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What The Henry-Beane-Comolli Connection Means for Roy Hodgson

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).

This entry was posted in General, Leagues: EPL. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to What The Henry-Beane-Comolli Connection Means for Roy Hodgson

  1. Jay says:

    Interesting.

    I would imagine though, that they have no interest in a manager candidate with a business degree.

    Using the Boston connection Comolli = Epstein. Francona = Whoever the new manager will be.

    Epstein is the Wunderkind sabremetrics guy with the degree. Francona being a journeyman player and not well known minor league manager prior to his job with the Sox. They will want a quality manager. But probablly not a big name who would be unwilling to work in that system.

  2. Marshy says:

    Good piece until the bit about Boothroyd. Whatever happens, at least Hodgson will not be allowed to blow millions on over the hill has beens like Poulsen and Konchesky. Hodgson now knows his days are numbered, shame he’s still got some time left to revise Liverpool’s expectations down towards his.

  3. jose says:

    if what you say is the front office of liverpool is always going to make the player decisions and evaluations instead of the manager, then it doesn’t matter what manager they get.

  4. soonerscotty says:

    “Simply put – player evaluation and transfer targeting is no longer in Hodgson’s court.”

    YES!!! Now we can get to the business of adjourning Hodgson’s court!!

    Interesting you only mention Olympique having this sort of system. The Spanish use a similar system where player acquisitions/removals are in the hands of a person separate from the manager (though the manager still has input). This is not simply an American system…it’s used elsewhere in the world; maybe it’s just not a traditional English system.

  5. soonerscotty says:

    BTW…you have a great picture but, you don’t tell us which one is Comolli??

  6. Brendan says:

    I LOVE this type of front office structure, and often wondered why it was so rare in European football. Create a chain of command, an infrastructure that is sustainable over the course of decades. Take the personnel decision-making away from the manager, and let him focus on things on the pitch.

    There’s a common misconception about “Moneyball” in regards to the A’s. The point of it wasn’t that they used statistical analysis and sabermetrics and thus knew more about players than anyone. While that’s partly true, the real reason they succeeded was that they found an undervalued asset in the marketplace and exploited it. I think the Reds are doing the same here.

    • Jay says:

      The only obvious difference being that it was, at the time, far easier to identify an undervalued asset in Baseball, which is essentialy sport for people who love spreadsheets, than it ever will be in football.

      Still interesting though.

      • Red20 says:

        It certainly seems like this is true, but we might just be a little shortsighted. Obviously baseball seems easier on the surface to evaluate statistically, but we might just be missing something in regards to football.

        I certainly hope they unlock some areas to exploit, but so far I couldn’t be happier with the direction this is going.

        • Kyle Austin says:

          @Red20 If you talk to Beane and other folks into data and video analysis they would compare soccer analysis more to basketball analysis than baseball. And it’s widely common in basketball with Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets really pushing the envelope. You simply need to find standardized ways for scoring players values on the field outside of goals, SOG %, etc (defensively, winning balls, transition, etc).

  7. Michael Fahey says:

    Interesting piece. However, while Theo Epstein was only 28 when he took over as Red Sox general manager, it is not accurate to say that he had “little background in professional baseball.” Prior to joining the Red Sox, Epstein was director of baseball operations for the San Diego Padres, and had previously served as assistant director of baseball operations for the Padres.
    Jay commented that Terry Francona was a “not well known minor league manager prior to his job with the Sox.” Francona previously managed the Philadelphia Phillies for four season from 1997 to 2000.

    • Kyle Austin says:

      @Michael – Thanks for the comment. Limited would have been a better word perhaps? He certainly didn’t have the typical amount of years under his belt that must GM’s do (youngest GM in baseball at the time). And perhaps more to the point he had “limited” experience in professional front offices and NO experience in playing professional baseball. That was a big change – and it was built upon by Beane w/ Paul DePodesta.

    • Jay says:

      D’oh, I completely missed his stint with the Phillies.

  8. Goal Addict says:

    I personally think that a manager should have full control of their team. That means everything that happens on the pitch and transfer dealings otherwise, it will cause problems and if in the future Liverpool ever want to bring in a top manager all the big boys will shy away from the job.

  9. 50 says:

    Well that’s the point isn’t it?
    They’re not looking to bring in one of the big boys.They’re looking to find a smart,ambitious,youngster,who if,is willing to buy into their system…could turn themselves into a top manager.

  10. Dave B. says:

    I’ve said since Henry and Company took over that Hodgson’s days were numbered. He’s just too old and stodgy for that ownership group. They’ll look for an up and comer – somebody who’s good with the players but also a forward thinker.

    Here’s the problem with having a manager make personnel decisions: he’s thinking more about short-term success than long-term implications. Soccernomics did a great job of discussing this and using OL as the basis for their study.

    Now that doesn’t mean you don’t talk to the manager. Any good working situation will have input from the manager and take that into consideration when getting players.

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