Manager / von Neumann / Advantage

A small group of scientists asked a larger group of scientists who would best represent the intelligence of human kind and, with as much of a consensus of scientists every give, the answer was John von Neumann.

American-Hungarian von Neumann was a polymathic figure in science and his contribution to the fields he touched – which were many – were significant. His work on Quantum theory will shape Mathematics for the next 100 years, his work on The Manhattan Project shaped the history of the 20th century, and his work on Game Theory should shape the selection of the next Bradford City manager with his minimax theorem is our case in point.

In my limited way I will summarise it thus: When making a decision in any game theoretic situation a player will consider all options and select the one which minimises the maximum loss. Which is to say – in this instance – that when selecting a football manager players (in this case chairmen) will make the selection of the person who should things go wrong will go least wrong.

It is hard not to see this in action with Bradford City chairman Edin Rahic’s previous two selections. Neither Stuart McCall or Simon Grayson are bad managers and – and this is important – neither could be accused of being poor managers. If McCall were relegated there are some who would have defended him and Simon Grayson did do badly and is defended.  Both were acceptable appointments though and within the remit of what a League One club is expected to do.

This remit is discussed in the work of a slightly less intelligent but significantly more famous Mathematician John Nash.  The main thrust of Nash’s work was that game theoretic situations relied on the participants knowing the range of acceptable and common moves to them, and anticipating the range of acceptable and common moves available to the other players.

The Nash equilibrium also comes into play when considering the game theory of manager selection. There is an idea that the management of football club’s is a settled matter and a decision has been made on how it is done, and that any variation on that is to do it wrong, which means that football is in something like a Nash equilibrium.

Pardew

Except selecting a football manager is not a Nash equilibrium. The role that a manager does changes often. As recently as the 1990s managers used to sell in ground advertising. The Head Coach that Bradford City are looking for would expect that to be done by someone else no doubt, and would find that scouting is done by another person, and one does not have to agree with this breakdown of work that to accept that the role of manager changes.

And should the role change then the demands of the role changes and so does it’s remit as does the profile of a person who would do it well. von Neumann’s minimax theorem is the way which football deals with this.

The desire of chairmen when making the selection of a manager is to make the choice which is least likely to be a very bad choice which very often is the best available of the group of football managers looking for a job at any given time who have experience at the level you are at.

I am not even a tenth as smart as John von Neumann but I feel certain that he, as I, would call this The Alan Pardew Effect.

Unfair

Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp have a list of League One’s Alan Pardews ahead of them and von Neumann theorem would tell them to pick a name from that list. No one person the list will give them an advantage over any other but, at the same time, no one will give them a significant disadvantage. If there are managers who can be found lower down the leagues but who are in effect passing through to find them requires someone to break out of minimax and risk an outcome which does not minimise maximum losses.

So, for example, were the 29 year old Bolton Wanderers player Stephen Darby be offered the role of player manager at Bradford City – and he seems like a qualified man for that role – there is a risk that Darby will manifest zero abilities in the role and the club will loose a dozen games before sacking another club legend. However Darby would seem to have all the indicators that a player can show that he will be a good manager and should he be an Eddie Howe the decision to give him the job will pay far better dividends than appointing any of the League One Pardews.

Two things allow Bradford City to follow this find of approach. Few people seem to expect much of the next management appointment and there is a small but verbal section of fans think that the club is going to be relegated to League Two next season although the chairmen believe that the manager should over-perform and – by definition – expecting one of the League One Pardews to do this is against logic.

Credulity

In selecting a new Bradford City manager Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp a continuum of choice. At the one end they can pick from the list of what we might unflattering call League One Pardews and hope for an uncharacteristic over-performance knowing that an under-performance would not damage the club in a way which is beyond repair. At the other end of the scale is as far away from that list as is possible while still appointing someone who is a credible football manager with the stretch in credulity being the commensurate amount as is justified by the abilities of the target, should such a target be identified.

Which brings us to Nick Cushing.

Cushing is probably not going to be considered by any Football League club this season yet he won the Women’s Super League with Manchester City last season. He is, of course, in possession of an obscene level of resources at Manchester City but his reputation as a coach is very good. He is 33 years old and contracted to Manchester City WFC for sometime but that deal hardly seems necessary. Even the FA seem to believe that you need no ability as a manager at all to manage Women’s football.

If may, or many not, think that women’s football and men’s are non overlapping magisteria and you could believe that were a club like Bradford City to appoint Cushing they could be getting a superb manager or you could think they could get someone who has no relevant experience at all but my point would be that if the club are attempting to get someone who is disproportionately better than the standard of League One they need to find a candidate who has those qualities but is undervalued.

As well as appoint Cushing a club like City could look – and one doubts they would – at Mark Sampson who has experience taking England to a World Cup Final or, should they wish to annoy all the right people, Hope Powell. The level of experience on offer is not going to be matched by someone who got sacked by Scunthorpe Town, unless all that experience is irrelevant.

Instinct

The marketplace for football managers overvalues many irrelevant or partially irrelevant characteristics – such as one’s ability to play the game, or one’s connection to a club – leaving a significant inefficiency that can be exploited. As Arsene Wenger retires is it difficult to recall how hostile the English game was to the idea of overseas managers but Arsenal found they could replaced the entirely unimpressive Bruce Rioch with the Imperious Wenger because Wenger’s Frenchness saw him undervalued by English clubs who were hitherto happy to move around the same talent pool.

Wenger is probably the most celebrated example of a club getting a significant competitive advantage from recruitment. The Frenchman changed the way that footballers behaved at Arsenal, and his legacy is that every other team in the game duplicated the professional, thoughtful, tactical approach and a good number overtook him. This was able to happen because Wenger was undervalued in the marketplace and not just be the xenophobic. His extremely limited career counted against him in his home country as did his demeanor. Famously he was said to resemble a Professor more than a football manager. By ignoring all these points Arsenal were able to create disproportionate benefits.

To find a competitive advantage from recruitment Rahic and Rupp have to identify such areas of value negativity in the market and exploit them. That is exactly what the chairmen of Bradford City should be doing right now.

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