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Damien Comolli: Here's Why The Moneyball Philosophy Was Never Going To Work At Liverpool

by Joe Hall
11 April 2012 15 Comments

Liverpool have sacked the man responsible for bringing in flops like Carroll, Downing and Henderson. Here's why the Frenchman's Moneyball philosophy was never going to work in football as it does in baseball.

Any sports fans looking for something more stimulating to watch this week more stimulating than Take Me Out should seek out a copy of Moneyball on DVD, released last Monday. For a Hollywood production starring Brad Pitt the film had a surprisingly brief stint in UK cinemas, distributors seemingly dismissive of the baseball subject matter’s resonance with a British audience.

Moneyball is based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis and as those who have seen the film or read the book will already know, one does not need to have any care for “America’s pastime” to become engrossed in the story and its ideas. The film tells the story of Billy Beane, a General Manager of the Oakland A’s who revolutionized the sport by building a winning team based on statistical data of players that was ignored or undervalued by everyone else. The influence of Beane’s approach stretches far beyond baseball and finds itself in the thoughts of Steve McClaren, Damien Comolli and Aidy Boothroyd to name a few; recognisable figures from football who are interested in its application in their sport.

Football, however, is a vastly different sport to baseball and the sport is still some distance away from fully embracing the “moneyball” method. The success of the approach for Beane’s Oakland A’s, and now many other teams, has caught the eye of those involved in football looking for new methods that can give them an advantage. A fierce debate rages from the blogs of football writers to the backrooms of coaching centres; to what extent can this model, of recruiting and deploying players based solely on statistical data, be applied to football? Can a top premiership team be constructed from a spreadsheet?

There are many who feel that it can and the previously mentioned Damien Comolli is one of the more well-known proponents of the “moneyball” philosophy. Football enthusiasts will be well aware of his position as Director of Football at Tottenham and now Liverpool. Comolli, who attended the World Cup in 2006 with Beane himself and was seen giving q & a sessions alongside screenings of the film last year, is a keen believer in the power of data. This thinking has undoubtedly influenced the recruitment policy he has implemented at both clubs and he revealed as much in an interview with LFC TV last summer. On the signing of Stewart Downing, Comolli stated:

“We look thoroughly into data before signing players, as well as statistics, and we really think we are getting a big, big asset throughout. Maybe his talent has been undervalued in English football. We know what we will get and we are getting a very efficient player.”

Substitute “English Football” for “American Baseball” and you probably have a line read by Brad Pitt in the movie. Finding players with under-valued, but important, statistics is the simplified version of the “moneyball” recruitment policy. Yet as I am sure Liverpool fans will agree, Downing has not quite been the runaway success his cross conversion percentage at Villa last season, 24 %, suggested. Last season, when both at Villa, Ashley Young made 11 assists while Downing made 9. This stat would suggest both players are of a similar effectiveness as wingers. This season, however, we have seen Young enjoy a certain amount of success at United, making seven assists so far from 84 crosses. Conversely, Downing has made a total of 1 assist from 122 crosses. As crude as these statistics may be, they still reveal a stark change of fortunes for the Liverpool. What they do not do, is explain why. It is unlikely that Downing has suddenly and unexplainably deteriorated as a player, so we must look beyond numbers.

Critics of the “moneyball” approach in football often claim that statistics will never work as football is too fluid in comparison to a structured sport such as baseball. Baseball and cricket are sports where every action is inextricably linked to the outcome of the match. Here, every play is a set play that follows roughly the same format. The same cannot be said of football however. Every game differs just as every team differs in their approach. What stats are we to look to then in the quest for footballing truth? The formulaic nature of baseball allowed figures such as Billy Beane to work out the statistic with the highest correlation to winning; on-base percentage. The more players a team had with a high on-base percentage meant the more wins the team was likely to achieve. The divergent nature of football, however, makes it near impossible to find one key statistic. Players deployed in a match between Blackburn and Stoke will undoubtedly require different qualities to win than those required in a match between Arsenal and Man City. Similarly, if City or Arsenal were to come up against Stoke one would expect that the important statistics would change.

