Moneyballers and football flat-Earthers.

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John Henry: Moneyballer in Merseyside

Anyone with more than a passing interest in professional sport should be familiar with the theory behind the book, Moneyball. For those that aren’t, it’s the story of how the Oakland A’s, led by general manager Billy Beane and assisted by Paul DePodesta, used economic analysis of statistical data to assemble a winning baseball team at a fraction of the cost of their rivals. However, despite a record breaking 20 game winning streak, the A’s failed to claim the ultimate prize, the World Series, leaving fans to argue as to how far the model will go without big money.

The recent Hollywood adaptation, starring Brad Pitt as Beane, ends by posing that very question. During the final scenes, Beane is approached by the Boston Red Sox owner, John Henry, who is looking to recruit the A’s manager and apply the Moneyball philosophy to his own team. Beane rejects Henry’s offer, but the Red Sox follow his approach regardless and two years later claim the 2004 World Series for the first time since 1918. It is with this nugget of information that the film ends. The implication is simple: the Red Sox have money.

This is relevant to football because John Henry is of course the current owner of Liverpool FC, and his arrival on Merseyside prompted rumours that he would attempt to apply similar business practices. In reality, the transfer policy at Anfield appears to be following a different and, some might say, unique path (some might say Damian Comolli’s been passing round the funny pills). And, while the signing of Craig Bellamy is much more Moneyball than Andy Carroll, Liverpool are hardly the first big club to turn to a seasoned pro to cover a gap in the squad.

The concept of moulding a team of unfashionable players, or those that are considered to be damaged goods, has been around in football for a while. Otto Rehhagel did it at Werder Bremen in the 1990’s with such success that for several seasons he was able to prize Bayern’s hands from the Bundesliga crown. Rehhagel’s view was simple, “There are not young or old players, only good and bad players.” You could imagine Beane saying something similar to bemused colleagues in Oakland.

In England, Sam Allardyce used a similar model to great effect at Bolton Wanderers, perhaps typified by the rebirth of Kevin Davies following a disastrous spell at Blackburn Rovers. Again, there are echoes of Moneyball, in particular the story of Scott Hatteberg. As a catcher no longer able to throw the ball following injury, his career was effectively in ruins; but, Beane was more interested in his batting average and re-trained Hatteberg as a first baseman (where his weak throwing arm would not be such a hindrance). While it isn’t a direct comparison, the reinventing of Kevin Davies as Bolton’s battling, line leading centre forward was a far cry from the mobile attacking force that had been emerging a few years earlier (this strike for Southampton being a good example).

For a higher profile case study of a reinvented player, consider the career of Andrea Pirlo. When signed by Milan from Inter, Pirlo was playing as an attacking midfielder. It was Carlo Ancelotti who moved him to the deep lying role from where he established himself as one of the world’s best. We could go on citing examples, but isn’t this just about good coaching, and less about the numbers game? That’s the kind of view that Beane comes up against from the scouting staff at Oakland when he begins implementing his plans. Of course, Beane has the last laugh there, but in football, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy with the old fashioned approach.

There’s an army of analysts and statistical experts out there who will preach otherwise, and disputing the deconstructionist methods currently in vogue can leave you looking like a dinosaur. But, at the risk of sounding like one of the old timers that infuriated Beane, there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? What about all the moments that statistics hide, like deflections, dodgy penalties, off side calls, slips, falls, miss-kicks, players that have been sent off and vice-versa. You get the idea. There is simply too much room for error in football. It’s a team sport, but with huge scope for individuality.

Playing percentages will get you to a point; witness Swansea’s remarkable season under Brendan Rodgers. It seems that every week we are treated to pundits pouring over the little triangles made by their midfield, recycling possession with maximum efficiency. It’s Barcelona-esque, so why don’t all teams play that way?

Perhaps a clue lies in the recent history of the Premier League. If we look at arguably the two best Premier League sides of all time, United 98-01 and Arsenal 2003-04, they both played a version of 4-4-2. To propose that a current day side with championship aspirations should play 4-4-2 is the football equivalent of declaring yourself a flat-Earther. You should expect to be derided as a primitive simpleton. But, if either of those teams entered the Premier League now, would anyone be able to stand up to them?

This is why extensive tactical and statistical debate will always intrigue, but can never provide all the answers.  And, it’s why the Moneyball theory might improve on a model based on wildly subjective scouting reports, but can never guarantee championships. It cannot quantify the magic ingredient that seperates the good and the great.

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5 Responses to Moneyballers and football flat-Earthers.

  1. Great piece Michael – in my day job for a publisher I have come across an academic who is attempting to apply the Moneyball thinking to football – with mized results at the moment. I guess ‘Why England Lose’ by Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper is another attempt of sorts – but the late economist Mark Blaug talked about ‘mindless instrumentalism’ when discussing statistics and I think they are useful mainly as supporting evidence but are most definitely not the be all and end all.

    • Michael says:

      Thanks. I do have some interest in stats, but there’s plenty they don’t tell you. For example, with assists – let’s say a midfielder plays a brilliant ball to get a winger in behind his marker, and the winger has the simple task fo squaring it to a forward to score from close range. If the assist is the final pass, it will be credited to the winger, but you could argue the real assist (i.e. the moment that created the opportunity for a goal) was the pass that preceded it. Unless I’m mistaken, this doesn’t show up in the stats.

  2. Seat Pitch says:

    There was a piece in the Observer a few years ago that said, essentially, the Championship is the closest division in comparison to US sports where all things are equal – in theory. Percentages works where there is little difference in tactics, skill, confidence, etc. The gulf between Premier League sides mean that coaching and natural ability will always win out…

    I’ll try and find the link…

    • Michael says:

      Please do. I’m writing something at the moment about the unique challenges of the Championship. It is the most middling league I think you’d find anywhere. Not always a good thing, if the average quality isn’t great, but it does make it competitive.

  3. Seat Pitch says:

    Very good piece here: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/story/0,,2002869,00.html

    Aidy Boothroyd’s stock has fallen though…

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