manager has involved everybody from the laundry people to the players and senior administrators, on a daily basis. Jamie Vardy, one of the stars on the pitch, regularly describes how much work, technical assistance and attention to detail has gone into developing him and other players. This is a large part of what makes them almost unrecognisable from how things looked in the period running up to last year’s “Great Escape”.

As a devoted fan, Professor Wood finds it a little annoying how long it has taken for pundits to realise that what is happening at Leicester isn’t a mere flash in the pan:

We have a very good football team and the success is no fairy tale. As recent as January one could pick up the paper and read a lot about the unemployed José Mourinho and next to nothing about one of the main title contenders. This is a matter of good management, of collective activity, and the culmination of a whole host of decisions over several seasons. Sound financial management and the everyday presence of the owners has also been a factor. Many fans believe that the current owners, indeed, are the best thing that has ever happened to the club.

We’ll return to Professor Wood shortly. In the meantime here’s the views of Rasim Kurdoglu, an organisation theorist at the school, who also points to that notion of harmony which seems to explain a large part of what is going on:

All the players, as well as the manager and the owners, are in what biologists would call a symbiotic relationship. This sense of organic unity cannot be explained as the product of a deliberate managerial effort, if only because serendipity plays an important role here also. Not only is everybody putting everything they can into the effort, they also seem to be enjoying doing so. Effort breeds effort and success seems to be breeding success. This is so hard to gain and yet, when it is gained, it makes everything look so simple.

Professor Marcel Ausloos, an engineer and physicist whose work involves the application of mathematical principles to financial markets, provides a very different kind of explanation. He very much likes to look at football through his academic lenses and here’s what he ends up saying about Leicester when I asked him to do so for this question:

I’ve studied the ranking of teams and countries following “physics principles”. Across a season there is an inherent building up of a so called “dissipative structure” (thermodynamics jargon; invented (?) by Ilya Prigogine, Noble prize winner some time ago). At the end of the season, a specific “universal” law occurs and a sort of ranking structure is found. It is difficult to do this sort of work with Leicester on account of the fact that at the moment we only have one data point.

With 53 points, it seems safe to say that you will have more Leicester data points to work with next year. Without being able to run your model for the club this year just yet, is there anything you’d feel comfortable saying?

Sure. The recruiting of Claudio Ranieri as Manager in July 2015 was of course a splendid choice. It seems that that is THE key. The practical scouting and recruiting (Steve Walsh) of ad hoc players seems also highly relevant; there are 4 or 5 new players in 2015, but many know each other since the arrival of Ranieri. We also shouldn’t discount Paolo Benetti who has worked alongside Ranieri since 2007.

So that’s quite a bit of support for the suggestion that the figure of Ranieri will be found within any plausible explanation. But here’s Marton Racz, whose ongoing research provides an antidote to a variety of ‘great manager’ explanations of organisational success, sounding a note of caution:

If management were an absolutely straightforward practice, there wouldn’t be need for managers. Because of management’s complex nature, management academics often hold differing, sometimes opposing, views about how management is best done. It is rather likely then that much of the explanation we attribute to LCFC’s recent success as management academics will depend on our point of view both as fans and as scholars.

Tell me about it: so far I’ve had experience, philosophy and science thrown at me in my search for a simple explanation! So is it down to Ranieri or not?

Well, both Pearson and Ranieri possess the UEFA Pro Licence: they’re both qualified managers. Their teams also had similar, direct football styles. So Ranieri, nicknamed “the tinkerman”, didn’t have to actually do too much management: he could simply take up the reigns from his predecessor. The line could be drawn temperamentally. Ranieri, unlike Pearson, doesn’t grab opposition players by the throat, nor does he call journalists ostriches. He is known for building stable teams though not winning many trophies. Maybe that’s precisely the sort of manager Leicester needed: right man, right time.

Ranieri or not, Marton?

Gary Lineker places some praise on the scouting system but, for me, despite all the short-term optimism, it will soon be shown to all come down to money.  The European football coach job market is a very tightly knit one. The same names move from club to club and from country to country. Ranieri was the right man for the job in the sense that he didn’t cost much, on account of his track record and, moreover, he was available at the time of asking. Football is now a business and money talks louder than ever – Leicester’s owners know this all too well, as do the fans of their competitors, as does the ever more lucrative transfer market. So why wouldn’t it be the same with the manager? Leicester’s recent success is all about management – financial management – and it is hardly about football at all.

So, there you have it. Lots of strong opinions, none of which you’ll be likely to completely agree with. If football is, as the legendary Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly once put it, much more important than life and death then it is surely much more important than management. A few final words from Professor Wood, who will be singing for the club from the stands again this Saturday:

There is one common element across all the four great post-war successful teams at Leicester – organizational traditions may not be unimportant. Before today’s team, Gillies, Bloomfield and O’Neill each built their teams by developing players from lower divisions, and/or by giving a chance to those who were discarded by so-called bigger clubs. David Gibson, Gordon Banks, Keith Weller, Robbie Savage, and of course Birch (Alan Birchenall), himself a key factor in making the great atmosphere currently around the club, were all Leicester legends.

The current group are very close to becoming the greatest legends of them all. And if they do win the league this year Ranieri’s name, rightly or wrongly, will be on the lips of fans and admirers for generations to come.

Come on you Foxes!

Originally published at http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/

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