In the last decade, the philosophy known as ‘Moneyball’ has revolutionised the way baseball teams evaluate players. Based on the field of ‘sabermetrics’, the approach is designed to reveal players’ ‘true’ value by judging them solely on their performance-related statistics. Given its remarkable success in baseball, how long will it be before Moneyball becomes common practice in the Premier League?
The use of sabermetrics was pioneered by baseball teams looking for a way to overcome the vast financial inequalities within their sport. The system seeks to identify the most cost-effective players, and so teams who are under the greatest pressure to use their limited resources efficiently have found the greatest use for it. In theory, this makes Moneyball an ideal antidote to the problem of the financial divide between the haves and have-nots of the Premier League. Yes, a salary cap would even things out once and for all, but how likely is that? As far as we can see, the league’s ‘poorer’ teams are going to have to come up with a solution of their own and this could be it.
Due to the subjective nature of player evaluation, there are huge inefficiencies in the football transfer market which are just waiting to be exploited. At the moment, players are valued in a non-scientific way; without using data, clubs are forced to predict their future output through hunches and guesswork. There are thousands of players out there who have been underestimated by the conventional wisdom, and so their true value is greater than their market value. Theoretically, if a system able to accurately predict players’ productivity was discovered, even a club of meagre means could assemble a squad strong enough to challenge for titles. This is the great attraction of Moneyball.
One Premier League club has already tried to implement a sabermetric approach into their transfer market dealings. John W. Henry, owner of Liverpool since late 2010, has already used the Moneyball philosophy to great effect with the Boston Red Sox. It was unsurprising then, that he quickly announced similar plans for the Anfield club upon his arrival. Liverpool have since installed an American-style hierarchy whereby transfers are controlled, in part, by a Director of Football. Damien Comolli, previously of Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, was handed the role and proceeded to sign a draft of new players to rebuild the failing club. He claimed to have used a system inspired by sabermetrics in the acquisition of these players, most notably Stewart Downing.
You don’t have to be the most avid follower of English football to know that Liverpool haven’t enjoyed much success with this strategy. After a dismal season, in which an absurd number of their high-profile summer signings flopped, both Comolli and Kenny Dalglish promptly lost their jobs. Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Downing have quite frankly been awful, especially when you consider the Reds splashed out a combined £78 million on them. Based on the example Liverpool have set, it would be surprising if other clubs were lining up to try their hand at this Moneyball game.
Defenders of sabermetrics may say the problem was that Comolli and Dalglish went about using the system in the wrong way, and they would certainly have a point there. The fundamental ethos of Moneyball is to purchase productive players for less than they are really worth. Comolli and Dalglish did the exact opposite of this; they bought overrated players at enormously inflated prices. The fact that they bought primarily native talent, all of whom came with a ‘British Tax’, is indication enough that they didn’t fully appreciate the aim of the game they were playing.
Regardless, Moneyball, however exciting it may be, will not work in football. It works in baseball because statistics play a much bigger role. Anyone who has ever watched a baseball game will testify to having been bombarded with figures for batting averages, on-base percentages, slugging percentages, earned run averages, strikeouts and walks to name just a few. British viewers tend to find the prevalence of statistics in American sports downright bizarre.
Not only this, but the two sports are, by nature, worlds apart. Football is much more fluid; each player’s performance is dependent on the play of others. A striker can’t score unless he is provided with service from supporting players. A goalkeeper can’t keep a clean sheet without the help of his defence in front of him. Baseball, on the other hand, is a more structured game. Each play follows the same basic format and results in players being either credited or debited. This means that statistics can measure individual performances more accurately and each player’s worth can be judged more precisely.
The statistical evidence which supposedly justified Stewart Downing’s £20 million signature is reason enough to disregard the potential role for sabermetrics in football. In his final season at Aston Villa, Downing completed 24% of his crosses, an impressive number. He also made nine assists that season which, compared to teammate Ashley Young’s 11, suggested he would have a reasonably productive first season for Liverpool. However, statistics in football are ultimately misleading and largely irrelevant. While Young had a respectable debut season at Manchester United, Stewart Downing’s stat line read: 36 appearances, zero goals, zero assists. A fitting quote here is one from the Danish former player and manager, Ebbe Skovdahl: “Statistics are just like miniskirts – they give you good ideas but hide the most important things”.
Football, unlike baseball, isn’t about the raw numbers; it’s about how players gel and complement each other. In a baseball team you can, in most cases, take out a player and replace him with a superior one without issue, regardless of the team’s playing style and tactics. The same cannot be said of football.
That’s why we won’t see owners of Premier League clubs turning to statisticians and number-crunchers anytime soon, as is the norm in Major League Baseball. Although most fans would love to see something (anything!) to help football’s underdogs level the playing field, unfortunately it won’t be Moneyball.