For those that don’t know, Moneyball was a book by Michael Lewis that focused on the recruitment process adopted by Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane as he tried to build a championship baseball team on a budget that was one of the lowest in Major League Baseball (MLB). Beane moved away from conventional scouting methods and adopted a different approach based on sabermetrics this is a specialized approach based on player statistics, which would allow a team to find value in those players that the rest of conventional Baseball would undervalue.
Following the sacking of Liverpool’s director of football Damian Comolli, an advocate of a statistical approach to player recruitment, there was an outcry from the football community that a ‘Moneyball’ philosophy in football did not and could not work as demonstrated by Comolli’s signings at Liverpool. You can see why people have this view. If you look at the stats during Comolli’s time at the club, Liverpool have spent £115.8m on nine players that have done little to boost their league success.
But let’s get this right, ‘Moneyball’ (sabermetrics) is a scientific systematic approach to Baseball which cannot be fully applied to football, although its principles can be adapted. The adaptation to football is called ‘Soccernomics’. Nothing will change the fact that Comolli has appeared to be largely unsuccessful at Liverpool, but there is a huge place for a statistical/Moneyball approach in football when it comes to player recruitment. But this isn’t a new approach despite recent publicity around ‘Moneyball’ making it seem to many like it is.
Comolli is said to have initially taken an interest in a statistical approach whilst he work with Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Wenger is one manager that has done exceptionally well in signing young talent from undervalued markets and getting a return by way of on-pitch performance or resale value.
Nicolas Anelka is an example of Wenger’s philosophy on how players should be bought and sold. Anelka was signed by Arsenal as a 17-year-old from PSG and cost £500,000 despite only having played 10 games for the club in two seasons. His impact at Arsenal wasn’t instant, his second season is where he made headway, and in his third he managed 17 goals in 35 league games before Real Madrid bought him for £22.3m. Such a story must be as close to football porn as it gets for Wenger who holds a master’s in economics.
In a Moneyballesque move, Wenger bought in Sylvain Wiltord, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry from the transfer fee received for Anelka – 3 players who would easily replace what Anelka gave to the team. Such a move echoes the system used by Billy Beane when faced with replacing the Oakland A’s star men who had been offered contracts by clubs with much larger budgets, he replaced the player in question with 3 players who combined, would be as effective. Wenger is an expert in building teams around unknown talent that he manages to scout – he took a young George Weah to Monaco, Patrick Vieira, Kolo Toure and Cesc Fabregas to Arsenal who all went on to become big players and Arsenal reaped the reward financially.
Wenger is a huge advocate of statistics, he uses them to analyze his own teams performance as well as when looking at players coming in. Wenger understands the types of players he wants that will fit in with Arsenal’s philosophy and he makes sure statistically they work in the right way for the good of the team. If player performance stats drop and no longer fit in with how he wants his team to play, he moves that player on – like he did with Gilberto Silva after his stats on time spent in possession of the ball kept rising.
The Premier League is full of stories of managers working on tiny budgets, having to sign players who can not only compete, but fit in to a system that gives the best chances of optimizing performance. Swansea and Newcastle are just two that spring to mind.
Around the world, adopting a ‘Moneyball’ philosophy of finding value in undervalued places has become key to survival and is used by teams who have to operate like the Oakland A’s on a budget that is a lot lower than the teams they are competing against. Italy’s Udinese are a shining light when it comes to this. Udinese know that they have to think differently because they do not have the money to compete – to coin a phrase used by the character of Billy Beane in the movie of Moneyball “we have got to think differently, we are the last dog at the bowl, see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies”.
For Udinese, their system is life or death stuff and to make it work and give themselves the edge they scout in places like Chile and Colombia as opposed to the more expensive Brazil and Argentina whilst also looking to Africa, Switzerland, Denmark and Slovenia. The results have been amazing, Alexis Sanchez was signed for €2m but sold to Barcelona for €26m in a deal that could rise to €37m. Not only are they good in the transfer market, they are also great at operating on a low wage bill, whilst also competing in Europe and currently sit in fourth place in Serie A.
It is clear that elements of a ‘Moneyball’ or ‘Soccernomics’ approach are already being used throughout the football world. The economic climate has forced clubs to rethink their practices and policies because the margin for error is so small, everything must be taken in to account and if it isn’t, teams could be out of business. The smart clubs already have done this, leaving the rest to catch up.
Having said this, there is no room for purely a statistics approach. Comolli has already failed with signings like Kevin Prince-Boateng and Heurelho Gomes at Spurs and Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam – all these players stats were second to none in the areas Comolli looked for, but more human flaws have meant they will never be the best. Life is more than just numbers on a screen as every individual and every team is different and this is where statistics are floored. Statistics will only have more influence in football as time goes on, it is about finding a balance and a mix, but I am sure on one thing…statistics are here to stay and are changing football forever.
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