No, football is not like baseball…

Alright! The problem with being a football outsider is that often you find yourself having to speculate about things you can’t really know about.

Well that’s fine in a way. This uncertainty has given us the scope to have a good think about what might possibly be happening behind the scenes at Fulham.

To recap, it seems to me that the Khans realise that football clubs, and their operations in the transfer market in particular, can be financial disasters, and have decided to stop wasting their money.  I also think that this is something that reasonable people would more or less agree with, even if the approach being taken – as best we understand it – is not for everyone.

Now Sam Wallace of the Daily Telegraph has thrown us a bone.

Kline is the architect at Fulham of what he calls the “Both Boxes Checked” system which is intended to give equal weight to traditional scouting methods and Kline’s own brand of statistical analysis. Without a positive score in both categories, a player will not be signed and that means, at the very least, that he has equal authority on signings with Jokanovic and the club’s chief football officer, Mike Rigg.

The thinking behind the scheme is that there should be consensus between the analytics department and the manager. Neither side should lay claim to the final say but instead, by a process of elimination, they alight upon a player who checks both boxes.

The plan at Fulham, in spite of Kline’s difficult relationships with former manager Kit Symons, and now Jokanoic, has been unwavering. The club are no longer prepared to sign players who are not “Both Boxes Checked”.

The American contingent is understood to have been unhappy with the signing of Richard Stearman from Wolverhampton Wanderers last summer for around £2 million on a three-year deal. They felt that he was overpriced, did not score highly on data and has not subsequently justified the investment. After that the introduction of Kline and his statistics-based approach was insisted upon as a key feature of the club’s recruitment.

Okay!

That makes sense doesn’t it?  You use analytics and scouting!  Eureka.

Again, to those who are angry now, go to this page and tell me that the ‘traditional’ way was working. Look at all the ‘players in’ columns, the fees paid, the wages that we can’t see, and tell me with a straight face that this is how things should be done.

As an aside, it’s not as if Jokanovic has a cast-iron track record that demands he have ultimate transfer power. To the extent that he has made his name in England, we’d probably give him most credit for the 2014/15 Watford team which came second in the Championship. But someone being cynical could say that he achieved this on the back of some very canny moves in the transfer market:

Heurelho Gomes played 44 games in goal and arrived on a free from Spurs and had a fine season (so it appears). But he joined in May 2014. Jokanovic didn’t sign on until October 2014.

Matěj Vydra bagged 16 goals in 31 starts. Odion Ighalo got 20 in 22 starts. These two were on loan to Watford from Italian talent factory Udinese (and they weren’t alone here, either: Udinese pumped the Hornets full of emerging talent). Troy Deeney, who signed in 2010, got 21 in 37. That’s the mother of all forward lines, and Jokanovic didn’t sign any of them.

So back to the task at hand. What is wrong here, exactly? Fulham are attempting to put tighter controls around expenditure. Manager doesn’t like it. He’s not expected to like it, as best we can tell.

As we’ve said, the process can hardly be any worse than the one the Khans walked into, so in my opinion the sensible thing is to give them credit for trying to build a better mousetrap.

Again: it can’t be any worse than what we had before. Someone could do a hit/miss rate on those transfers, and work out what we’ve wasted. Someone at Fulham undoubtedly has done this, which is why we are where we are.

Craig Kline’s methods may not be perfect. No: they won’t be perfect. They’ll make mistakes, false positives, false negatives, everything. But the interesting thing about building data models is that they learn. You can feed in results and improve performance. I realise that this invites the usual MY FOOTBALL CLUB IS NOT SOME LABORATORY IN WHICH TONY KHAN’S FRIEND CAN EXPERIMENT  observations, but that’s how these things work, isn’t it? In life any senior businessman will make decisions based on imperfect information. You take what you can, realise its limitations, and all the time try to make it better. Are we seriously saying we’re happy to keep backing hunches, or are we going to try to get better in the transfer market?

Defending Slaviša Jokanović

Yesterday’s post earned me some interesting feedback, and I thank those who took the trouble to read.

As most could see I was not in any way attempting to suggest that we replace the manager behind our legendary/extraordinary start to the season with an American baseball robot, and to that, I remain aware of the myriad differences between football and baseball. But I stand behind the view that there are decent principles behind what the Khans are attempting. Whether they get it right remains to be seen, and of course sceptical supporters have some reason to question things, but my opinion is that they’re at least facing in the right direction.  Whether their next step is forwards or backwards is anybody’s guess, but we can forgive fans for fearing the worst.

There’s a big elephant in the room here though.

Slaviša Jokanović has been very frank about his views on the subject of Craig Kline’s involvement. Shockingly so in many ways.

“I had an opinion from one of the best managers in the world [Jose Mourinho] on one of the players and he believes it is a good signing for us and I believe that too. Craig doesn’t believe it is a good signing for us and this guy is not with us.

