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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