Why Spurs under Poch aren't at all like Dortmund's final season under Klopp

The results might be similar, but the comparison falls short.

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Are Spurs really burnt out under Poch?

First, apologies for what is basically a steady stream of links from the Athletic lately, but they seem to have monopolized football coverage now, which…can’t be good?

That said, here is another Athletic story that I feel is worth responding to. It’s by Oliver Kay, and it posits a theory about why Pochettino’s Spurs are shit at the moment. Heads up that this article is basically an excuse for me to talk about Jurgen Klopp’s final season at Borussia Dortmund, which should be studied in detail by anyone interested in football analytics, in my opinion.

In a nutshell, Kay thinks the reason why the once good Tottenham Hotspur are now decidedly mediocre, even though very little has changed under Poch’s leadership, is because he’s reached his seventh year in charge and his players are burning out:

Jack Pitt-Brooke and Charlie Eccleshare reported recently that some of the longer-serving players feel jaded by the “same old sessions and messages” under Pochettino. “The players are not revolting against him,” one source told The Athletic earlier this month. “But they’ve been driven so hard, they don’t know if they’ve got anything left to give.”

There is a natural instinct to say “diddums” – those poor multi-millionaire footballers, who feel they have nothing left to give the manager and the club who has done so much for them – but there is a serious aspect to this. Seven years is an eternity in football these days. Seven years working under a manager like Pochettino or Klopp, who, in their different ways, demand 100 per cent intensity 100 per cent of the time, must be exhausting – for players and manager alike.

This is a little like a play on the third-season syndrome that seems to affect managers like Jose Mourinho.

I’m not saying there’s no merit to this, necessarily, but I will say that I question the prime example he offers of another club that suffered the ‘seventh season syndrome’: Borussia Dortmund.

Coming off a Bundesliga season in which they finished in second place, in 2014-15, Dortmund, then managed by Jurgen Klopp, went on a horrendous run of sixteen games from September to February where they managed only two wins, ten losses and four draws. This disastrous form put them in the relegation places for a time and on the front page of a lot of German sports papers.

Though Dortmund regained their form to finish seventh (more on this crucial detail in a second), Klopp saw the writing on the wall: he resigned once the season finished. As Kay writes:

When [Klopp] sat down with chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke and sporting director Michael Zorc in early April, he smiled and said, “We’re all thinking the same thing here, aren’t we? I’ll tell you now. I’ll go.”

That scenario, unthinkable to all at Dortmund when Klopp signed a new five-year contract just 18 months earlier, now felt like the best thing for all concerned. “We agreed that things had run their course,” Watzke said in Bring The Noise. “It wasn’t a case of his effect on the team having worn off or anything like that, but seven years was a very long time. We had felt it for a while. No one had dared to admit it.”

Putting aside for the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson was equally demanding of his players and managed to stay on the job for 26 years, using Kloppo as an example of a seven year itch isn’t great. To understand why, we need to look at why Liverpool hired Klopp in the first place.

Mainz 2-0 Dortmund

A few months ago, I literally made a fist-pump in my office reading an article on the internet.

This is the passage that made me do it, from a New York Times profile of Liverpool’s director of research, Ian Graham, and why he recommended his club hire Klopp to be manager despite such a poor ending to his Dortmund career:

Graham spread out his papers on the table in front of him. He began talking about a game that Borussia Dortmund, the German club that Klopp coached before joining Liverpool, had played the previous season. He noted that Dortmund had numerous chances against the lightly regarded Mainz, a smaller club that would end up finishing in 11th place. Yet Klopp’s team lost, 2-0. Graham was starting to explain what his printouts showed when Klopp’s face lit up. “Ah, you saw that game,” he said. “It was crazy. We killed them. You saw it!”

Graham had not seen the game. But earlier that fall, as Liverpool was deciding who should replace the manager it was about to fire, Graham fed a numerical rendering of every attempted pass, shot and tackle by Dortmund’s players during Klopp’s tenure into a mathematical model he had constructed. Then he evaluated each of Dortmund’s games based on how his calculations assessed the players’ performances that day. The difference was striking. Dortmund had finished seventh during Klopp’s last season at the club, but the model determined that it should have finished second. Graham’s conclusion was that the disappointing season had nothing to do with Klopp, though his reputation had suffered because of it. He just happened to be coaching one of the unluckiest teams in recent history.

The reason I fist-pumped wasn’t because of Graham’s analysis of Dortmund that season—it was common knowledge to most people in analytics scene (especially Michael Caley if I recall)—but rather his decision to analyze that Mainz game specifically, because I had independently done the same thing for a company I was writing for at the time (it’s not published so I’m not naming them for now).

Me! A stupid idiot with a philosophy degree!

The reason we likely both picked the Mainz result to show Dortmund were unlucky rather than burnt out in 2014-15 is because it was the one that kicked off the sixteen game trash run. But it was still remarkable to read in print, and even more remarkable to read Klopp respond with excitement how he knew what the stats were indicating: Dortmund were more likely to have won that game.

That’s not to say Dortmund were that good, either. But they weren’t nearly as awful as their results might indicate. Here, for example, is Dortmund’s Bundesliga rank by points total throughout their bad run, courtesy of understat.com:

And here is their rank based on xPTS (calculated using xG and xGA):

Fifth place is still not breathtaking, but far better than their results would otherwise indicate.

Luck (or random variation) also helps explain why Dortmund magically went from stinking up the entire joint to winning 12 and drawing 2 of their final 16 matches. It wasn’t some major tactical switch, a transfer coup or an inspiring team talk. The team’s results instead matched their form, mostly (it was slightly better, in fact—Dortmund’s xPTS was good enough for third but they were 5th in actual points for that period).

And before you ask whether such a consistent, sustained run of luck, good or bad, is theoretically even possible, the answer is yes! It happens roughly once a season for any given club in Europe, in fact. Think Leicester City in 2015-16, or Lille in 2010-11. It may even be happening this season with Manchester United, a team that xPTS would put in fourth place but are currently in 14th.

Remember: sports is a weighted random number generator. And weighted random number generators are still more than capable of spitting out a series of heads once in a while, enough to wreck a season or lift a mediocre club to glory.

But is that what is happening to Spurs?

Well, at least so far, the answer seems to be no. Tottenham’s results are entirely in line with their xPTS. Which means something is wrong at Spurs. It may even be that—yes—the club is tired of Pochettino running them into the ground. But one thing is clear: if they are, Dortmund under Klopp is not a good comparison.