“It generally depends on this guy [Kline] who is going to sign for us or not. The last decision is in the hands of this man. It is not my business.

“I’m a little bit disappointed because no one knows who this guy is. Instead he’s sitting in the directors box. I want to take responsibility for how I work with my team and how they perform but I am not part of the recruitment business. It is in the hands of people who believe they’re more prepared.”

Ouch.

If we go back to yesterday’s thinking, we can look at this a couple of ways:

1) it’s all true. Fulham have given Craig Kline veto power over transfers
2) it’s partly true. Craig Kline has a say in transfers and has scuppered this in some capacity
3) it’s partly true, in that Kline has a say, but here the deal wasn’t killed by him, but by other factors we don’t know about
4) it’s not true and an agenda of sorts is being played out in public

I’d imagine we’re looking at guess number two. If the Khans have given Kline full veto power then I’d be stunned.

So if it is #2 (or even #1), what reasons are there for the deal not going ahead?

Transfermarkt has Pereira as a 20 year old attacking midfielder of Brazilian descent. United bought him from PSV for £128k and he’s now valued at over a million pounds. Pereira scored a goal in one of his first team appearances, of which there seem to have been around half a dozen.

So why might we not want Pereira?

It could be that Kline simply doesn’t think he’s good enough. That would be a surprising conclusion given that United signed him and Jose Mourinho recommended him to us. In this situation it’s hard to envisage a situation where Kline’s perspective is given sufficient weight that his judgement would be backed over that of both our manager and Manchester United’s. Even if Pereira hasn’t developed a solid statistical base to Kline’s liking yet, Kline would surely appreciate that the player is developing, is 20 years old, and has his best years ahead of him.

It could be that Kline doesn’t think we need him. We have other attacking midfielders after all. Again, it seems curious that Kline could make that call. The manager would have a better sense of what he needs to make his squad functional, after all.

Maybe there’s a cost involved. If we look through United’s recent history we can see that they often do charge a loan fee to clubs taking their players. They often don’t do this – or if they do, the fee isn’t listed – but it’s a possibility. Perhaps Kline figures that Pereira’s not worth this fee. But this seems unlikely, too. Significant loan fees seem to apply to established stars like Chicarito, not up and coming players like Pereira.

None of these answers is satisfactory, really.

Unless Kline isn’t blocking the transfers at all.

In any case, this looks like a mess. Any organisation needs clear accountabilities, particularly when attempting to ‘innovate’. If your manager is mouthing off to the press about another member of staff then you have an issue. Whatever the rights and wrongs your manager does have an important role within the club (duh!) and if he is undermined then this will, in the end, impact how his players respond to him. He needs power, and to be seen to have power, too. If he’s emasculated by some shadowy outsider than this is clearly a very bad thing.

If I can return to the dangerous ground of baseball, this happened in that sport, too. There were many stories about how the very best analysts were able to work in ways that gained the trust of those they were attempting to influence. This would be a softer approach, not ramming numbers down the throats of those less inclined towards this kind of information.

Which is why I’m so puzzled here. The Khans must know all of this. They must know that they can’t just give someone with no football credentials more power over transfers than their most important non-playing member of staff. They must.  You can’t force these things.

Two conclusions then. First, I’m almost certain that the situation can’t be exactly as it’s being portrayed. But second, I’m equally certain that something isn’t right (duh!) and that the manager shouldn’t be in a position where he’s talking to newspapers as he is. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and family Khan need to take a long view here, build up the credentials of any new approaches they’re developing and find ways to blend them into the running of the club, even if this takes them longer than they’d like.

I get that they’ve probably lost trust in the old school way of doing things quite quickly, having been spectacularly burned by other supposedly well-credentialed managers in the very recent past. But if only for their own PR they need to find a better way of running the club, because at the moment it’s far too easy for fans to project their worst fears onto the ownership and senior management group. All this when the team’s winning, too. Just wait until results turn.

Defending the Khans and analytics as they apply to Fulham FC.

“The League Managers’ Association has revealed that in the Championship, where there were 20 dismissals in the recently-completed season, the average spell in charge is just 0.86 years.”

Presumably each of these managers knows exactly what his team needs to do to win when they’re first brought in.

First he’ll use his superior abilities as a coach to make the existing players better. That will be the start.  But then he will note that he now needs to spend a bit of money. A lot if possible. While he is a fine coach and will use his good attitude to do what he can with the players he has inherited from the lesser coach from before, he does need better players if ambitions are to be achieved, they need to be *his* players, players to fit his system.  Five or six of them.  Maybe more.

He’ll do his thing, achieve what he achieves, and when he’s replaced, the next manager will come in with similar ideas.

It’s a culture that results in football clubs wasting a fortune, with money flying all over the place. Here’s Fulham’s recent history of shopping.

We’ve bought 18 players for at least £1m since 2012/13. That’s not a lot, but this is at a time when the club has been lambasted for not spending deeply or wisely enough. It’s inefficient. To see what this looks like at another level, try Liverpool. Or Manchester United.