With the increased scrutiny of statistics that the “moneyball” debate has brought, the role of tactics has been overlooked. Tactics define a team’s style and approach. They determine who should play and how they should play. Too often the debate over statistics has fallen too hard on either side. Statistics aren’t useless but neither can they be utilized to create winning teams. First and foremost, a team must have a definitive vision. If a team chooses to press high up the pitch, prioritising possession, then certain statistics will be useful in finding the right players to come into the team. Defenders will be expected to be comfortable with the ball and to provide accurate distribution; the pass completion rate of a player will therefore be a useful reference point. Similarly, a defender in such a formation will have to be fast and strong, able to contend with counter-attacking play. Here, a player’s “high intensity output” (his ability to meet a speed threshold of 7 metres per second) will be enlightening; how quickly can he recover if a mistake is made? Will he be able to contend with fast strikers? Arsene Wengers’ purchase of Mathieu Flamini, for example, was based on the fact that in the absence of Vieira Arsenal required a midfielder who could match his athleticism and ground coverage. Stats revealed Flamini was averaging 14km a game in ground covered. Flamini was brought in on a free and formed part of a successful midfield that saw the blossoming of Cesc Fabregas. If a team were to adopt a more defensive approach however, with less emphasis based on possession and more on defensive solidity and direct attacks different statistics will be helpful in finding the right players. Interception rates for defenders and cross conversion rates for midfielders would naturally be far more important.

We can begin to understand, therefore, why Downing’s impressive stats last season have not translated into success this season. Aston Villa have long adopted a counter-attacking approach, last season they average only 48% possession. Liverpool under Dalglish are an entirely different beast. With Suarez as a focal point of attack, as opposed to Darren Bent and a partner, and a midfield orientated towards dominating games different skills are required of Downing. This season he often finds himself up against congested defences, receiving the ball far higher up the pitch. Downing has therefore suffered from an unclear tactical philosophy at Liverpool. This is demonstrated by their conflicting purchases of both Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll last winter, two players with impressive statistics at their previous clubs but do not compliment the other’s style of play and require different tactical set ups to get the best out of their play. Dalglish is still to find the perfect formula. In football therefore the tactics on the chalkboard should always come first; the spreadsheet comes second.

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Rob 12:19 pm, 28-Mar-2012

Fantastic article.

Smithy 8:23 pm, 28-Mar-2012

Really good article but I disagree with the title. Despite him saying so, Comolli's philosophy wasn't 'Moneyball'. He did use stats, but he also massively overpayed for players (Henderson, Carroll, Downing) so nobody could rightly argue that they were "ignored or undervalued by everyone else". You can't pick and choose bits of a philosophy and still claim it to be the same.

Proops 8:59 pm, 29-Mar-2012

Agree with Smithy. The point of Moneyball is to find value, not just the most obvious stats that everyone else is looking at. That's why Billy Beane is convinced Arsène Wenger must have have set of stats he looks at but doesn't reveal. But also, football is way more complicated in one regard than baseball: it's far more international. So you can effectively get an edge in the system by taking the top-performing players from a different league. Look at Newcastle's recruitment of Cabaye, for example. He's a player who's considerably more influential than Charlie Adam, but came at a fraction of the cost. If any team has played Moneyball over the last couple of seasons (selling players at a high price because of less useful statistics) and buying under-priced players, look no further than the north-east, at Newcastle and to a lesser extent Sunderland. Both big sellers to Liverpool and both purchasing high-value players from foreign leagues.

J 2:51 pm, 30-Mar-2012

Undoubtedly Newcastle have found better value for money than Liverpool in the transfer market. This article is more about stats aspect of "moneyball" and the fallacy that they can be used to gain real success in football. There is no evidence to suggest Cabaye was bought on the findings of the spreadsheet yet Comolli has hinted at this being a motivating factor for Liverpool a number of times.

mixer 11:13 am, 12-Apr-2012

Moneyball was devised for BASEBALL recruitment, not gridiron.

Jonny 11:25 am, 12-Apr-2012

Stats and the Moneyball approach could be applied in football like any other sport...the assumption of the approach is that players are undervalued. With Andy Carroll (£35m), Jordan Henderson (£16m)and Stewart Downing (£20m) this was clearly not the case. Comolli failed at delivering on one of the key components of the Moneyball approach and that's why he failed

Keith 10:55 pm, 12-Apr-2012

Can't be applied to football. Football requires the player to perform multiple tasks throughout a game it doesn't matter if you cross rate is 24% or 70% if your useless the rest of the time your playing effectively a man down. in baseball however if someone has a 70% catching rate and is useless elsewhere that can still be utilized to the teams advantage by placing the player where that is largely all that will be required of him. Also in football a players stats can be woe full but the player himself can be sublime for instance but a Ben Arfa up against a Kuyt and I'm sure stats wise its Kuyt every time, but who is the more likely to turn the game in your favor? and yes I'm aware that somewhat contradicts the above but that also helps prove the point.In Baseball stats rule bad stats bad player 99.9% of the time.

