How to Implement Soccernomics Without Using Numbers
Modern times have led to modern advancements, and modern movies starring Brad Pitt as a maverick. The trailer of Moneyball made me want to see the movie; the partnership of the outspoken Billy Beane and stubby Peter Brand was something I had to witness myself. Overall, the movie wasn’t bad, but it had a good idea behind it. Look at statistics, the hard-core facts, and the results are there for all to predict. This was the story of a partnership that utilized the wonders of the 21st century. Statistics, they quipped, were a message nature hides in the midst of the formalities of sport, all made available through technology. Numbers. Statistical analysis. However, while watching, the only thing I could think about was a partnership forged back when a computer was slower than a Prius.
Brian Clough and Peter Taylor won the European Cup two years in a row in 1977 and 1978 with Nottingham Forest. Forest was an average side before their arrival, the term provincial coming to mind. We’ve all heard it before. Clough, fresh from a managerial failure at Leeds United and a confusing few months at Brighton, and Taylor, fresh from a feud with Clough, reunited to promote their team to the First Division and subsequently win the league the next season. European Cup successes followed, and a legacy at Forest was achieved. All of this was compounded by the fact that unlike many successful present-day sides, Clough and Taylor never made a poor signing.
Bringing the subject back to Moneyball, it is important to point out that after Billy Beane’s successes, the theory was accepted. Teams began using the system, and “important statistics” became a thing of the past: every statistic was important. Every statistic was looked at. It evolved into a way of doing things, a style. It brought sides success. Isn’t a winning “formula” every manager’s dream?
Damien Comolli was a good friend of Billy Beane, the man who first experimented with Moneyball. Comolli has worked at Arsenal, Tottenham, and most recently Liverpool, and famously employs the idea of soccernomics. He has been known to look at statistics in his transfer dealings, and one should think that positions at top clubs show his success in his field. Except not.
Recently, none other than Arsene Wenger has spoken out against Comolli’s methods. Indeed, it seems the only players Comolli can take credit for signing are left backs; and that doesn’t include Gareth Bale. The performances of Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam apparently were the last straw in his Liverpool tenure. A poor record, indeed.
So here is the eventual argument, one that purists of the beautiful game jump to immediately. Football is a team sport. You can’t buy players based on their statistics, even if they are undervalued, just like you can’t buy the most expensive players and expect to mold a successful team. Buying a left back because of his successful pass completion into the final third would be futile if he did not track back effectively. In Moneyball, a player who did not have a working arm was recruited. It worked for a reason that I can’t explain because I don’t follow baseball. That sort of radicalism that embodied the spirit of statistical analysis in sport would be impossible in soccer. The case of Owen Hargreaves comes to mind. I’d like to offer a quote from Mick McCarthy:
“Statistics are like mini-skirts. They give you good ideas, but hide the most important things.”
He said it better than I ever could.
Brian Clough proved that you don’t need to look at statistics to compile a side that can conquer Europe on a fairly limited budget. He won the European Cup in 1977 and ’78 with Nottingham Forest. His signings included Peter Shilton, Frank Clark, Kenny Burns, and Trevor Francis, all successful at Forest and all sold for a profit. Clough’s partnership with Peter Taylor was something that no computer could recreate or improve on, and history has been a testament to that. This is the view of an idealist, of course — nostalgia playing a part in remembering the lack of similar partnerships in today’s game. Today, there is not a partnership that utilizes one man to identify a talented player, and another to get the most out of him. Instead, a manager’s influence often sees him doubling up on these duties. The role of sporting directors like Damien Comolli has been mitigated because of past notable failures. Yes, there are notable Number 2’s such as Ray Wilkins, formerly of Chelsea, and Tito Vilanova of Barcelona. However, the manager has the final say in transfer matters, and the next largest influence is from the chairman. So the question remains: In the 21st century, is this lack of reliance on intuition a good thing?
How Wenger Did It
I was shocked when Pedro Leon, formerly of Real Madrid, was not picked by Wenger last summer. He had just earned himself a move to Real Madrid from fellow capital club Getafe, helping them to a Europa League spot in his debut season. He was mainly deployed on the right side of midfield for Getafe, but was used as a substitute for Mourinho’s side. Sometimes. After a spat with the Portuguese coach, it was mutually decided that Pedro Leon would move on. Although his work rate was criticized, he was still a talented player. He just couldn’t find his way into a side with Ronaldo, DiMaria, Ozil, and Kaka. With the arrival of Jose Callejon, Pedro Leon was shipped off on loan to Getafe, where he and his side currently are laboring to stay in La Liga.
Compare his story to that of Bergkamp. The Dutchman impressed with parent club Ajax before earning himself a move to Inter Milan, where he found playing time difficult to come by. After a frustrating few months, he decided that he needed to seek first team football. Arsenal came calling, and although it was not Wenger who made the signing, it embodied the shrewd kind of business that the Frenchman would become famous for.
A prime example of good business was Thierry Henry, the man who many claim is the best striker to have graced English shores. He had a prolific time at Monaco, and a lucrative move to Juventus followed. Deployed in a role on the left, Henry found life in Italy hard, not least due to the fact that by the late 90’s, the bushy mustache he sported was already out of fashion. Arsenal picked up the Frenchman, and to say it was a good signing would be a huge understatement.
