Damien Comolli is headed back to England. Comolli, the former Arsenal scout and director of football at Tottenham Hotspur, has been appointed by John Henry and his ownership team as director of football strategy at Anfield. The Frenchman, who was most recently the sporting director at Saint-Étienne, has established himself as a talent evaluator that thrives on finding undervalued players. He also shares a network with John Henry in the world of sports metrics and analytics.
While Comolli was at White Hart Lane he became good friends with Major League Baseball General Manager Billy Beane. Beane was on top of the world at the time with his analysis of the Oakland A’s baseball team through objective data on display in bookshelves across the world in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. Comolli originally reached out to Beane with the hope of introducing the approach to European football and the two struck up a friendship that would lead to Spurs visiting Beane’s other franchise – Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes. Comolli wasn’t the only person admiring Bean’s work. A few year’s earlier John Henry pursued Beane to run the Red Sox organization when he purchased it.
When Beane eventually passed on the opportunity (after originally accepting it), Henry turned to current Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein – a Yale graduate with little background in professional baseball. Since taking the reigns of the Red Sox, Epstein – with Henry’s backing – has focused on developing talent that produce in less appreciated but more statistically important categories.
Despite passing on the Red Sox, Beane and Henry have stayed close through the years. Strangely enough, Beane was in England when Henry’s take-over of Liverpool was completed on a panel with Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger discussing the use of statistical analysis. There is little doubt in this case that Henry reached out to Beane for assistance in pinpointing Comolli as the man to implement his system into the Premier League. Beane has taken to football and American soccer since striking up his friendship with Comolli (He’s an avid fan of Spurs despite Damien not being there) and after the Oakland A’s ownership team bought the San Jose Earthquakes he agreed to assist them in building a method for building a cost-effective club to compete with the MLS’ salary cap.
So what does all this mean for Liverpool and Roy Hodgson? Simply put – player evaluation and transfer targeting is no longer in Hodgson’s court. Comolli, who many will hail in Anfield today as the man that signed Mr. All-World Gareth Bale at Tottenham (looks better now than it did then), should be recognized more for bringing in Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Gael Clichy to Arsenal for a fraction of their future worth. Just as Henry has relinquished complete control to Theo Epstein in the baseball personnel department at Fenway he is entrusting Comolli at Anfield to find football players that are undervalued.
While its common place in the EPL for managers to implement new systems as they swap jobs like its musical chairs, Henry wants to put an American-like system in place for the long-haul that operates from the front office down. The approach will likely emulate Olympique Lyonnais and their focus on handing the reigns over to a football director rather than putting the reigns in hands of short-term managers and coaches. With Comolli in this like role Liverpool fans can expect more signings and re-signings of players like Martin Skrtel – rather than big name splashes. But that may be a good thing for the long-term outlook at the club.
However, it doesn’t help the long-term outlook for Hodgson – even if he wins. It’s widely known in baseball circles that the Henry and Epstein had their mind made up to fire Red Sox manager Grady Little after the 2003 season – and would have done so, even if they won the World Series. He simply wasn’t the man to oversee their system on a day-to-day basis. It’d be hard to believe that they feel differently about Hodgson. Comolli has a similar track record when it comes to having a quick trigger. His return to Saint-Étienne as sporting director in 2008 quickly led to the departure of manager Laurent Roussey. If Henry’s past overtures are a barometer he and Comoli will have their eyes on a new manager after the season that they can shape into the day-to-day overseer of their system. Perhaps a young, aspiring manager, with a business degree on the wall and statistics on the mind like Aidy Boothroyd?
Follow Kyle Austin’s updates on the business side of football and soccer at http://socceronomist.com
Editor’s note: Listen to EPL Talk’s exclusive interview with Billy Beane from April 2010 where he discusses Comolli, Tottenham Hotspur and more. If you haven’t read Moneyball, it’s a must read/listen. Get a free audiobook from Audible today (Moneyball or another title).