As former Chelsea, Paris Saint Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich assistant manager, and Carlo Ancelotti lovee, Paul Clement, was announced to have bravely assumed the mantle at defensively free-falling Swansea City earlier this week, the intrigue surrounding his appointment understandably drew a large crowd of reporters queueing up to welcome him into Premier League management. Breaking such a cherry with this press address early on Thursday afternoon, one of the local journalists posed the query of how so-called ‘Moneyball’ expert Dan Altman would affect transfer strategy at the club, especially in focus at this vital point in the season – the final transfer window before the closing months of the season. Unsurprisingly, the clean-cut Reading-born coach, who had only reached the heights of the Isthmian Division Two South and the Spartan Premier League during his playing career – ended at the age of 23 in pursuit of coaching - for Barnstead Athletic and the fascinatingly historic Corinthian Casuals, responded in plain diplomacy; that he certainly had a desire to explore such options to aid his thinking, but that the final say would always be his own.
This subject quickly got me pondering on how effective statistical experts could be, or already are, in specifically football, after their proven employment in overseas pastimes-turned-businesses; American Football and Baseball most notably. Has the utilisation of statistical analytics within football, from companies such as Opta, Prozone (recently rebranded as STATS) and Hawk-Eye, truly revolutionised the many angles in which we can now view the game, or was the introduction of such system simply an inevitable evolution in keeping with an increasingly technology-reliant age? Despite their hype, many systems have been foolishly disproven over the past few years, both on the pitch by specific teams and players, and off it by opportunist punters, so can they really be trusted with such responsibility, such as with transfers for a relegation-threatened Premier League club, with such defining vaults of cash set to tumble from their coffers if they ignominiously exit the division? These are the interrogations I will set out to answer this week, in your very first Talking Points blog of the year…
Just in case you hadn’t, by chance, been scrolling through the list of football articles on BBC Sport on Thursday evening (as I do roughly the same time each Thursday, scouring the archives for inspiration, unless a specific concept has already struck me), or been previously aware of the fabulous book and film of the same name, Moneyball, I’ll quickly run through the concept for you. Based on the economically, yet still sportingly, lucrative concept of sabermetrics, pioneered by the Oakland Athletics’ baseball team’s General Manager – equivalent to a Director of Football - Billy Beane, whose ardour for research and analysis led to the A’s to a string of four consecutive Major League Baseball playoffs – to my understanding two stages away from the World Series, for those unfamiliar, the MLB’s Final – the system, to be blunt, used statistics to be able to predict the exact point a player would reach his peak, in order to be sold at maximum price, and the numbers they would look for in a new player. Ingeniously effective, I’m sure you’d agree - even if the A’s, sometimes known as The Swingin’ A’s, never reached a World Series during Beane’s charge, coming closest in 2006, defeated by the Detroit Tigers when just one step away – and an inspiration for the future of professional baseball, notably setting the trend for another side with a slight wage budget – the Tampa Bay Rays – to win the 2008 World Series.
Beane’s, and the A’s, achievement was especially astonishing when considering the stat given that during their run to becoming the first side in 100 years of American League baseball (their division of the two the MLB is split into) to win 20 consecutive games in 2002, they had done it with an annual wage budget of just under $40,000,000 (equivalent roughly at the time to £27,000,000) – staggering, but paling in comparison to the New York Yankees’ expenditure of over $125,000,000, and the third lowest in the two divisions that year.
Where has this been repeated in football though? Well, it’s a growing trend, for clubs to follow such a path, and a prominent one when you consider the full title for Michael Lewis’ book; Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, and that, in his own words, he explored in the book “the ruthless drive for efficiency that capitalism demands”. Even though he was studying the inner sanctums of the MLB for Moneyball, it could well have been the Premier League, or any European League for a start, of today that he was apathetically condoning with that quote, with clubs like the well-publicised and respected breeding grounds of Southampton, West Ham, Sporting Lisbon and Ajax all, on differing scales than others, and amongst a few other examples I could mention, sacrificing youth prospects and key players to more financially powerful, trophy-chasing clubs, and having to buy well themselves to encourage Championship or Cup-winning runs in the near future.
Whether these sides use some of the aforementioned analytical systems to their advantage in the transfer market, or more just in game situations, is presumably a well-kept secret, which only some clubs, Swansea, now, but Brentford – themselves, alongside FC Midtjylland, owned by a statistics profiteer in Matthew Benham – much earlier, included, publicly reveal, perhaps wary of the inevitable backlash of naysaying fans and snapping journalists. Benham – for one – has yet to be proven in his analytical Chairmanship style, especially after sacking fans favourite, club servant Mark Warburton - who had led the Bees to their highest post-war league positon with the highest ever win percentage of any boss at the club - in one of his first acts, since having gone through three more managers, who have totalled 25 wins from their 69 games in charge – compared to Warburton’s 40 from 78 games, a difference of 14.05% in win percentages.
