Moneyball… that unmistakable term that has been negatively associated with Liverpool Football Club since the takeover of Fenway Sports Group back in 2010. The misconceptions surrounding the true meaning have been endless. So let’s start from the beginning, it was a strategy first made popular in baseball culture in the late 1990’s by Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, who in short constructed a highly competitive team on a fraction of a budget compared with their competitors. I could never quite understand why there was such a strong resistance by many supporters especially when it was clear that what many were describing as Moneyball wasn’t really grasping the core values of the approach at all.
There have been frequent misunderstandings of the philosophy over the years. Moneyball has most frequently been a lazy way of labelling a transfer strategy as cheap. Yes, one goal of the approach is to operate at the best value for money, but it is so much more than that. Michael Lewis wrote the now world famous book on Moneyball that I have recently finally read after years of knowing in vague details only, how the strategy exactly works. I knew it was a far more sophisticated and intriguing approach than most on this side of the Atlantic were aware of. But why? I wanted to know more.
Firstly though, it needs to be made clear that baseball is not really similar to football in any way. Baseball is a sport where statistics can almost define you as a player. Almost everything in the sport can be measured in such a way where the overall effectiveness of a player can be more easily evaluated. The problem in baseball was that for a very long time many supposed connoisseurs were looking at the popular statistics, and not the right ones. This is where it is possible to see where football can come in because this certainly happens a lot, but more on that later. A man named Bill James was the pioneer of the movement in the late 1970’s and 1980’s in conveying that the so called experts weren’t looking at players in the right way. The Oakland Athletics and their brain trust had noticed this and decided there was no better time to use this foresight to their advantage.
It is the underlying reason why Billy Beane could compete with the big boys on a fraction of the budget. Beane and his assistant Paul DePodesta were finding players nobody wanted because they were often looking at them in the wrong way and not seeing the true qualities needed to win baseball games.
For Liverpool, the approach early in the FSG era was based around buying players young enough so that they had a guaranteed re-sale value. This worked as planned for Luis Suarez and went a little pear shaped with Andy Carroll. It then also paid off with Raheem Sterling and Jordan Ibe in slightly different circumstances. Most recently and in the most spectacular fashion the approach has paid dividends with Philippe Coutinho.
The A’s, due to their position in the hierarchy of Major League Baseball, knew that they realistically couldn’t pursue the agreed upon elite players in the sport. Instead, they had to find players who others didn’t want. The players weren’t always necessarily defective but they had qualities that other teams may not have appreciated.
No matter how decorated our history is, it is hard to argue that we are one of the power clubs in the world any longer. We rarely have had the financial clout to pursue a world class player in their prime. We saw this with a player like Luis Garcia back in 2004, he was an individual Barcelona no longer had a need for but Rafa Benitez knew that he had the ability to positively impact games. Suarez was of course highly rated at Ajax but his personality issues meant that he needed us as a stepping stone to his dream move. This approach again paid off when we signed Daniel Sturridge at a highly discounted rate as both Manchester City and Chelsea deemed him not the right fit for their first team.
In all of the above cases it had nothing to do with being cheap. Instead it was everything to do with being smart. Nobody would realistically argue that all these signings didn’t significantly improve the team during their stay and many went on to become world class or near that level. The market has dictated that Liverpool Football Club was not an attractive destination for the established cream of the crop so we have always had to be creative. We now have one of the most dynamic and dangerous front lines in world football and yet when we signed Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, and Mo Salah they were far from considered sure things.
Now the Oakland A’s faced a similar dilemma to Coutinho’s departure back in 2001. They lost their superstar first baseman Jason Giambi to the New York Yankees. The Yankees by chance share many similarities with Barcelona in that they have money to burn and many players dream of playing there. Giambi was every bit as important to the A’s as Coutinho was to Liverpool. He was voted second best player in his league the year he left and led the league in Billy Beane’s most valued of statistics: On Base Percentage.
Oakland knew they couldn’t afford any player with similar qualities to Giambi but Beane identified a trio of players who could collectively replicate what Giambi and the other departed players had managed the year before. The same will be necessary at Anfield. There are almost no players that money can buy who can replicate exactly what Coutinho brings to a team. Isco at Real Madrid is one similar player potentially but even he doesn’t quite bring the consistent goal threat of our former magician.
Instead it will be down to a group of players to step up to seal the Coutinho shaped void in the team. Fortunately for Liverpool, Adam Lallana has returned to fitness just at the right moment. Lallana was arguably the player of the season last year for Liverpool and certainly has a multitude of qualities he can bring to the table. He doesn’t quite have Coutinho’s game changing ability but on a consistent basis, you know exactly what Lallana will bring with creativity and ball retention. The same can be said of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The former Arsenal man is starting to thrive at Anfield and Coutinho’s departure only gives him more opportunities to shine in his preferred midfield role.
Potential dark horses in the whole saga could also include youngsters Ben Woodburn and Marko Grujic. Since the pre-season I have thought that Woodburn in particular seems to share an awful lot of traits with Coutinho. He is far from the finished article but he is a sensational talent who will only get better with more opportunities. Like Coutinho he can operate in the midfield 3 or on the left of the attack while providing a nice balance of creativity and goalscoring threat. We have only got to see this in his Welsh exploits this season so far but it is fairly clear he is almost ready to take that next step. Both may go out on loan this window but don’t be surprised if Klopp sees a bigger role for them in the future.
