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Moneyball in the Premier League – looking at Liverpool, Newcastle and Wigan

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Since the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) bought Liverpool FC last season, there has been a lot of talk about ‘Moneyball’.

This was a successful book chronicling the Oakland Athletics baseball team, and in particular it’s General Manager Billy Beane (for a General Manager think of a powerful director of football, David Dein at Arsenal, someone who controls transfer/signings). Beane was a visionary who by using different scouting techniques and having radically different principles on how the game of baseball should be played, got the Oakland Athletics to punch above their weight and beat richer, more glamourous rivals.

This was chronicled in a book, and then in a film starring Brad Pitt while also changing the world of baseball, as ‘Moneyball’ became not only a book but an adjective for the way many baseball teams were run as they adopted so called ‘Moneyball’ methods.

The Boston Red Sox (owned by John W Henry) were one of these teams and following the 2003 release of the book won the World Series in 2004, their first in 86 years and won another World Series in 2007. However, Moneyball is in many ways a myth. The Oakland Athletics who still have Beane as the GM have been dismal the last five seasons. The Boston Red Sox had one of the largest wage bills in baseball when they were successful, and have missed the playoffs the last two seasons. Though Moneyball principles have been adopted, the cult and phenomena of Moneyball has been exaggerated and embroidered by the worldwide media.

Adapting Moneyball to football

Moneyball, in the context it has been used by the British media, has been used to describe Liverpool’s approach to signing players, largely due to FSG’s ownership of the club and their supposed use of Moneyball methods when owning the Red Sox. Well that’s nonsense because Moneyball was more about scouting methods, using innovative ways of viewing baseball and having a creative view of statistics.

In baseball transfer fees don’t exist, there is no paying other teams/franchises for players. You hire players through the draft system which consists of signing players from high schools and universities (which are confusingly often called colleges) and hire players when they are out of contract and/or released from their clubs.

So Moneyball doesn’t refer to paying sums of money to other clubs to sign players. An example of it in practice is Billy Beane deciding to fire his scouting team and deciding to draft players form schools and universities solely through the use of statistics.

There were no scouts, just a computer whizz with a laptop who had a database of players. They drafted players through statistics, based on the practice of Sabermetrics.

Sabermetrics was a brand new way of analysing baseball (these are the different principles on how baseball should be played I mentioned earlier) defined as the “The search for objective knowledge about baseball”. Sabermetrics looks purely at statistics and aims to find new ways of measuring the game in statistics, which in itself finds players whose contributions are either underrated or overrated.

So if we were to see Moneyball methods used in football, you’d have a low budget club, say for example Wigan Athletic, fire their entire scouting network and simply hire some kid whose good on a computer to create a database of players. They would then use statistics such as passes attempted, passes completed, distance covered, shooting accuracy and more. The players who were the best at these would be the players they wanted to sign. Someone like Leon Britton of Swansea, who has the 2nd highest pass completion percentage in the whole of European footballer, would be the sort of player a side using Moneyball methods would want to have in their side.

Also you would probably have some guidelines on what sort of players you would like to sign. The book “Why England lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained” was co-authored by economist Stefan Szymanski alongside football writer Simon Kuper, and used statistics to analyse various topics, from why England struggle at international level to how suicide rates are affected by football.

Well this book looked at transfers as well and set out twelve guidelines on how to make successful transfers. Among these guidelines were to buy players in their early twenties, not buy players due to mesmerising World Cup/European Championship performances, help cheaper talented players who may have personal problems and to use scouts, managers, coaches, even fans when deciding on what players to buy. These would be like footballing Sabermetrics.

Liverpool

If we were to describe the signings of players in football as using Moneyball or Sabermetric methods, Liverpool, who are owned by FSG and have had a lot of media talk about them using so called Moneyball methods, plainly don’t fit that description. What they did last summer and last January when signing Andy Carroll was spend large sums of money on young English players like Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing.

Kenny Dalglish has done this before, when manager of Blackburn he spent what were then big sums on players like Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton, Tim Sherwood, Stuart Ripley, Tim Flowers and others. That Blackburn side won the title, beating a United side going for their 3rd straight title.

But it shows that’s its hardly innovative and hardly a radical new way of judging and signing players. Damien Comolli’s departure is evidence of of how that approach has been unsuccessful as over £100m of spending has seen Liverpool decline in the League and would have seen Kenny Dalglish close to the sack if the Manager had been anyone other than Kenny Dalglish. Even then he may have been sacked if it wasn’t for their excellent cup form.

So Liverpool don’t use Moneyball methods, in fact they use whatever is the opposite of Moneyball. If you want to look at a side who make the most of their resources look at Newcastle and Wigan.

Newcastle United

Newcastle have gone from being relegated just under three seasons ago to being just three points off a place in the Champions League with just five games left this season. Newcastle were a bloated, aging side with a divisive dressing room, inept management and a wage bill more suited to a side gunning for Europe than for a side trying to avoid relegation.

Since then they got promoted under the calming Chris Hughton, they got rid of players on big wages like Damien Duff, Michael Owen, Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton, Geremi, Mark Viduka and Obafemi Martins and in their place developed Tim Krul as a top class goalkeeper, kept Jonas Gutierrez and Fabrizio Coloccini and have bought Cheick Tiote, Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa, the electric front two of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse.