How about another member of the legendary Invincibles squad? Robert Pires was a star with Metz and his appearances caught the eye of Marseille. A €5m move and two troubled years came next for Pires, and he eventually fell out with his directors. Wenger made a swoop for him, put him on the left, and “Bobby” tortured right backs in the England for six years, picking up multiple individual gongs in the process, and a two Premier League medals.
I could go on about Patrick Vieira, Kanu, or Jens Lehman, but I won’t, in the interest of Wikipedia being over-exhausted.
So let’s look back at Pedro Leon’s case. Mourinho was so impressed with the young winger that he parted with €10m to make bring him to the Bernabeu. No apparent interest from Wenger, or any top team for that matter. Andre-Pierre Gignac, at one point France’s first choice striker, was the recipient of an even larger price tag in his move from Toulouse to Marseille. Two years later, and he is rotting on the bench at the French club, with Loic Remy and the mediocre Brazilian hitman Brandao preferred. There was interest from Fulham, but they bought Pogrebnyak instead. Lucas Barrios was first-choice last year as the spearhead of Borussia Dortmund’s attack, but has since been taken over by Robert Lewandowski. Again, Fulham were linked in January, but interest from the top clubs has been stagnant. All three of Pedro Leon, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Lucas Barrios would make fine additions to Arsenal’s squad. And they’d be cheap.
The numbers that I looked at when making these observations were limited to price-tags. You don’t need to have an economics degree to understand that Pedro Leon, a hard-working winger who likes to come inside and has a nose for goal, would be a fine long term complement to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. You don’t need to look at the amount of touches Andre-Pierre Gignac has had in his opponent’s penalty area to see that his single-minded goal scoring and physical ability would be a success in the Premier League. You don’t need to make a chart of won headers vs. lost headers to see that Lucas Barrios doesn’t miss chances very often. It’s the principle that if a player can impress at any stage in his career, if a player shows any glimpses of being world-class, then he can achieve anything with the help of a decent manager. That’s where Clough-like characters come in. Sir Alex, Wenger, and Mourinho are all similar to Clough in principle: hard man-managers who get the best of their players by motivating them. Somehow. We’ve seen it with Cantona, and we’ve seen Mancini try it with Balotelli. I’m not saying that Pedro Leon, Gignac, and Barrios are the new Pires, Henry, and Bergkamp. But they are an improvement on the overrated Gervinho, and could all benefit from Wenger’s mentorship.
Then there is the need for a Peter Taylor-like figure; however, these days, you often see Clough and Taylor’s roles combined into one role. It is unfortunate because every traditionalist wants to see such a partnership recreated. There was a glimmer of hope when sporting directors like Damien Comolli were hailed as integral figures in a football club. We now know that signing Benoit Assou-Ekotto does not rival Peter Taylor’s contributions.
Of course, this all goes with the idea that a player should be signed when his market value has depreciated unjustly, just like when I got rich by telling my parents to buy HP when one of its top executives had an affair. Contradicting me right now is probably my good friend, who once pointed out the flaws of treating players like stocks. His words:
“(Wenger) buys too many prospects, not proven quality. Which is fine if you’re buying stocks, but not when the stocks want to play for Citeh after three years.”
Bar Robin van Persie, what Arsenal stocks are Manchester City currently interested in? As a Tottenham fan, it doesn’t pain me to say that the answer is ‘none’. Wilshire will probably come good after a long injury layoff, and the investment in Oxlade-Chamberlain has looked a shrewd move by Wenger. Vermaelen has been solid, but is made of mayonnaise, as is Kieran Gibbs. Song and Koscielny are too inconsistent, and Gervinho is unarguably underwhelming. Sagna isn’t getting any younger, while Ramsey has never looked the same since that injury. Park Chu Young’s finishing is suspect, while Walcott is… well, Walcott. It is not a coincidence that Wenger’s policy of “buy young and cheap” has stuttered: if you look at it, every player has underwent psychological issues because of the sheer hype surrounding them. Don’t get me wrong. The quality in every single Arsenal prospect is evident; it’s not like Wenger is signing fifteen Bebes and ignoring expectations. He is just buying the wrong prospects: wasting money on the wrong prospects. Oh deary me.
Are numbers what you need to deem a young player good enough to succeed in the Premier League? Is the only way for Arsene Wenger to ensure that his youth policy does not backfire through statistical analysis? No.
Make the Formation Suit the Players, Not Vice-Versa
One of the most difficult things to do as a young player is to be played in a system that does not inhibit one’s strengths. Look at Germany as an example of when this kind of caution is taken. From youth levels to the senior side, the same 4-2-3-1 is utilized. In South Africa in 2010, a team of talented German youngsters fitted in seamlessly. In fact, Germany’s only loss occurred when Thomas Muller was suspended and there was no able replacement for him. In the semi-final, Piotr Trochowski was drafted in to a position he was unused to, replaced by Toni Kroos late on. Both were creative midfield players, unable to work their way inside because of Spain’s packed midfield. As a result, Germany’s plan to let Phillip Lahm overlap was futile, as Trochowski, and then Kroos were outnumbered in possession. A better option would have been to switch to a rigid 4-4-2, the formation Uruguay have used to brilliant effect during the tournament, with Ozil behind Podolski and Klose, and a three-man midfield. One fond memory begs.
