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?