All of these players were bought comparatively cheaply and have adhered to those guidelines on how to make good transfers by having lots of people involved in the process of making transfers (scout Graham Carr is integral to their transfer policy along with Alan Pardew and Mike Ashley). They bought Hatem Ben Arfa (a talented player who had upset managers and teammates in France), bought players in their early twenties (Tiote and Cabaye are 25 now) and in Ba and Cisse simply found great value.

Wigan

Wigan have less money than Newcastle, and have had to sell the likes of Antonio Valencia, Charles N’Zogbia and Wilson Palacios to keep the club in good financial shape. Well they’ve bought lots of cheap young players (Victor Moses, James McCarthy, Lee Cattermole and others), gone for three at the back which hasn’t been seen in England in about 15 years, bought Jean Beausejour who was in and out of the Birmingham side to play a specific role as their left wing-back and on a low wage bill with low crowds are beating and relegating bigger clubs on bigger wage bills.

Also if you look abroad, the likes of Udinese and Porto have set their stall out as sides who import young talent from overseas (usually South America) and end up selling these players to fund the purchase of more cheap, rough diamonds they can mould, polish and then sell on. See Udinese doing this with Alexis Sanchez, Porto with Falcao and with lots of other players.

So Moneyball may not be all that it’s cracked up to be, and I admittedly have perhaps extended Moneyball to mean the signings of undervalued players, when it’s more about statistics than transfers.

Nonetheless I think a term for clubs buying cheap, undervalued players is useful, and to put it under the banner of Moneyball and/or Sabermetrics is helpful. And the clubs that do buy cheap, undervalued players and are successful with it, such as Newcastle, Wigan, Udinese and Porto continue to do well and football’s great minds have any intelligence or awareness, more clubs will be improve by using the principles of how to buy undervalued players and become more successful as a result.

Written by Jack Howes; 19 year old Spurs fan who dreams of chocolate, Spurs success and Dobby from Peep Show. Blogger on football and Asperger’s Syndrome.

Comments (7)

  1. a good article. But an important point here what you could have explained is how statistics as in baseball cant be applied to a game like football where the game is much more dynamic and statistics cnt be easily applied to a game with so many random variables! Being an engineering student i knw how statics and dynamics work,so we cant really rely on stats in football. So gut feeling is an extremely imp thing and is more reliable than stats in football!

  2. One thing you are mssing or did not understand. Pass completion rate. Would not have been used as a stand alone statistic. Only if it could be corralated to winning games would the statistic be used. There in lies the genius of it all. Instead of having an extensive scouting network you can use much cheaper statistical analysis techniques when making player purchases. In respect to football Ajax would be the closet team to this technique albiet that they recruit and train most of their talent. They are a high performing team that makes a lot of money on player sales. This opens a whole new market for teams that can perfect their system instead of relying on traditional funding methods only.

    • That is true, as pass completion does rely on the difficulty of passes attempted, for example the difference between a five yard pass in midfield or a sixty yard hoof from the defender to some big lump of a centre forward. I was only looking for a quick example of a statistic that would be used, maybe I should have used another.

  3. I thought about doing that but this article is already both quite long and quite complex, and I didn’t want to make this any longer or more difficult to grasp than it already is.

    Thanks for the feedback though, all views (even negative ones) are appreciated.

  4. Actually I would disagree that statistics can’t be used in football. Like in Moneyball, where baseball scouts were looking at the wrong statistics, in football we’re still looking at statistics that don’t measure how a player would fit in a certain team (or league).

    The issue isn’t with using statistics, it’s with how we’re using them right now.

  5. Great article. one of the most important parts, however, is knowing when to sell! I loved Soccernomics. It’s interesting, though, just as the Oakland A’s have been abysmal recently, lyon, another example of “moneyball” have been disappointing for the past few years. Will newcastle follow the same route? Time will tell. But anyway, lovely read!

  6. You have a great article but I feel as though you misrepresent the idea behind Moneyball, i.e. “Moneyball has been exaggerated.” According to your article, Moneyball in comparison to soccer/football would be the equivalent to passes attempted, passes completed, distance covered, and shooting accuracy. This view you have is simplified and is incorrect. Moneyball would take into account a combination a various factors and tie it into wins. It would be something like ((passes completed/passes attempted) + distance of pass))/number of goals – this would be used to determine what kind of passes and at what length would correlate to the number of goals in any given game.

    Sabermetrics has been around the 80s, with more and more teams using it in the present day. As such, the competition fielded by other teams has been better and greater. It’s not just the A’s using it anymore, it’s the Red Sox, the Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays, St. Louis Cardinals, and Detroit Tigers, among other teams – all of whom have done exceptionally well during the regular season. Teams such as Oakland have not been doing well because of using Sabermetrics, but because of other factors such as player pay, sports market (Oakland is not the best city in the U.S.A), and ownership (if the A’s had owners like the Steinbrenner’s of the N.Y. Yankees, they would be doing a lot better).

    So in other words, I think Sabermetrics is a great addition to the game. Obviously, these statistics will not dictate what happens in the game because at the end of the day, they’re still statistics. But statistics can give you a POSSIBLE glimpse of what WILL happen in the game and that changes everything.