Does Alan Pardew have a case for Premier League manager of the year?
What makes a Manager of the Year?
Is it being the manager of the league's best club? In that case, in the Premier League you should honor Jose Mourinho, as Chelsea have been clearly deserving title winners. (The League Managers' Association did just award the Blues' boss, but Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe took the top overall prize.)
If you want to honor the league's most surprising team, then surely Ronald Koeman deserves recognition for his keeping Southampton in contention after last summer's apparent fire sale. But this year offers a more unusual candidate for the league's most impressive manager: Alan Pardew.
He began the season as the subject of a significant fan movement to oust him at Newcastle. But as his Magpies turned their season around and even took a victory off previously unbeaten Chelsea, those calls died down. When Newcastle appeared safe from relegation for another season around the holidays, it seemed that Pardew's year might be effectively over. Then his old club, Crystal Palace, came calling.
Desperate to stay in the league and mired in 18th place, they bought out his contract from Newcastle owner Mike Ashley and gave Pardew the reins. Palace had won only three league matches before Pardew took over on Jan. 2; they doubled that total over the following three weeks as they knocked off top-four contenders Tottenham and Southampton, along with relegation rival Burnley. The wins have kept coming; Palace beat Liverpool 3-1 in Steven Gerrard's final game at Anfield, and with a victory over Swansea on the final day, Pardew's club pulled off a remarkable top-10 finish.
While Palace rose, Newcastle fell. Interim manager John Carver was unable to reproduce Pardew's success at St. James' Park, steering the club to a 3-4-12 record since taking over and very nearly leading them to relegation until a final day win over West Ham.
Overall, Newcastle and Palace with Pardew have a combined 17-6-14 record; without him, they went 6-12-21. On a per-match basis, Pardew had these two clubs ticking along as the combined eighth-best side in the league yet without him at the helm, they'd have the league's worst record.
Now, it is hard to say what degree of a team's success can be attributed to the manager. Sometimes a club just hits a nice run of form or goes on a hot finishing streak. In the case of Pardew's season, however, the indicators point more toward good management than simple good fortune.
First, his teams have good underlying statistics that back up their records. Even when the Magpies started the season 0-3-3, they were actually outshooting their opponents 89 to 63. By expected goals, a statistical measure of the quality of chances created, Newcastle had an expected goals difference of about plus-two. The club had been playing mostly good football but struggling to finish their chances, and it was no accident when the results began to match the chances.
Their form turned bad only when Pardew left. Under his management, Newcastle had been attempting about five shots per match from the danger zone, the area in the center of the box from which most goals are scored. With Carver as manager, that number fell to about 3.5 per match. Defensively, the numbers show little change, with Newcastle conceding about 11.5 shots and about five danger zone shots per match under both Pardew and Carver. It was the attack that drove Newcastle's second-half decline.
The statistics at Palace are similar. Defensively they remain about the same, but Palace nearly doubled their rate of danger zone shots attempted per match, from about three per match up to six. Overall, Pardew's effect on Crystal Palace and Newcastle can be seen in the improvement in high-quality chances created in the danger zone.
Again, this improvement in attack looks less like a fluke and more like something the manager helped to engineer. Pardew is far from a radical or innovative tactician, but he has shown the key managerial ability to tailor relatively simple systems that get the most out of his best players.
At both clubs, Pardew recognized that his strongest attacking players, midfielders Moussa Sissoko at Newcastle and Yannick Bolasie at Palace, were most effective with the ball at their feet in the open field. He therefore constructed counterattacking setups aimed at striking quickly, tactics that played easily to his players' strengths.
The statistics bear this out. Not only did Pardew's sides create more shots from dangerous positions, but they created more shots off fast-moving, direct attacks. A "fast attack" is an attacking move that, from the moment possession is won until a shot is attempted, covers ground at a speed greater than 5 yards per second.
Such fast attacking moves are effective because they often strike before the defense can regain their shape. My research has shown that a shot from an attack at a speed over 5 yards per second or faster is converted, on average, about twice as often as a shot from an attack slower than 1 yard per second. So again, Pardew's tactics result in high-quality chances.
Over a combined 37 matches, Pardew's "Newcastle Palace" would definitively lead the league in shots attempted following fast attacking moves. By implementing simple counterattacking tactics and freeing his best players to create in the open field, Alan Pardew engineered some exciting football at both clubs. More importantly, he helped his teams win games.
It is arguably because of Alan Pardew that neither Newcastle nor Crystal Palace has been relegated. Both clubs played more than poorly enough under other managers to face the drop, but they were top-half quality under Pardew and that has kept them up. Saving two different clubs from relegation forms a powerful case for manager of the year.
Michael Caley is a writer bringing a statistical approach to football analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @MC_of_A.