Saturday, April 14, 2012

Why 'Moneyball' didn't work at Liverpool

If you are interested in the science of sabermetrics - be it from the 'Moneyball' tales of Billy Beane and Bill James, or of Damien Comolli's interest in recreating the same in football - you'll like this article by Neil Ashton on Comolli, sabermetrics, and what's gone wrong at Liverpool.

When the trend for sending statistical analysis to managers on a Monday morning began, Kenny Dalglish filed them in the bin.

Back in the early Nineties, Dalglish relied on craft and confidence to spot a player rather than numbers. By the time he was appointed full-time Liverpool manager for the second time on May 12, 2011, he walked into a very different way of life.

Liverpool’s director of football Damien Comolli had been swept up in the euphoria of the takeover by Fenway Sports Group, eager to refine the mythical ‘moneyball’ system developed across the pond.

He was enthralled by the science of sabermetrics, the system developed and designed by Billy Beane to upset the odds in Major League Baseball.

Beane capitalised on the identification of under-valued players performing better than highly paid rivals, taking Oakland Athletics to the post-season play-offs four times between 1999 and 2003 in his role as general manager.

He was big business, forming a friendship with John W Henry and Tom Werner, the two main men at Fenway, despite turning them down for the manager’s job at Boston Red Sox in 2003.

Comolli became friends with Beane, travelling to the United States to watch the baseball at Oakland Athletics and mining the American for information. Beane responded, taking to football and sharing his philosophies, thoughts and ideas as Comolli grew into his new role at Liverpool.

Speaking on talkSPORT’s Press Pass show recently, Beane said: ‘He follows the As, I follow Liverpool.

‘I’m very good friends with Tom Werner as well. It’s a friendship based on our mutual interests. I watch every match I can and interact with Damien from a fan’s standpoint.

‘Even as recently as the other day when Liverpool played Everton, I watched that game and Gerrard’s hat-trick and immediately congratulated Damien afterward.’

The Frenchman has always wanted to find the edge, combing his way through reams of statistical analysis in his previous role with St Etienne in the search for perfection.

He argued with Beane about the psychological profiling, failing to be convinced that he could break another barrier in European football. Rookie baseball players are profiled at college, sharing their personality along with their skills.

Comolli cited examples from his previous clubs, bringing up the statistics for Kevin-Prince Boateng when he signed for Tottenham — Comolli’s former club — in 2007.

On paper he looked like a world beater when he arrived from Hertha Berlin, given the potential to develop under Comolli’s wing and in the first team under Martin Jol.

Although he has since done well at AC Milan, he barely made an impact at Spurs, too immature for top-class professional football, and was loaned out to Borussia Dortmund a little more than a year after he arrived at White Hart Lane.

Keeper Heurelho Gomes was signed from PSV Eindhoven based purely on statistical evidence and without specific questioning about whether his attributes would suit English football.

Beane believed there was more to talent spotting than having an eye for the game.

He said: ‘Ultimately, what you really care about when you’re making a decision on an athlete is, “How good a player is he?” Show me the information. Prove to me why he is a good player as opposed to just fantasising about it or trusting your eye.’

Fenway trusted Comolli’s judgment when he attempted to adopt a policy of buying mainly British players, a system borrowed from Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy.

At Spurs they bought them cheap and sold them on for big money. At Liverpool, they looked through the stats and signed them anyway.

Stewart Downing, Aston Villa’s player of the year, was brought in because of his outstanding record of providing crosses leading to goalscoring attempts. It didn’t seem to matter that he lacks impact on the big stage.

Charlie Adam, sold by Rangers and moved on to Blackpool, was bought because of his remarkable record in front of goal for Ian Holloway’s side and the number of chances he created from corners.

He elaborated on Craig Bellamy’s electrifying runs down the left and the statistics that appeared to buck common sense by claiming he was a willing team worker.

Andy Carroll, signed for £35million in a panic-buy deal on deadline day from Newcastle, had an excellent record for converting chances with his head.

It didn’t appear to occur to anyone whether he would fit the pass-and-move culture that began in the Sixties under Bill Shankly.

After almost a year at Anfield, no-one is still quite sure why they signed Jordan Henderson from Sunderland last summer, statistics or not.

On Comolli’s watch, Liverpool signed nine players for a grand total of £115.8m and none of them — Luis Suarez included — can be deemed a total success.

In Fenway’s final analysis, even the statistics couldn’t hide the brutal truth.

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