Early in 2012, then Fulham midfielder Clint Dempsey, clearly excited having watched Moneyball, asked his 100,000 Twitter followers if the equivalent principles of the show was put into practice in football today. Who would have known that later on in the year, the very club that implemented this philosophy would not be able to afford him despite Dempsey holding out for a move there the whole summer.
That club in question is Liverpool, and they were in all sorts of trouble having splashed out £78 million earlier on Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam. Just Downing and Henderson are with the club today. They dismissed manager Kenny Daglish and Director of football Damien Comolli at the end of the season having had one of their poorest seasons in the modern era.
Moneyball: The art of winning an unfair game is a book published by best selling author Michael Lewis. It revolutionised how baseball teams evaluated players and introduced a new concept into sport in general. The book and subsequently, film, documents the story of Billy Beane, a General Manager of the Oakland A’s who built a winning team based on statistical data of players which were overlooked and undervalued by others.
There has been considerable hype in English football of the varying success of Moneyball. Most of the time, the argument often revolves around transfers, which was never the focal point of the concept. Lest we forget, the dynamics of football is very different to that of baseball, and the argument is about the success of how these statistics can be translated onto the pitch.
To begin with, Liverpool used the system the wrong way. Not only did they buy these players at an inflated fee that came along with a ‘British Tax’, they also played them (to varying degrees) in different roles to that which they excelled in previously. Clubs such as Wigan under Roberto Martinez, Newcastle under Chris Hughton and Alan Pardew and Bolton under Sam Allardyce were executing the Moneyball concept successfully. They bought players who were young, used them in their position of expertise, exploited their comparative advantage and subsequently made a very healthy profit when these players moved on. But more often than not, these teams were doing it for survival, and were never going to challenge for top honours.
You may argue that Arsène Wenger, an economics graduate and keen mathematician has used Moneyball to considerable success. He identified players such as Mathieu Flamini, who excelled in a defensive midfielder role covering 14km per game for Marseille. He was subsequently brought in on a free transfer as a replacement for Patrick Viera. Players such as Claude Makélélé, Yaya Touré and the late Gary Speed were all identified through their impressive statistics. But the statistics here do not take into account how well the players on their team complement them or how their coach has directed them to play a certain kind of football. The team’s tactics are constantly overlooked and it will not be hard to understand why Xavi Hernandez will not be able to replicate his form at Barcelona if he played for West Ham, and vice versa for Kevin Nolan if he played for Barcelona.
Lest we forget, football is not about a pitcher outplaying a batter. It is an intrinsic team game and no amount of statistic can account for what John Terry did to Wayne Bridge (slept with his partner). The people at Soccernomics were the first to say that a novel stat such as on-base percentage has not been found yet. If we take the statistics at face value, then Leon Britton of Swansea, who had the 2nd highest pass completion percentage in the whole of Europe would certainly be hot property. The sport is too fluid in comparison to a structured sport such as baseball, where every action is inextricably linked to the overall outcome of the match. You simply cannot build a team around raw numbers – it is about how the team gels and how players complement each other.
Moneyball is after all, similar in spirit to that of value investing. However, in this day and age, the information that you have is probably going to be the same as the guy next door and the guy across the street. It is how you implement it, and how you incorporate it into your overall business plan or football team, which will make Moneyball truly successful. Unfortunately, until the next real Billy Beane in football emerges, there is still a long way to go before it happens.