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The Stat Man: Who is the best choice out of the front-runners to become Sunderland’s manager?

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Based on statistics, who should be the man that becomes the next manager of Sunderland? Roker Report’s resident Stat Man, Steve Tiltman, compares the four front-runners and offers his opinion on who is the right man for the job.

Middlesbrough v Wigan Athletic - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I was sad to see Jack Ross leave Sunderland this week and not just because I had to tear up my already half prepared article. He was a good man who showed class in sometimes very difficult circumstances and in the face of recently intensifying criticism. I’m confident he will go on to do well and won’t be looking for a job for long. In truth, he did a good job at Sunderland, whatever his most vociferous critics say.

As is so often the case, outsiders who are not in the possession of all the necessary information are perplexed. Their opinions reflect that. ‘They’re sixth’, ‘they’re only four points behind second place with a game in hand’, ‘they’ve beaten two Premier League teams’, ‘look at the state Sunderland were in before Jack Ross came along’. All that is true of course, but it ignores some crucial context.

Sunderland must be promoted from League One this season and nothing I have seen, nor anything in the data, suggests that was going to happen if we’d continued with Ross. In fact, I suspect we were going to finish in a position lower than last season had things continued as they were. Jack Ross may well have got it right in the long term and, who knows, he could have gone on to become one of the best managers in our history with gradually improved recruitment. But, unfortunately, all that matters this season is finishing in the top two. Stewart and Charlie have been forced to roll the dice.

This leads me nicely onto the question I want to try to answer this week using numbers. Who is the best man to be our new manager?

I consider four of the five leading contenders. Unfortunately, Kevin Phillips had to miss out because there is no data to analyse for him. Which probably tells you how much of a shot in the dark handing him the keys to the manager’s office would be.

The four potential managerial appointments I consider are Gareth Ainsworth, Phil Parkinson, Paul Cook and Daniel Stendel.

Each man has managed in League One, so I went back to crunch the numbers for every League One game they’ve overseen to plot their positions on attacking and defensive effectiveness plots. You see the results below together with Sunderland’s current position for the 19/20 season.

Sunderland currently sit well outside the promotion ellipses on both the attacking and defensive effectiveness charts.

Our poor attacking effectiveness position is a result of the team’s inability to create enough chances and their over reliance on moments of quality from two or three individuals.

The poor defensive effectiveness position is, I’m afraid, in large part, down to the performance of the goalkeeper. Sunderland give away an average of 3.64 shots on target per game and, currently, the keeper is stopping only 64% of those, ranking him 14th of 24 in League One. Teams that get promoted have keepers performing at around 75%.

Before we go on, I want you to keep in mind that the manager - with a set squad - can control the horizontal position of an attacking or defensive datapoint with his approach to tactics and formation. The vertical positioning, on the other hand, is driven by two things. Firstly, the point will naturally move a up as it moves right (and vice versa). i.e. If your team is scoring from 40% of shots on target and you increase your shots on target from 3 to 5, you will move from scoring an average of 1.2 goals per game to 2.0 goals. Secondly, it is determined by player quality. i.e. If your team is scoring from 25% of their shots on target then you sign a 30+ goals per season striker and that proportion goes from 25% to 45%, the datapoint will move up. The same principles apply to defence.

This analysis assumes the squad is set and the new man will not be able to bring in Pickford, Ronaldo and Messi in the January transfer window.

For shots on target resulting from their approaches to games, the men rank as follows (from worst to best) – Parkinson (4.37), Ainsworth (4.55), Cook (5.16), Stendel (5.65). As a rule of thumb, average shots on target figures of more than 5.00 are needed for promotion.

For shots on target to the opposition, they rank (again from worst to best) as follows – Ainsworth (4.36), Parkinson (3.76), Cook (3.22), Stendel (3.17).

If I assume that a new man can influence a squad’s performance directly, but not fully, with a change in approach/tactics, what impact could each have on the remainder of Sunderland’s season? Let’s see.

Unsurprisingly given what we already discovered, Stendel and Cook outperform Ainsworth and Parkinson. Furthermore, only Stendel and Cook get Sunderland to a position in the promotion ellipse.

Again, Stendel and Cook are the best performers and are the only two to shift Sunderland to the left. The other two actually make us worse defensively and, concerningly, Ainsworth even puts us in the defensive effectiveness relegation ellipse. There would be no danger of relegation though due to the distance from the attacking effectiveness relegation ellipse.

These outcomes make two important assumptions. Firstly, that Sunderland’s attacking quality score of 0.40 (40% of shots on target go in) continues. And secondly, that the goalkeeper quality continues to be 0.64. I think it is fair to assume the attacking quality will continue at 0.40, but I see no reason the goalkeeper quality cannot improve from 0.64.

Last season, the ever-present Jon McLaughlin performed at 0.76 goalkeeper quality. Lee Burge – then with Coventry - managed 0.74. I have to assume that either big Jon will return to form at some point, or the new manager will give Burge a run of games and he performs as well as last season. If either of those happen, what impact might there be on Sunderland’s promotion chances? Let’s have a look at the defensive effectiveness plot assuming the keeper is performing as expected.

Isn’t it striking how important the performance of the goalkeeper is? Last season’s Jon McLaughlin or Lee Burge would have any of the new managers in the defensive effectiveness promotion ellipse. And if you want more food for thought, consider this – Jack Ross’ Sunderland would also be comfortably in the defensive effectiveness promotion ellipse.

Getting back to our potential new managers. Who is the man for the job?

The numbers, in isolation, suggest that Daniel Stendel is the outstanding candidate with Paul Cook also scoring very highly and only a little behind. As a numbers man, the winner for me must be Stendel.

However, there are of course other factors at play that I cannot ignore. Ainsworth is a fighter who gets his teams performing above their level. Stendel has done it at a big German club and at a higher level before repeating his achievement at Barnsley. Parkinson is the most experienced of all of them in League One and knows what it takes to succeed down here.

For me, though, if I consider what the numbers say and combine them with the fact Paul Cook knows just how to get a Power-Grigg partnership firing, I cannot look beyond the Wigan man.

If we appoint Paul Cook, there is every chance this season’s promotion can be salvaged.

Footnote: I acknowledge that this analysis ignores variables such as the quality of the squad at the time the respective manager oversaw their club. Ainsworth, for example, may not have had the players at his disposal to generate more than 4.55 shots on target for most of his time at Wycombe. Unfortunately, had I attempted to factor in squad quality to the analysis, Sunderland would have already appointed their new man before I could finish!