Colin 1:01 am, 13-Apr-2012

Great news this! Lay all the blame on Comolli and absolve KKK dalglish of any fuck-ups with transfers and wasting £Gazillions. Now only if those lfc owners would extend his contract for ten years and everyone is happy.

Alv 9:08 am, 13-Apr-2012

Amazing article. really liked your analysis on the role of tactics. However i disagree with one point: The moneyball system is effective in any sport if used properly. Cricket has by default been using moneyball, but baseball, basketball and now afl (in aus) are benefiting from using the system. Liverpool might not have profited in their first season in using a similar system, but simply saying that moneyball will not work at the club or at any club is false; eg. suarez, enrique and bellamy were all moneyball signings. Only by waiting another season will we see a clearer picture.

hitchysack 11:31 am, 13-Apr-2012

Newcastle learned from past mistakes in the transfer market and and changed their transfer policy, this has not happened overnight and in signing under 25, hungry players with ambition on incentive based long contracts and with a deep-rooted scouting system overseen by the impressive geordie john carr have found a solid formula and at present have two quality players identified for every position incase anyone offers 'andy carrol' money for any present players. This combined with bringing players through the academy and harnessing local talent are the foundations of the clubs present transfer policy. This combined with their big club status and huge fan base as well as running the club on a sound financial basis bodes well for the club and in todays economic realities they seem to be a step in front of most clubs and may eventually reach the potential they have always had.

ODIEY 1:29 pm, 13-Apr-2012

I once consulted for a Prem League team in terms of statistical analysis and some of the comments in the article are false. You can create overall statistics that show a players worth to a team over a full season. These statistics then give you an idea about how your team will fair with or without said player in the line-up. As with all stats some are better than other and some are more related to success than others. Furthermore, like us all players are subject to seasons of brilliance and seasons or poor play. The trick is to use advanced analysis to predict future perforamnce and reduce the risk. As an example Downing has been very up and down in his career. Average his performance out over then last few years, look at the key stats in the correct format, project for age, injury, team and you get a player that is about average in attack but below average in defence. For liverpool to improve up the league they need to buy players that are well above average in attack and defence. Its really all about production. If flair leads to production then great. If not rubbish. Think Mark Gonzalez - loads of speed, some flair zero production. The use of stats is to plug productive players into the squad so the manager has the ability to flex the other stats by opponent. The issue is everyone knows the good players and they cost loads and the inefficiencies are harder to find than in other sports. The reason being goals are the currency in football and thus goals and goal creation are the most important stats and these are already highly sort after. There are inefficiencies, however, such as defensive ability and positions that are under valued. Hope that helps

Matt Weiner 1:36 pm, 13-Apr-2012

odiey this is fascinating. would you like to write a piece in response? basically a slightly longer version of this 600 - 800 words? email

ODIEY 3:47 pm, 13-Apr-2012

Thanks for the invitation. I've written something to your email address.

Jerry 11:42 am, 23-Apr-2012

How is Henderson a flop? He was £16 million, is 21, and has been played out of position for most of the season....and you're paid to be a journalist....

Kopshirts 2:30 pm, 4-Sep-2012

I agree with some of the points that are made in this article and the comment by Odiey. However, there is a schism between FSG's desire to buy players with promise and imposing them into a system of play adopted by the manager. Dalglish was given a 3 year contract and over £100M, the bulk of which was spent on promising 'prospects'. A system and style of play was lacking so the prospects didn't shine. Also, despite the statistics, they don't show you the mental capacity of a player to handle playing at Liverpool (eg if Liverpool go one-nil behind, do we have the fortitude to get back into the game)?. Are Jordan Henderson, Downing, Carroll and Adam awful footballers or not good enough for Liverpool? If so, will coaching make them better able to perform in Rodgers 4-3-3 style? I think it would which is part of reason why the move for Clint Dempsey wasn't sanctioned.

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