It’s fair to say though, in the case of Midtjylland, the club had this philosophy in its blood prior to his arrival, rather than enforced upon them, as long before his takeover as major shareholder in 2014, the club were making impressive profits from the sales of Simon Kjaer to Palermo for €4M and Winston Reid to West Ham for €4.26M. These two battering rams of defenders are just two of the products of their academy, made up of over 100 local clubs in their region of Jutland in Denmark, and a partnership with Nigerian club FC Ebedei, whom have three of their products currently with the Wolves – Paul Onuachu, the scorer of the winning goal in the 2-1 first leg defeat of Manchester United in last season’s Europa League - amongst them. It may also be worthwhile to notice that during this same period, the club has witnessed its inaugural major national trophy win – the 2014/15 Danish Superliga, as well as its second highest points tally (finishing third) and the aforementioned Europa League Round of 32 phase the season after, again sitting third so far this season. That is, of course, considering that the club only came into existence a mere 18 years ago, after the formation of two underachieving local rivals.
So, it is a proven concept for American, Danish and hopefully, soon enough, Dutch, sporting brands to follow; AZ Alkmaar, in fifth place in a competitive Eredivisie, with an upcoming Europa League RO32 also on their minds, just another of the clubs inspired by the methods of Beane, so much so that they have employed him as an advisor, thanks to his friendship with former Dutch Major Leaguer, Robert Eenhoorn, the GM there. The increasing degrees of serious achievement, or overachievement both on the national and continental stage considering their comparatively threadbare budgets, of these sides can be attributed to their keen eye for a deal; along with other well-renowned youth-developing hotbeds such as Ajax, and Southampton to a lesser degree, bearing in mind their financial prosperity now as a regular Premier League outfit. Nonetheless, the transfer tactics of Midtjylland, Alkmaar and Ajax, amongst others in increasingly obscure continental competitions, cannot fail to be commended within such difficult constraints; dealing with their position by feeding off the career cycle of many a player and club in even more constricting conditions, buying in a crop of African or South American talents, only to sell them down the line in a matter of months to the world players.
Of course, one of the only ways in which you can foresee the profitability of a particular player is by sizing up their stats; and, from the little that they might know, other than from the many uncredited scouts they have, the attributes, depending on position, can prove fundamental to a deal taking off. These stats go much deeper than what you might be able to find out on a simulator like Football Manager, however, and take in far more than the proportion of starts, goals, clean sheets, successful passes, shots on target, interceptions and clearances a certain option might have, if you’re lucky in that statisticians have tracked the performances of such targets.
This, though, is where some complain that ‘Moneyball’ tactics in football will never work. They perceive, quite understandably, that due to the differing circumstances of football, rather than, say, baseball, cricket, American football and rugby, in that not every touch of the ball, pass or shot will be vital to the outcome of a match, due to the enduring statistical complexities, yet similarly constant unpredictability, of football, no player can ever be truly signed based on spreadsheets of organised sums and figures. They argue that football relies a considerable amount more upon instinct; upon the mental capabilities and physical make-up of a player compared to his rivals, rather than on the amount of successful crosses, or headers, he has made.
Perhaps, this is more because in football, fans, managers, and chairmen alike can all decipher, whether in the stands, on the touchline, or in the executive boxes, whether a player is good or not. I hesitate to use such an unapologetically blunt adjective as good, but we all know it; when a player has it, he has it, and when he doesn’t, well, you get my drift… and nothing he could later possibly do would change our minds on that. Football is a thoroughly subjective sport for the masses; it almost entirely depends on your own perspective and interpretation of the action - both on the pitch and off it -, and that is what can so clearly lead to the downfall of so many, yet the triumph of so few. In cricket – which I may or may not cover in a blog over the coming year, depending on how starved I am of inspiration -, the selections, signings and sackings of players and staff are almost entirely objective, factoring in the batting averages, bowling averages and fielding success for players, and, you might notice, the win percentages, significantly further down the list. Cricket is a game that, as with many others, relies exclusively upon individuals to perform their role over any responsibility they may have as a team member, even if they have to remain united.
Football is much a different beast from that extreme. While strikers might get paid more, with a larger share of the plaudits, as the commentators quip, for their game-winning goals, than many other players on the pitch, it is their overall contribution to the team which will be the decisive factor when it comes to possibly signing, or offering a new contract to them. Perhaps the irrelevance of statistical analytics was best portrayed within the sport by Tiago Manuel Dias Correia – alright, before you go and look it up on Wikipedia, it’s Bebé - the outspoken Portuguese winger once infamously signed on the trusted word of close friend Carlos Quieroz, yet, before long, quietly forgotten by Sir Alex Ferguson.
As an innocently optimistic United fan at the time, I for one always felt that Correia’s lampooning, both at the time, and ever since in such cheaply produced click-baits as ‘The Top 10 Premier League Flops’ or ‘The Top 10 Worst Fergie Signings’, was always undeserved – personally, I will never forget how he burst onto the scene against Wolves in the Carling Cup, and the subsequent article I read about his exploits the next day on the train back from one of my first visits to London. You may not care for my opinions, however, when I tell you that, in addition to my continuing curiosity for the career of the recovering Portuguese – currently at Eibar in La Liga – my favourite player of the culminating era of Fergie’s reign, coinciding with my own golden age as a wide-eyed fan, was Alexander Büttner.
