Is the Role of the Bundesliga Manager Changing to Become a… Manager?

From the Touchline

An odd shift is happening in the United States, and it is not the one you probably assume I am thinking. In the U.S. professional baseball league, the role of the manager is quickly changing. How those roles are changing, and its impact on the business of the sport, could be a preview of what we could soon see in the Bundesliga.

To establish the narrative, pardon me while I briefly dive into a discussion of the “American past time”. While the baseball manager is not the god-like figure managers are in football and American football, for decades a manager played a critical role in the strategic priorities of the team. Managers were judged by a number of factors, but the largest was wins and losses. A manager who won, and won championships, was valued above any. This is unusual when you consider the arbitrary nature of baseball playoffs, especially in the modern format.

Early this century, the book Moneyball exposed the Oakland Athletics new way of managing the club, which was leaning heavily on analytics for certain statistics to build a competitive club. Other teams copied them (and clubs too like Liverpool) and eventually baseball sides started to build themselves on what baseball analytics determined was the highest percentage of positive outcomes in every situation. The results have changed how teams are built and what skills are emphasized, and that has now changed how managers are viewed. This offseason, the winningest active manager in the sport and two managers who have won championships in the past decade were relieved of their duties. This is not odd, winning managers are fired frequently. What is odd is who replaced them, and it’s not them. Unlike other sports, where managers with track records of success can always find a job, all three remain unemployed. Who is being hired instead are young, former players who have backgrounds in analytics. When hired, their knowledge of analytics is noted by management and media as the reason for the hiring.

Back to Germany; what does this mean for a league where Bayern Munich has just hired a manager whose led the club three times previous? There are two big reasons why younger, less experienced, numbers-driven managers are being hired in baseball. The first is they are generally cheaper, and save management money that is increasingly being used on rising player salaries. The second is because of the reliance on numbers, things like gut instinct and personality are no longer needed in baseball. Yes, personality is needed to keep 25 professionals happy during a long season, but you shouldn’t need “instinct” to position a player or make a substitution when the numbers clearly tell you the best move. Baseball managers are technocrats, reliant upon what the front office economics majors tell them is best; if they fail to implement the plan and numbers, they are easily replaced.

The parallels to the Bundesliga are eerie if you consider it. Like baseball, players expenditures are rapidly increasing; a €20m player is of a different quality in 2017 than in 2012. We like to assume managers make a difference, that their tactics and team sheets drive success or lead to failure. However, front offices are increasingly become more involved with managing clubs and the addition of executives in charge of scouting and player acquisitions means less power for a manager and more power to owners and club CEOs. Analytics has yet to conquer football like it has baseball, but you can see how statistics about the best place to play players or make passes based on opposition players speed or interception percentage. Clubs would undoubtedly love to gain advantages over rivals by having numbers to plug into the playbook and position players accordingly. Even now, trainings are full of biometric statics and measurements designed to identify peak performance and eliminate poor workouts. Why not do the same on the pitch?

It may be a stretch to equate baseball and the Bundesliga in how they handle managers, but the appeal of the new managerial model in baseball to club executives is clear. Less expensive, more pliable, easily replaceable managers who respond to directives from management and essentially act like personality managers for egotistical players? That is every Board Chairman’s dream. As more and more analytics are introduced to the sport, keep an eye on who gets hired in managerial vacancies and what their special set of skills are.