Ballon d’argent

Interesting to learn of Damian Comolli’s departure from Liverpool.  This isn’t (as has been suggested) the death of Moneyball because as far as I can tell, Moneyball was never born in Liverpool.

Simply put, Moneyball is about getting the most out of undervalued resources.  Despite what the press has talked about, it’s not necessarily about statistics, it’s about finding ways to win.

The best exponent of Moneyball type philosophies the English game has seen is Sam Allardyce. Paul Tomkins’ book “Pay as you Play” looked at managerial performance versus transfer fees spent (I know, I prefer wages, but still) and Allardyce regularly murdered the competition in putting together good teams on the cheap.

It went further than that though. Allardyce knew what to do on the field. Most importantly:

He understood that set plays are the game’s great equaliser (average teams can be better at set pieces than good teams). By dominating at set pieces Bolton were able to put together results that put them higher in the league than would otherwise be expected.

Outside of set plays, Allardyce did all he could to level the playing field. His teams routinely took forever at re-starts (the less the ball is in play, the more chance of an upset).  They played a physical game that understood the limits of the rules and pushed and pushed them.  In short, they looked for the edges and tried to exploit them. They were very successful.

Allardyce is nobody’s idea of an England manager but in terms of getting results, he’s good at what he does.

And this is Moneyball, or at least one version of it.

Another approach is the hardly unheralded Newcastle United. Newcastle understand that two comparable players will not cost the same amount if you buy them in different places.  Cabaye, Tiote, etc would be £15-20m players if they were English.  Liverpool bought (inferior versions of) these players for the big money; Newcastle merely exploited the market inefficiency and raided France (and Holland).  That’s Moneyball. I don’t know what Liverpool thought they were doing but it’s exactly the type of deal that Billy Beane would have been *exploiting* from the other side of the fence (if you read the Moneyball book, Beane’s forever seeing who he can fleece). That’s the irony of all this.  Liverpool haven’t been Moneyballing; they’ve been Moneyballed!

The Fenway Sports Group must be furious at how their investment has developed. One point made to Paul Tomkins (to whom Henry has spoken) was that Dalglish and Comolli were in agreement on all the signings, but also on all other questions put to them by FSG. They’d be asked about x, y or z and give identical answers.  It made it very hard for FSG to understand why things weren’t as they should be: they simply weren’t getting the information they wanted from Dalglish or Comolli. Henry also mentioned “A David Dein type” figure to Tomkins, suggesting a more senior individual is perhaps sought who can negotiate deals (Comolli was plainly not first rate here) and drive value. It’s here they’ve been found wanting.

Liverpool are a mess.  They’ve shot for the Champions League with a £100m belch of a spending spree and come up with next to nothing they can build around. Surely now it’s a case of going back to first principles, developing young players (this is something they’re okay at and will see the fruits of in the next few years) but more importantly, not spunking great wedges on ordinary players.  Lessons can and must be learned from Newcastle, and – gulp – from the Allardyce school of finding edges.  That’s Moneyball.

8 thoughts on “Ballon d’argent

  1. What I find humorous about all this is that much like Liverpool are not “money ball”, the Red Sox weren’t really either, as they were buoyed by having the second highest payroll in the league.

    During the early/mid aughts, the Yankees took the Chelsea/City approach: just sign every and all free agents; and/or trade for star players in their contract year. The Red Sox took a more United approach: jettison fading “stars” and trade them for stellar role players that fit them into their system (who would then fade into oblivion when they left the team).

    1. There is no such thing as moneyball. It is just baseball for good management within financial means and based on modern science. Thus Oakland, Tampa, Toronto, and Boston can all be said to practice it or have practiced it despite their different financial clouts.

      In the current premiership ManU, Arsenal. and Tottenham appear the main exponents. Everyone is can’t be considered despite moyes’ talents because the back offfice don’t seem to have a clue as to how to grow the club. Fulham appear to be run by the right principles but without transparency its hard to tell.

      1. Right — “moneyball” is really just about maximizing value per unit of currency spent, and using quantitative methods to help define and measure that value. The Sox definitely do (did?) this; they just have tons of potential value to realize due to their high payroll.

        All that aside, the point about Allardyce’s playstyle is a really good one. This sort of manipulation of the clock to minimize the amount of potentially unfavorable action fascinates me. It reminds me of how in the NFL now some teams (eg, the Colts/Patriots under Manning/Brady) will suddenly switch to a no-huddle offense in order to lock a particular set of defensive players onto the field. Run more plays when the matchups are good, fewer when the matchups are bad.

  2. Allardyce is an interesting character. As you mention, he did well by focusing on ‘levelling’ the game out’ and his free signings.

    However, if you look at Bolton now, you can see his real legacy – debt. The players he brought in were usually on high wages (Ivan Campo, Okocha) and had little or no resale value. I know we both agree on this, but without wages, you get little realistic picture of the job a manager is doing.

    Boltons subsequent decline and serious debt problems (they are servicing £110m of bank debt!) have crippled their immediate future and I would argue that this would take away much of Allardyce’s moneyball credentials.

  3. I think that there is a strand of Moneyball which Liverpool could legitimately be said to be pursuing, albeit unsuccessfully. That is, the search for statistics which best predict outcomes. It was the new statistical tools, not yet recognized by other clubs, which permitted Beane to exploit under valued portions of the labor pool.

    I think the size of the budget in question is actually irrelevant. Having a large budget simply means you’re able to fully exploit the advantage you have obtained with your statistical tools.

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