By Graham Ruthven
Jocks and nerds don't like each other. It's a conflict that underpins more than just playground politics. High school reunions and LinkedIn pages often reveal how nerds tend to eventually become the more successful, wealthier and basically better people, but sport is the domain of the jock. Or at least it was. English soccer is starting to blur the lines. If the player can be described as the jock, the manager is increasingly becoming the nerd.
Up until recently the progression from player to manager was almost assumed. Great players made great managers. Their experience as a player was enough to stand them in good stead as a coach.
The success of Kenny Dalglish, who was promoted to manager of Liverpool straight off the field, set a precedent. He led the club to three league championships and two FA Cup titles in six years. Around the same time Franz Beckenbauer, arguably the greatest defender of all time, was named German national team manager with no previous experience in that role, lifting the 1990 World Cup as a coach 16 years after lifting it as a player.
Since then the link has become less pronounced. Soccer is no longer an education taught solely on the field. Alan Shearer, a genuine English soccer legend and the most prolific goalscorer in Premier League history, found that out after being fast tracked into management, albeit for a short spell at the end of the 2008-2009 season. The thinking was that his standing and aura in the sport would be enough to motivate his Newcastle United side. They were relegated eight games later.
Another legend of the Premier League era, Roy Keane failed to translate his leadership on the field into management, leaving Sunderland after just two seasons at the club. Successful and popular ex-players would get the job because they are an easy appointment; accepted by fans, sponsors and even players more readily.
But soccer is starting to learn. The correlation between great player and great manager is overstated, if evident at all, and clubs are increasingly turning to the nerds. The England team may have already turned to the biggest nerd in soccer, Roy Hodgson, a man who likes to quote Nobel laureates in his team talks.
As a player Hodgson only made 59 appearances for non-league team Gravesend and Northfleet, instead training to become a coach from the age of 23. Now he holds the most prominent role in English soccer. His career path was once considered unique, an individual case, but now it is an ascendency followed by several Premier League managers.
With Rene Meuelensteen's appointment at Fulham earlier this month there are now eight men managing in the Premier League without the experience of playing at the top-level.
In fact, as it stands five of the top six teams in the Premier League - Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Everton and Spurs - are coached by men of little or no top-level playing experience. Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas - have no professional playing experience whatsoever, while Jose Mourinho, the current Chelsea boss and arguably the greatest manager in soccer right now, only reached the Portuguese second division as a player.
But the precedent for soccer nerd turned soccer trailblazer was set by a man northeast of Stamford Bridge, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.
When Wenger joined Arsenal in 1996 he found a club entrenched in English soccer's old-fashioned values. Stalwarts of the club were reluctant to accept the Frenchman's methods. Tony Adams notes in his autobiography his first impression of Wenger, not your typical soccer man. "What does this Frenchman know about soccer?" he writes. "He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher."
Of course since then Wenger has gone on to become the greatest manager in the history of Arsenal, currently holding the title as English soccer's longest serving boss. Nobody mocks his academic appearance any more.
So what impact have these people had on soccer? Can the rise in data analysis and sabermetrics in the sport be attributed to the influx of smart men into top-level jobs?
Every Premier League club now employs a team of video and data analysts, sitting in dark back-rooms, illuminated by the soft glow of computer monitors. Some clubs employ more than others, and some ignore the conclusions these analysts reach, but nonetheless graphs and pie-charts are now as much a part of the sport as the dressing room blackboard.
Billy Beane, the Oakland A's GM and subject of Michael Lewis' book Moneyball, once predicted that soccer would follow baseball in becoming "more of a science" and indeed the sport has embraced data analysis in a way that seemed unlikely even a few years ago.
It's peculiar that soccer was so averse to the study of data for so long, because for many fans their fandom is fueled by a love of numbers. "The world has no order and math is a way of seeing it in an order," explains Alex Bellos in his book Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life. "League tables have an order. And the calculations you need to do for them are so simple: it's nothing more than your three times table."
Drawing statistics from such a fluid game, like soccer, can throw up some interesting conclusions. For instance, according to research conducted by Charles Reep, one of the first people to use data analysis in soccer, 99.29 percent of attacks end in failure.
Another stat shows that in the Premier League only 2 percent of shots from outside the area result in a goal, despite players shooting from that distance frequently. The reason for this? Goals from outside the box are memorable and are treated as a gauge of a player's superior ability. Emotion taints a player's judgement, something data analysis can help with.
Some aren't convinced. Johan Cruijff, a pioneer of the famed 'Total Football' philosophy, is currently on a witch-hunt to rid Ajax of all computers and data-based systems. Harry Redknapp once told a crowd of influential officials at a soccer leadership conference that "numbers couldn't tell him what his eyes could."
There remains a resistance to data analysis in soccer. Managers fear that one day the interpretation of these numbers will be so formulaic their role will become less important. They don't like data telling them what to do and how to tailor their judgement.
English soccer has always been suspicious of educated, well-versed people. When Villas-Boas took to using a notepad to jot down observations during games the Daily Mail ridiculed the Portuguese coach. "AVB uses £5.99 notepad," read the headline, "but is there a page on what to do when you're down to 10 men during the North London derby."
The archetypal English soccer manager, who values brawn over brains, is becoming a relic of a bygone age, although it hasn't stopped some clubs from making the same mistakes.
Manchester United made their first error in moving on from the Alex Ferguson age when they hired David Moyes on the premise of him being a "chip off the old block." Ferguson was the last of a dying breed. "If you showed him a laptop," an anonymous employee of Ferguson's snarled in the book Soccernomics, "he'd think it was a place mat."
Given soccer's development of thought over the past decade there could come a time when some of the best and brightest minds are working in the front offices of soccer clubs. The nerds have forced their way into the jocks' den and they don't plan on leaving soon.
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Graham Ruthven is a soccer writer based in the UK. He has written for the New York Times, ESPN, MSN Sport and Scottish TV, among others. Follow him @grahamruthven.