One example of Billy Beane type work by Jurgen Klopp took place last season. Liverpool had few options at left back aside from the error prone and lacking confidence Alberto Moreno. At the time many fans still had faith in Moreno. He has proven many critics wrong this season but his underlying numbers again can be misleading. Moreno on paper created a lot of chances the season before, but how many were truly of his doing. Many were most likely him playing a square pass inside to Coutinho who proceeded to take a shot, or Moreno may have fizzed one of his aimless crosses into the box which somehow fortuitously ended up at the feet of a teammate. It was hard to make a sound judgement on these apparent chances created. Beane faced the same problem with replacing Giambi. He had a talented first baseman named Carlos Pena who was flashy and hit more home runs but Beane wanted journeyman catcher Scott Hatteberg to play first base because he had that essential ingredient for winning ball games, his on base percentage and ability to work a pitcher was significantly better. Nobody in the Major Leagues wanted Hatterberg at that time just like few teams in the Premier League would have wanted Milner at left back before the season but it turned out to be a stroke of genius by both managers.
Milner essentially was just like Hatteberg. Milner is a no nonsense player who generally isn’t given the credit he deserves with regards to his impact on games. Like Hatteberg, Milner initially looked like a fish out of water at left back but both players given the professionals they are kept on learning and eventually became key parts of the team. Milner didn’t have Moreno’s athleticism but he brought a few qualities that Moreno severely lacks namely leadership, a steady hand, and of course his ability from the penalty spot.
Below we can see the difference in Moreno’s performance at left back in 2015/2016 and Milner’s last season. We can see that both created similar amount of chances and won a similar amount of duels. Milner’s goal tally thanks to his expertise from the spot was invaluable while he general shot accuracy was much higher than the often wayward Moreno. Klopp was ridiculed at first for playing Milner there but few would look back now in retrospect and disagree with him. It was a very smart move by the manager.
Another way in which statistics don’t tell the whole story is with goalkeepers. In a sport such as ice hockey, save percentage is very useful indicator in the ability of the net minder given the size of his equipment relative to the goal. The same principal cannot be applied as easily to football as many shots at the top level are simply unstoppable no matter who would be in the goal. The only way to make this stat relevant would be to expand it and look at the save percentage on shots that the goalie “should” save for example. Clearly, this could be a victim of subjectivity but at least it would be a more worthwhile statistic. The fact that Simon Mignolet is near the bottom of the league in save percentage may be held against him, but until we truly look at the overall quality of shots he has faced goal by goal it is relatively worthless.
The same can be said of clean sheets, a stat which has forever won goalkeepers accolades and praise when in reality it is as much a team award over anything else. Many of the keepers who keep the most clean sheets rarely even face that many shots on goal. And yet when discussing a goalie, it is often the go to statistic. It really doesn’t make much sense to me. The goalkeeper position is comfortably the most difficult position to evaluate because more often than not the eye test is the best way to judge their ability.
Goalkeepers especially on good teams spend so much of games idle that it is an extreme test of their focus and mental fortitude. These characteristics cannot be as easily measured as outfield players. Mignolet often gets criticism but it is hard to argue that he is not incredibly mentally tough given the abuse he has had to endure and he typically comes out fighting on the other side. Realistically, they are few goalies who are universally considered to be world class because of the difficulty of playing the role. The Moneyball approach isn’t as effective for goalkeepers at the very top level but again it makes us aware of what statistics we should and shouldn’t be focusing on with that position. We certainly could do better in this regard.
Harry Kane is currently the most dangerous striker in the Premier League and for good reason. He scores goals in a variety of different ways and has a good chance conversion ratio. Our very own Mo Salah is pushing him hard for the Golden Boot but his manner of scoring goals on paper is much more one dimensional than Kane and he misses far more big chances than his Spurs counter part. Further down the scoring charts we have Romelu Lukaku who is proving scoring stats can be misleading. He has fairly good numbers on paper overall but has struggled mightily against stronger teams of late. In short, we can see again that the statistics we mostly use to analyze players are often not the most appropriate. We truly have to start analyzing deeper to truly compare the value and worth of particular players.
When evaluating goal scorers we also rarely take into account when goals are scored. A goal of course is always a goal but the fifth goal in a 5-0 rout shouldn’t really hold as much weight statistically as a winning goal in a tight clash that wins a team three valuable points directly. Two great cases in recent history would be Dirk Kuyt and Carlos Tevez. Neither were prolific scorers in England but you knew when they did score it meant something relevant to the eventual outcome of the match.
We can even take this idea and compare assists as well. Should assists be broken down into more categories because as we all know, a brilliant sweeping cross from the wing finding a striker’s head to score isn’t the same as a simple pass infield that the ensuing player scores a cracker form 30 yards. Yet they are counted the same and eventually used as arguments in support of a player in the same manner. There really has to be a better way.
As football observers we have been stuck in a rut for a while. We have mostly relied on a series of statistics to evaluate players that aren’t always the optimal tools for analysis. It is by delving deeper into what statistics really mean and using that information in the transfer market that can truly benefit a team even in this day and age of astronomical fees. The most recent example will be how Liverpool deal with the loss of the often brilliant Philippe Coutinho. Fortunately for supporters, the squad he left behind has already been assembled in such a fashion that his departure shouldn’t be as big a blow as many imagine. Onwards and upwards Reds!
“Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” is a book by Michael Lewis that was released in 2004.