Thursday, 16 February 2012

Record Signings in the EPL.Knowing When To Let Go.

Choosing which team to follow can be an ingrained rite of passage passed down like small children at a pre War sellout or simply the result of a haphazard whim,but once joined the relationship is usually for life.No matter how inept,incompetent the team or disloyal some of it's players,there's always a strong enough bond that says "stick with it" and the good times will return.Managers though have to be more hard nosed about when to let go of an under performing asset who promised much,cost more,but failed to deliver.

Unlike some sports where a General Manager supplies the talent and the Head Coach then gets the best out of that talent on the pitch,football allows the manger a huge say in assembling his squad.Therefore any purchase,but especially an expensive one,will create a strong bond between buyer and purchased.Neither party wants a deal to be a failure,but there exists a stronger and partly irrational desire on the part of the buyer to make the deal a success even if on field performance is telling everyone otherwise.Managers sometimes make purchases that are mistakes.For any number of reason a player may not perform to anywhere near the level that justifies his price tag,but all too frequently the mistake is compounded by a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the mistake,cut the losses and move on.The irony of this loyalty to inferior,yet expensive purchases is that a failure to act decisively often leads to the rose tinted buyer paying the price with his job.

Stoke's promotion season in 2007/08 came as a pleasant,but unexpected surprise to it's largely long suffering fans.Little had changed squadwise from the previous year to make a typically bungled foray into the playoff lottery the height of expectation.Instead a 17 game unbeaten run from late November onwards gave the team a big enough cushion to allow them to follow WBA into the EPL automatically in the runners up spot.The final ten games had seen the goals dry up just at the wrong time and a scoring rate below one a match would have caused irreparable damage had the defence not proved to be similarly miserly.A nervy 0-0 on the last Sunday of the season against a Leicester side fighting to stay in the division was an encapsulation of their last quarter strengths and failings..

A Tom Jones impersonator and a man dressed as a dog celebrate Stoke's elevation to the top division.

Aware that goal scoring had been a problem in the final stages of their run to the Premiership,Stoke's manager,Tony Pulis almost at once splashed a then club record £5.5 million on Reading's Dave Kitson.But the deal went sour almost from the outset and in the 12 games that Kitson started that season he failed to score and mustered less than a shot a game of which just two required the keeper to intervene.Stoke picked up just nine points from a possible 36 in that 12 game stretch,just the kind of return you would expect from a team who were also finding Premiership strikers much more of a handful and were allowing almost two goals a game.

A Kitson injury early in a customary Stoke win over WBA made dropping their record signing easy and in the next 11 games they managed to average just over a point a game.Tellingly the improvement came from the defensive side of the ball and the goals against column averaged just over 1 goal per game instead of being just shy of two.Goals scored per game were the same as they had been with Kitson in the team,so his contribution was being repeated by the supposedly inferior strikers who had gained Stoke promotion previously.

By January 2009 he was permanently replaced for the season by transfer window signing,James Beattie.And three times as many shots,just under half of which were on target and seven goals from 15 starts flew from the boot of the new man resulting in 24 points at over 1.5 points per game and secured safety for the Potters with a game or two to spare.

Part of the problem. Part of the solution.
The interesting aspect of this slice of Stoke City history is not contained in the dry narrative of goals scored,games won or lost,but in the thought processes behind the managerial decisions and the twist of luck and chance that combined to make Beattie a Stoke hero and Kitson not.Was Pulis able to distance himself from the buyer's pride that often exists when large purchases go wrong and was he planning to replace his big money signing even before injury intervened prior to the transfer window ? Or would he have been heartened enough by a couple of late December goals to have kept faith with the price tag rather than the on field performance.

A clue to the answer may be found in the subsequent season.Both Kitson and Beattie started 11 games,although they only played together once in a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea.Kitson doubled his shots per game ratio,but Beattie halved his from the previous campaign and they each managed to find the net just three times.Last year's under achiever rose to the heights of mediocrity and last season's hero drifted sadly down to meet him.By the time of Stoke's Christmas party,neither player had a future at the club.

Small sample size almost certainly exaggerated the real difference in ability of both strikers.But if Pulis was able to quickly evaluate each player's likely contribution to Stoke's survival season and act decisively to maximize the return and then divorce himself from the emotional investment he had in each player to move them on a year down the line,then he possesses a valuable managerial trait.

This type of detached decision making process may also partly explain the "new manager" bounce that sometimes comes with a change at the top.An appalling run of results is often proceeded by a less appalling set of results whether the manager stays or goes.But a new coach is not tied to seeing through a faltering project to the same degree as the present boss who presumably helped to create the squad to start with.James McClean at Sunderland was a long term project who never played under Steve Bruce,but has featured in 7 wins,one draw and 2 defeats under new boss Martin O'Neill.

In short managers might have to be ruthless in cutting their losses and making changes if they want to stay on the managerial roundabout.

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