West Ham Capture Downing But Can 'Moneyball' Approach Work For The Hammers?

After West Ham confirmed the £6m capture of former Liverpool winger Stewart Downing, can The Hammers make a success of the 'Moneyball' approach which failed so spectacularly at Liverpool?
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After West Ham confirmed the £6m capture of former Liverpool winger Stewart Downing, can The Hammers make a success of the 'Moneyball' approach which failed so spectacularly at Liverpool?

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In light of Stewart Downing's £6m arrival at West Ham from Liverpool, where he's to be reunited with former teammate Andy Carroll, the recent transfer policy at Anfield again comes into sharp focus. Let's face the facts: it makes embarrassing reading. Downing and Carroll were signed for a total cost of £55m under the disastrous reign of former Liverpool Director of Football, Damien Comolli. Sam Allardyce has managed to sign Downing and Carroll for a combined £21m which could prove to be wily business, and the massive loss of £34m on Liverpool's accounts explains John W. Henry's more conservative approach to transfer business this summer. Perhaps Allardyce and the West Ham hierarchy can make a success of Comolli's original remit: to replicate the American baseball concept of 'Moneyball'. Taking an analytical approach with statistics to maximise profitability for a club and gain an edge on the competition. In  this age of inflated prices and ludicrous transfers, it seemed a reasonable way forward.

Here's an article we published on Sabotage Times in June 2011, questioning whether Comolli's appointment would bring success to Liverpool. We came to a mixed conclusion; oh, the benefit of hindsight... 

Comolli is a strange character in English football. A director of football in a country which has historically shunned them. A man who has moved across derbies and divides, from Arsenal to Spurs and now to Liverpool. His record in the transfer market attracts almost as much debate as the Pele/Maradona one. Now at Liverpool, he's been given a large amount of money to help Dalglish build a team which will reassert Liverpool into the Champions League positions.

Comolli's record is not a bland one. Big hits in Berbatov, Bale and Modric are balanced out by the awful signings of Mido, Bentley, and Giovani who went from the highs of Barcelona to exile at Ipswich within a couple of years. The project articulated by NESV is clear, quickly rebuild Liverpool into a top team on the back of promising, young English talent. This will be risky and exciting but above all else expensive. The signing of Andy Carroll was as much Comolli re-establishing himself in English football as it was a desire to secure Carroll. Newcastle offered Carroll around for a fraction of the price the previous summer and the £35 million eventually paid for Carroll makes him more expensive than David Villa, a centre forward with an unparalleled record throughout Europe in recent seasons. The transfer logic in moving heaven and earth to secure Carroll, once they had Luis Suarez is strange even for Liverpool in the recent years. What does make sense is Comolli's desire to re-announce himself as a serious player in English football. Liverpool under his direction moved quickly and decisively to secure a player who they saw as the future of Liverpool and England regardless of the price tag.

Have Liverpool got the right man to help them rebuild? What has his record been like in his two previous English clubs? Comolli spoke with some justifiable pride at 'his team' in the Champions League. He was instrumental in bringing many of the players who started against Internazionale through into the Spurs set up. Spurs' two outstanding performers in Gareth Bale and Luka Modric in the Champions League were Comolli signings. While the outlay on both was considerable, with £25 million for the pair this now seems excellent value with both players easily being able to demand that each. It's not just flair players that he's brought through with Kaboul and Hutton providing defensive cover. Although how anyone justifies paying £10 million pounds for a Scottish player is beyond me when there are oceans of South Americans out there.

His record in the transfer market attracts almost as much debate as the Pele/Maradona one.

He also had success at Arsenal bringing through Gael Clichy, a player who he might sign again for Liverpool. The reputations of both Eboue and Toure might seem a little suspect now but they both were in the team which reached the Champions League Final in 2006. This does highlight an issue with Comolli's transfer policy, few players are consistent, their initial performance after purchase often does not reflect their true worth.

Players like Clichy and Toure have started brightly then faded whilst other like Darren Bent and Kevin Prince-Boateng have enjoyed success after Comolli decided they weren't worth it any more. Even Gareth Bale, the player who's held up as the prime example of his talents suffered from a stuttering start to his Spurs career. Only Luka Modric really stands out as a player who has been a real success from the start. Whilst this is a slightly vacuous statistic in that there various reasons why some players succeed at a club and others don't, the lack of consistent performers might raise some eyebrows.

Liverpool fans should hope that Carroll and Henderson fall in the Modric bracket as they've handed over upwards of £50 million for the pair. Both players have enjoyed some success this year to be sure, but the prices they have commanded suggests that Liverpool sees them both as players who can make an immediate impact at the club whilst also forming the nucleus of a new Liverpool team. £50 million is far too much money for an aspirational punt on players.

This does highlight an issue with Comolli's transfer policy, few players are consistent, their initial performance after purchase often does not reflect their true worth.

One aspect of player identification that Comolli has picked up from Wenger is a focus on statistics in assessing a player's ability. He has spoken at some length about the role statistics play in the selection of new players. With the signing of Luis Suarez for example Comolli and Liverpool looked at his passing statistics in the final third as well as analysing how long the player would spend injured over the course of his Ajax career. Comolli has been at the forefront of the use of statistical modelling in English football since his time under Wenger. He has a close friendship with the father of statistical modelling in sports, Oakland A's Billy Beane whose provincial baseball team has consistently performed above their weight using methods of statistical analysis. Whilst most teams now use statistics in one way or another, Comolli along with Wenger and Allardyce (yes that one) are among its devotees. Comolli has found the right owner to work under with John W Henry also being a self described 'numbers guy'. His baseball team the Boston Red Socks have won two World Series using these methods, an encouraging fact for Liverpool fans desperate for trophies again.

What will be of interest to the Anfield faithful is the ability of the club to balance these new expensive Comolli purchases with theacademy which is finally beginning to produce talent who can fit into the Liverpool squad. The signing of Henderson in particular will put Spearing's place in the team in jeopardy. For a long time Liverpool's ability to produce youth players has been deficient, a fact which is more glaring in contrast to the youth players coming through at Manchester Utd and Manchester City. Now, after reforms that Rafael Benitez put in place the academy is beginning to produce players like John Flanagan and Jack Robinson. The challenge for Comolli and Dalglish to allow these players to come through whilst still bringing in young English players.

Damien Comolli, a man who has wandered across European and English football has found a home at Liverpool. For his own reputation and for the methods he uses, he has to get this Liverpool tenure correct. Do so whilst helping to form a core of future England stars and his status in English football is assured. Fail and he'll be forever remembered as the man who thought Mido was a Premier League striker.

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