Keith Fray Following Fabio

Something has got the English media — and to some extent the population at large — in a periodic fit of frenzy. Austerity starting to bite? One banker’s bonus too many?

No, the issue is who should succeed Fabio Capello as the manager of the England football team, often referred to as the ‘second most important job in the country’. Tottenham manager, Harry Redknapp, seems to be the likely successor.

Capello may be a hard act to follow. Despite an embarrassing exit from the 2010 World Cup at the hands of Germany, he surprisingly comes top in a table of England managers since the second world war ranked by the percentage of games won.

Using data from Opta (and permanent England managers only), this is the ranking:

Played Won Drawn Lost % won
Capello 2008-12 42 28 8 6 66.7
Ramsey 1963-74 113 69 27 17 61.1
Hoddle 1996-99 28 17 6 5 60.7
Greenwood 1977-82 55 33 12 10 60.0
Eriksson 2001-06 67 40 17 10 59.7
Winterbottom 1946-62 139 78 33 28 56.1
McClaren 2006-07 18 9 4 5 50.0
Robson 1982-90 95 47 30 18 49.5
Revie 1974-77 29 14 8 7 48.3
Venables 1994-96 23 11 11 1 47.8
Taylor 1990-93 38 18 13 7 47.4
Keegan 1999-2000 18 7 7 4 38.9

But to the football fan it surely can’t be true that the taciturn Italian, Capello, was a better manager than the (admittedly equally taciturn) World Cup winner, Alf Ramsey.

Or that Terry Venables — manager during the 1996 European Championships, when England fell to a semi-final penalty shoot-out with the Germans — can be so low down the list. Others seem intuitively too high or too low.

For the regular data user this raises a familiar and interesting question. If the numbers throw up surprises — at odds with our prior expectations (and we all have them) — at what point do we either change our methodology or change our assumptions?

Percentage of wins is, admittedly, a crude measure. A more sophisticated exercise assigning weights to the importance of games might produce a more intuitively satisfying result.

On the other hand, maybe it really is our expectations that are wrong.

Bobby Robson, for example,  got closer than anyone since Ramsey to winning a tournament, but his World Cup semi-final in 1990 (lost, penalties, Germany) and the 1986 defeat to Diego Maradona’s “hand of god” goal has eclipsed non-qualification for the 1984 European championships and ignominious exit in 1988 in the public memory.

And perhaps the data is telling us something we don’t want to hear — perhaps Capello really was that good and made the best of the meagre resources at his disposal.

In his book,“Why England Lose: and other curious football phenomena explained”, the FT’s Simon Kuper (with academic, Stefan Szymanski)  uses a model based on national income, population and experience of international football to show that in fact the England team generally over-perform.

Can Harry eclipse his recent predecessors and win a World Cup?  The data says probably not.