10 March 2017

Victims of their Own Success: A Coach’s Perspective on the Sophomore Slump

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

After making history with Leicester City last season, Claudio Ranieri is now out of a job after the Foxes parted ways with the Italian manager after a woeful defence of their English Premier League Crown. Half a world away, a cricket coach offers a sympathetic voice. Paddy Upton, coach of several cricket sides around the globe including the Sydney Thunder, helps CONQA unpack the struggles a championship winning coach can go through.

 Claudio Ranieri brought Leicester City their first league title in the club's history but that was not enough to save him as he was shown the exit door after a poor defence of their title.

Claudio Ranieri brought Leicester City their first league title in the club's history but that was not enough to save him as he was shown the exit door after a poor defence of their title.

Nine months ago, Claudio Ranieri was full of smiles. The Italian manager had just achieved the miraculous by taking Leicester City, 5000-1 outsiders, to nirvana by lifting the English Premier League trophy after hammering Everton 3-1 at the King Power Stadium.

With a team devoid of superstars assembled on a comparatively shoestring budget, Leicester City capitalised on the struggles of the usual title contenders to seal a historic triumph. Ranieri was universally praised and was awarded the honour of FIFA Manager of the Year.

Now he is out of a job after the club’s Thai owners grew concerned with a string of poor results that left the defending champions languishing in the lower reaches of the league. The sacking of a football manager after poor results is an all too common phenomenon, but this one has left a sour taste in the mouth for those of us who still cling to the notion that sport is guided by romance and passion rather than the brutal pursuit of results.

Back to back 3-1 victories over Liverpool and Hull after Ranieri’s departure have seen Leicester eke out a little distance from the relegation zone. At the time writing this piece, the Foxes were in 15th place, one spot below their final position in the season before they won their title.

Leicester had no right to win a league often dubbed the most competitive in the world. A look at this season’s table highlights Leicester’s achievements last year as the six richest clubs now comfortably occupy the top six positions. Leicester’s current season can be viewed as a regression to the norm rather than a dramatic capitulation from perennial champions.

If anything, Ranieri is a victim of his own success and whether or not you agree with the decision to sack him, it is hard not to feel sympathy for one of the most likable managers in the game. If the Italian is looking for compassion, he can find it Cape Town where a fellow head coach, albeit in different sport, fully understands the struggles that he went through this campaign.

Paddy Upton is a well-travelled cricket coach from South Africa who has enjoyed success both as an assistant and the man in charge with various teams around the world. As Gary Kirsten’s deputy, he helped guide both South Africa and India to the number one Test ranking as well as claim the 2011 World Cup crown with the sub-continent giants.

His most recent success came in last year’s Big Bash League, Australia’s T20 domestic competition, where, as head coach, he steered the Sydney Thunder from the bottom echelons of the competition to champions. Like Ranieri though, Upton was unable to replicate that success and finished last this season. This makes him well placed to comment on the trials a coach faces after a harrowing regression follows a monumental victory and has some empathy for the now former Leicester boss.

“It’s unfortunate what happened to Ranieri,” Upton says. “I don’t understand the environment he was operating in but it would seem that the people who made the decision to sack him are overly attached to results. They don’t have a healthy or rounded view of how to adequately assess a coach.”

Upton is a firm believer that “commentators”, his term for anyone who judges players and coaches, be they fans, the media, club owners or sponsors, do not fully understand the processes involved in coaching an elite sports team and therefore only judge an individual’s worth on results.

When I press him on the matter, arguing that elite sport is all about results on the field, he remains resolute. “Coaches don’t produce results. Players do. I didn’t score any runs or take any wickets in last season’s winning campaign and I didn’t score any runs or take any wickets in this season’s campaign. Coaches provide structures and support for players to achieve their own success. The attachment to results in professional sport is one of the main contributors to poor results. That is the source of pressure. Judging a coach on results is a woefully inadequate way of judging how a coach is doing.”

