'You don't know what you're doing'
Why managers make strange decisions
From the comfort of your armchair, managing a football club is the easiest job in the world. We've all done it – second-guessed the manager's decisions, asserted with unearned confidence that "he shouldn't be playing there" and asked with exasperation: "what's he doing on the fucking bench?"
We know nothing, of course. To manage a top-flight football club usually requires decades of experience in the game, years of patient study, and countless hours of dedicated work behind the scenes – not half-formed opinions built on a few weekends in the stands and an illustrious Championship Manager career.
But then, these supposedly learned men and women occasionally make decisions that defy belief. Decisions that run entirely counter to logic. Decisions that seem, at times, almost irrational. Take England's disastrous 2016 European Championship campaign. Towards the end of the qualifying rounds, manager Roy Hodgson took the perplexing decision to put Harry Kane on corner duty. Harry Kane has many attributes in his admirable skillset, but unerring dead-ball delivery has never been one of them. Surely, England had a better set-piece specialist in their ranks than Kane? And surely, one of the Premier League's most deadly marksmen would have been more effective in the penalty box, on the receiving end of those corners?
The pundits knew Harry Kane shouldn't have been taking corners for England, the fans knew it, the tea ladies knew it – even Harry Kane knew it, according to a statement following England's shock elimination by Iceland. "I will probably never take another corner," said Kane. "It’s obviously a laugh and a joke now. We had a bit of a laugh and a joke with the manager about it, but it’s something that happened." In fact, the only person who didn't seem to know that Kane was wasted on corner duty was Roy Hodgson – the man charged with making the decisions.
English Football is littered with counterintuitive moves like these. Before Hodgson and Kane came Van Gaal and Phil Jones – the Dutchman widely castigated after his burly defender took a series of corners against QPR in January 2015. Stuart Pearce's decision to play goalkeeper David James up front in the dying moments of a 2005 Premier League game against Middlesborough will live in infamy. Pep Guardiola found out the hard way that an ageing Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy could not be converted into inverted wing-backs-cum-centre-midfielders a la Philipp Lahm. And Arsène Wenger has made a habit of bewildering supporters in the latter years of his career – fielding half his team out of position and stoically failing to address holes in his squad glaring enough to be be seen from space.
So why do they do it? If something is so clearly a bad idea to the likes of you and I, surely those paid millions to make such decisions can see it, too? Or could there be principles in play that might just explain the seemingly inexplicable?
When a successful behaviour is rewarded, the reward reinforces that behaviour – making it more likely we'll try the same thing again. So, after Wenger transformed a good if not excellent winger into the world's best centre-forward in Thierry Henry, or Pep Guardiola reinvented an ageing Philipp Lahm as a world-class centre-mid, the impetus was there to try the same trick again, and again – even if the chances of it working a second time were slim.
The gamblers' fallacy
Human beings are not computers, and most of us actually have a very rudimentary grasp of probability. That's why, if a flipped coin lands heads-up three times in a row, we'll believe that the next toss will most likely land tails. This is the gambler's fallacy, and it's a logic that seems to catch out many top-flight managers. Why would you keep faith with an underperforming player? "Because he's due a good game." Why fail to adapt your playing style against superior opposition? "Because on our day, we can beat anyone." Perhaps, stubborn top-flight managers are just as delusional as hopeless gamblers who think they can beat the system.
Decision fatigue is a phenomenon where individuals forced to make a large number of high-pressure decisions see their ability to make sound choices deteriorate over time. Decision fatigue makes tired shoppers more susceptible to the impulse buy items in supermarkets, reducing the individual's reserves of self-control. It's not inconceivable that a stressed, harried and heavily scrutinised England manager, thrown into the bear pit of an international tournament, may make impulsive, irrational choices based on decision fatigue – like placing his principle goalscorer on corner kick duty, for example.
Football managers are, by definition, highly egotistical – if one of your mates started referring to themselves as 'The Special One' without irony, they'd immediately be cut from the group chat. Top coaches are paid millions every year, so inevitably, there's a pressure to make the kind of calls that others wouldn't. They have to justify those paychecks somehow, so is it beyond the realm of possibility that they might make a decision based on its sheer audaciousness alone? A kind of "if this comes off, I'll look like a genius" rationale that impedes rational decision-making and encourages risk-taking?
It's as good an explanation as any. And when your club's manager makes a particularly bewildering decision, it's comforting to think that there might be at least some form of method in the madness – no matter how poorly applied.
- Louis Rossi