Add into the Bebé-heavy mix right now of statistical disasters the recent trough of Brentford, which we discussed earlier, for whom, so far this season, 19 of their paltry total of 30 goals has come from Warburton-era signings or youth products, rather than apparently savvy recent purchases. In Midtjylland’s case, 14 of their 33 goals this season have also been scored by pre-Benham signings, impressive when considering only one of the six players fitting that category is a striker; Onuachu, and that there has since been six active transfer windows for the club, including this current one, since Benham’s mid-2014 buyout. I don’t know about you, but personally, leaving the romanticism behind, I feel that the Brentford fan’s investment at the very start of their ultimately title-winning 2014/15 season had very little to do with such success; as the framework was seemingly in place prior to the cresting he took of their wave. After all, manager Glen Riddersholm had already been in charge for over three years, and the only signing of the summer 2014 window; midfielder Tim Sparv – for any FM players, a well-respected man with great talent – despite his steely credentials, still yet to score in his first 60 league appearances for the club.
When admiring Southampton’s credentials as a successful nursery for players inevitably nabbed by Liverpool, as profiteering as a young Alan Sugar, however, surely there must be some decisive proof behind their statistical business moves? Or are they in fact majorly deceiving us, instead simply filling a hole, which previously fell upon a number of uncredited clubs to spot, in a perfect transfer cycle, which allows less financially flexible outfits to profit off the increasing greed and gluttony of the fat cats?
Well, let’s admire the individuals which they have added value to over the years; Rickie Lambert, Luke Shaw, Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Nathaniel Clyne, Calum Chambers, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Victor Wanyama, Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle, and likely, soon, Virgil van Dijk, he of links to the Manchester clubs and Chelsea for £35 to £40 million. With a reported rough amount of £161.8 million in profits coming in, with another possible £7 million in disclosed add-ons, from these first eleven players, and £23 to £28 million more on top of that if van Dijk sells to his price tag, and vastly improved Premier League performances on the pitch throughout what should’ve been a tough period, especially after losing two classy managers who learned their trade there; then surely this method has to be adjudged as a roaring triumph. To not only have consolidated themselves as a provider of top-class home-grown talent, but to also successfully be able to continue to reinvest with cheaper, and, as it turns out, just as fruitful, options, to help their financially dependable mid-table, and even Europa League, PL finishes, is a great achievement, just proving that football can be done right. That is providing that there are the same evil forces at the end of the production line to gobble up such offerings, however.
Analysing my findings then; I find an obscure eccentricity to the statistical returns, in that wherever any side is openly passionate in their sabermetric-friendly ethos, embracing of the inevitable comparison to Moneyball, of the Chairman to Beane, or more romantically, Brad Pitt, who depicted the man himself in the film, they tend not quite to crumble under such expectation, but to revert to what they know. The beauty of the story of Beane and the A’s was that, at first, they went under the radar; nobody believed in what Beane and his Harvard-educated assistant GM Paul DePodesta had set out to achieve, and they had no right to; bringing in physical damaged goods in elder statesmen David Justice and Scott Hatteberg, and effective freak-pitcher Chad Bradford, their decisions seemed whimsical. In fact, when their analytical genius came into the equation, Beane and DePodesta had worked, within the constraints of their budget, what was, for a short period in their 20-match winning run, the most efficient baseball side in the world.
With football, you just wouldn’t be able to do that. Sure, targeting undervalued players to replace your own highly-valued items and for it to pay off isn’t too much of a rarity, but to upset the bookies at such a rate, and with such a thoughtfully, I’m sure extensively, measured, system, is unprecedented. Not even Leicester City can claim to have had such a stroke of genius, as their success did not lie in the transfers when building their squad, but rather in their team performances on the pitch. While their title-winning team was built on a comparative shoestring, at a reported wage total of £48.2 million for the 2015/16 season, paltry when tallied up against Chelsea’s £215.6 million in player expenditure, the Foxes did have the funds to spend on top of that certainly, had their Thai owners, the Srivaddhanaprabhas (phew), opened their wallets a little. By the very fundamentals of the Premier League, each team has very fair financial capabilities on which to compete - and let it be known, they do compete - nothing like those which Beane had to manage.
In those low-key cases of sabermetrics personified, Southampton, Ajax, Athletic Bilbao – the plucky Basque club who live on the principles of pure home-grown talent, which have turned out very profitable for them – those who possibly make headlines for other reasons, that is where I feel football can be most proud of itself. Maybe not when you consider that the capitalist market of football is openly flogging the labour of young men for profits, but overlooking the extremities of the footballing world – which is what I might have to do this year to remain sane – we have to appreciate when previously undervalued, smaller, clubs attain the opportunity to level their playing field by haggling with those they are, over time, reeling in. Maybe, just maybe, there is an exact formula to the perfect transfer strategy. If so, I would claim that the closest examples to it lie in plain sight; those academies, which start off with such positive intentions for the next generation, end up paying their worth, in as positive way as an thoroughly profitable industry can; as cash cows when a bumper crop arrives. Whether many individuals in football have the prudence or intellect to realise this, or that transfer strategies exist, of course, is entirely another thing.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!