As idealistic as Upton’s sentiment may be, he does make a compelling argument. The worth of a player is not solely based on basic statistics. When selecting a batsman for a Test side, selectors will obviously look at his average and runs scored but other variables play a crucial role. What is his fourth innings average? What is his average against spin? What is his average in a particular batting position? Does he score runs on fast wickets? How does he handle pressure? Is he a positive team player?

Upton has a colourful way of highlighting the shortcoming in our assessment of a coach’s worth. “Judging a coach on results is like judging a catwalk model by their looks. She might have a slim body but is it because of cigarettes, coffee and cocaine? Or is it because of an organic diet and a healthy lifestyle? They might look the same but have used different methods to get there.”

 Paddy Upton (second from right) celebrates with his Sydney Thunder team after winning the 2015/16 Big Bash League.

Paddy Upton (second from right) celebrates with his Sydney Thunder team after winning the 2015/16 Big Bash League.

Until such time as Upton gets his wish and coaches are judged on a wider spectrum of variables, results remain the best way to judge the people in charge and for Ranieri, like so many other sacked managers, those results paved his route to the exit door.

But why were the results so poor? No one in their right mind expected Leicester to replicate their miraculous triumph but the sheer drop in performance that they have experienced this season has been alarming. Once again, Upton can relate.

In the six seasons that the eight team Big Bash League has existed, the Sydney Thunder has finished last on four occasions, second last on one occasion and has won the tournament once. Their victory, like Leicester’s, would seem to be an aberration rather than a sign of things to come.

Upton’s men squeaked into the semi-finals last season by finishing fourth on the log but it could have been so different had a few umpiring decisions gone against them. “Our leading run scorer, Usman Khawaja, could have been given out in two of the league matches we went on to win,” Upton explains. “We were that close to not even reaching the knockout stage. Those are the margins that determine how we judge a coach; things go your way and you’re labelled as great, if things don’t go well then you get the sack.”

For Ranieri and Leicester last season, luck was on their side as all the usual title contenders were well below par. Furthermore, Leicester was not ranked in the top five throughout the season for shots per game or shots on target per game. They had the third worst possession stats and the second worst pass completion percentage. Ten of their 68 goals came from form the penalty spot, four more than any other side in the league, and their final tally of 81 points and 23 wins are the sixth and third lowest respectively for a champion team in the Premier League era.

These stats demonstrate that the Foxes did not blow away the competition last season but found the planets aligned in their favour. “When I won with the Thunder, we were not the best team in the competition but were actually closer to the fifth best team,” Upton admits. “We were hardly the finished product.”

Neither were Leicester and there frailties have been compounded by multiple factors that Upton believes have contributed to their woes. “Last season they were complete underdogs,” says Upton. “It is very easy to arrive at a ground as an underdog. This season they have a target on their back as champions. We also felt that. Everyone wants to beat the champions.”

For both Leicester and Sydney, the loss of key senior players hamstrung their title defence. For Leicester it was the loss of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea which left a big hole in the heart of their midfield. For the Thunder it was the departure of senior players Jacques Kallis and Michael Hussey. Upton admits “it has a big impact when big players leave. When results are going against you, players and coaches look around and start linking those guys who have gone with the success of last season. That can exacerbate the problem.”

There is also the human variable. For athletes who are not used to winning, the exaltation of that victory can play on the mind. Not every team or athlete can translate once off success into something dynastic.

“More than 80% of people who die on the mountain do so on the way down,” Upton says. “Managers who create dynasties are able to spot red flags in their players, either performance wise or in their personalities, and fix the problem before they hinder the team. Complacency can creep into a side that places a strong emphasis on results (in this case a title the previous season) and not on the processes that got them there.”

Unlike Ranieri, Upton has a chance to replicate the success he once tasted with Sydney Thunder. He still has a year left on his contract and is confident that if everything clicks for him once again, there is no reason why he can’t lift another trophy.