Coach-loads of players, vault-loads of money, and are these teams any nearer to being where they wanted to be five years ago?  No!

So I don’t think you can blame people running football clubs for wanting to find “a better way of doing things.”

One idea has always been to take spending out of the hands of managers. This is how baseball works: you have the ‘front office’ people making personnel decisions and managers taking what they’re given. Many chairmen – seeing this huge turnover of managers – want to change the dynamic in football via the dreaded Director of Football job, which theoretically ends this silly ‘my players’ cycle of dramatic squad turnover every year, but the cult of the manager is such that few are prepared to risk their reputations without ‘control’. This is fair enough – who wouldn’t take control vs no control? – but it does leave clubs at the mercy of their managers, most of whom will be gone sooner rather than later. But if you want the best managers you have to accept that the best managers will want to choose their players. So the alternative would be to find a manager who’s happy with this, and that probably means someone unproven, so what do you do about that?

Another ‘better way’ is to try to apply some objectivity to transfer dealings. We know very well that not all transfers are ideal: many/most rely on agents, and on relationships between several people, and it’s not a case of seeing player A and offering a fair price for him. As we see above, lots of transfers – most transfers? – are failures, and expensive ones at that.  There has to be a better way.  This can’t be all there is.

The trick would be then to try to improve your decision making, which is what most largish organisations that use money do.  For that you can either find people who are better at making decisions, or you can improve the quality of the decisions that current employees make.  Both, ideally!

This is where we are now, with Fulham (and many/most others) trying to apply a bit of rigour to their recruitment. This happened in baseball a few years ago, made famous by the book/film called “Moneyball” but beginning a long time beforehand.  I could give you a history but you don’t need that.  Suffice it to say that until a few years ago some teams had a tendency to value the wrong things in baseball players and to spend money accordingly.   That left inefficiencies that cleverer teams could exploit, although of course they had to do the other things like scouting well, too.  It was never one or the other.

Baseball is a different sport – people will point that out once in a while – and you can’t compare baseball and football. But this isn’t about taking baseball approaches into football, it’s – if I can be so bold here – it’s about science, about trying to understand more than is known now.  Mankind has a good track record of making surprising discoveries, e.g. harmful effects of smoking, the earth being round, the industrial revolution and where that’s taken us in 100 years, an understanding of the human genome… and so on. Point is, things look complicated until someone makes them less complicated.  Football really isn’t that complicated, although some have a vested interest in making it seem so.

At the moment football clubs throw money all over the place. In transfer fees and wages the cost of business as usual squad building is staggering. An analyst costs about what you’d pay in a week to a good player. Why wouldn’t you try to find efficiency by making use of data, information, etc?  Is the current approach working, really?

Back to Fulham. There is a concern that the manager is in some capacity being overruled by a mysterious American statistician in matters of player recruitment. Now, clearly this is a curious thing. What are we to make of the assertion?

a) that Fulham are blindly entrusting everything to an idiot with a spreadsheet
b) that the statistician has a role but it’s not that black and white.

Okay. What about this ‘overruled’ part?

a) that it didn’t happen
b) that it did happen: Slaviša Jokanović wanted a player but the analysis department said “no way”, Slaviša and walked off just like that.
c) that something happened but we don’t quite know what. Perhaps Jokanović wanted a player but the analytics team found a serious red flag (e.g. this kind of player has historically never done well in the Championship, perhaps he’s even something so banal as an injury risk, perhaps he just doesn’t look like good value). Perhaps there were other reasons.

We can’t really know though can we? Some seem quite quick to assume the worst, but is this really likely?

I don’t think so.  I suspect the Khans can see that English football is a wonderful thing, but realise that it is ripe for inefficiency finding.    Cost control is not an interesting matter but the days of buying players willy nilly on a manager’s say so then hoping for the best ought to be over.  No, you can’t quantify everything a player does on the pitch and make a value judgement, but you can try, eh?   And if you succeed there’s gold to be had.  If your competition continues to waste money, continues to make bad decisions, well, even if you only find a five point edge a season, that edge could be the difference couldn’t it?  Let’s not forget that the equivalent gains in player purchasing cost BIG money.  Ross McCormack cost 8 figures and might only be worth 5-6 points over an average player each season, after all.  So if you can find good players that others can’t see the rewards outstrip the costs by some way.   It’s worth a try.

We’ve been here before of course.  You don’t overrule your manager unless you have a really good reason.  You don’t not watch players.  You do use all available information intelligently to try to get better at what you’re doing.   That’s a laudable thing and should be encouraged, because it’s not an easy thing to do.  For that reason it won’t always go right but the alternative has been bad for a long time.  Everyone deserves better.  And again: why wouldn’t you try to understand more about how these inefficient processes are going wrong?  Why wouldn’t you try to get better?