Liverpool post-Alonso anyone? Alonso’s move to Madrid caused panic on the red side of Liverpool. No longer would top teams have to break down Mascherano and Alonso, with Gerrard in a role behind Torres. Liverpool waned finishing in 7th, five places worse than their previous season’s position. Over the summer the names Gareth Barry, Lorik Cana and even Lee Catermole were all mentioned, and Liverpool eventually opted for a like-for-like replacement in Alberto Aquiliani. Even when fit, the Italian never looked ready for the task of replacing Alonso. He was farmed out on loan to AC Milan in August, deemed a surplus to requirements, and Liverpool’s midfield has been completely reshuffled since.
Could anyone replace Alonso? Maybe a few midfielders in the world could, but the cash-strapped Benitez at the time could not afford them. Meanwhile, Manchester United was making do with Michael Carrick every week. Similarly, no one in Germany’s squad could replace Thomas Muller. But there were other options.
At the time, there was one player I was dying for Liverpool to sign. One player. And I’m not even a Liverpool fan. Ever Banega was looking to go out on loan from Valencia, having found life in Spain difficult to adapt to. Since a move to Everton fell through because of work permit issues, he has been capped by Argentina and linked with Juventus. He was a perfect “replacement” for Alonso, playing slightly further forward than the Spanish international. Unlike Mascherano, Banega was comfortable in a 4-4-2. Instead, Liverpool’s midfield and top-four challenge was forced to make do with Lucas. Lucas. Before he was good.
Moving on, I again address the issue of a North London side with not enough good defenders in their arsenal. Many were expecting Wenger to sign a young, central defender from France in response to Vermaelen’s constant injury problems, or because Koscielny can actually be quite rubbish. Unfortunately, his procrastination issues caused him to sign the player everyone knew would be too slow for the Premier League — Mertesacker. It remains to be seen whether Wenger’s Arsenal funding is living off Social Security, or if he missed class when the professor was doing his little bit on “investment”. However, converting Alex Song to a center back, which would complement Arsenal’s “brand of attractive football”, while instead looking for an extra midfielder to not play Coquelin would have been a much better idea. There would never be a like-for-like replacement for someone like Kolo Toure or a young Sol Campbell. It is useless to look for one. Everton commanding £20 for Phil Jagielka is testament to that. But you can shuffle things around. You need only to look as far as Wigan to see that.
In the past, I have lost $10, a pack of gum, and a pair of expensive shorts when betting on Wigan to be relegated. Under Roberto Martinez, they finally look to be safe, with a line led by Chelsea reject Franco DiSanto, Victor Moses, and Jordi Gomez. In their win against Manchester United, the winner was scored by Shaun Maloney, whose previous experience in England was a failed stint at Aston Villa. Their back line features the sometimes-impressive Antolin Alcaraz, one of the Caldwells, and left-back Figureoa, and I could go on but teary eyes make the screen difficult to see.
Wigan’s switch to a 3-4-3 has been both shocking and genius. Ed Boyce- averagely named- has been turned into an impressive right-sided midfielder, while his opposite number Jean Beausejour provides a much needed blend of flair and efficiency. James McCarthy and James McArthur are not rubbish, while Victor Moses is touted for a senior call up for England this summer after developing impressively this season. But with the 4-3-3, Wigan was stagnating. They were playing the “we play attractive football so our results don’t matter” card. And Martinez’s 3-4-3 is far from boring, using the same personnel.
I’m not saying that Wigan deserve to be Champions League winners and top of the Premier League for their efforts and change of system. I’m not saying that Manchester United should switch to a 3-4-3. And I am certainly not saying that when things aren’t going well, just do something else. What I am saying, however, is that no two people are the same. Therefore no two teams are the same. In soccer, just like in life, there is an ideal way of doing things and a way that some would argue is much more in touch with reality. Then there is the way of doing things that is perfect, and chances are it is difficult to find. Chances are, especially since every case is different, that perfect way, that perfect system, will never be found. After decades in football, Roberto Martinez has come pretty close, but it took some time to implement. He was always looking for that perfect system for his side, even if by the time it was executed, it could only be relevant for a short period of time.
If I was to be as broad as possible, the idea of assembling a side has one principle. Soccer is a game of intuition, of being so comfortable in a system that everything else is execution in order. Looking at numbers, at statistics, does not take into account the intuition involved. The computer takes into account a set structure, while soccer is the exact opposite. The game has evolved over time, from the idea of passing being bogus, to today’s complex formations. I still believe that all players- all good players- are different, and cannot be separated or replaced by mere numbers. The fact that all footballers play the same game, therefore share a common variable, cannot work to the benefit of those trying to implement Soccernomics using intense statistical analysis. It sucks all the purity out of football. Just ask Clough and Taylor.