Moneyball works better at Stoke than Liverpool
The Moneyball philosophy first used by the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane is the study of a set of underestimated statistics that are then used to find undervalued baseball players in the transfer market. Soccernomics, the football equivalent, is the analysis of a similar set of numbers used to give teams a competitive edge.
Damien Comolli, Liverpool’s now departed director of football, was apparently first turned on to soccernomics by Arsène Wenger during their time together at Arsenal, and Comolli has used it with varying degrees of success (depending on whether you believe him or the managers he has worked for) ever since.
In an interview with France Football last year, Comolli said of Luis Suárez: “We turn enormously toward players who don’t get injured. We also took into account the number of assists, his performances against the big teams, against the smaller clubs, in the European Cup and the difference between goals scored at home and away.”
For most of us, those stats would be pretty obvious when signing a player. Perhaps a better example of soccernomics at work would be the recruitment of Liverpool’s left-back José Enrique, another Comolli signing underpinned by impressive data.
When Liverpool failed in a bid for Gaël Clichy, it was reported that Comolli turned to José Enrique after discovering that his statistical figures were far more impressive than Liverpool’s scouting report suggested. He was also much cheaper than Clichy in terms of the transfer fee and salary. What stood out about José Enrique, supposedly, was that he had one of the highest pass completions and entries into the final third; he could also be credited with having a direct hand in many of Newcastle’s goals.
Personally, I have always found it difficult to get past the basic assumption that if a team have the best players then they will invariably win more often than not. But the stampede of elephants in the room today is that of a dozen Premier League teams who are so evenly matched that many of their games are settled on set pieces or carefully choreographed training-ground routines in which meticulous preparation and statistical analysis can be the difference.
In open play, a huge amount of study, from my own experience at clubs, is devoted to the calculation of what are described as final third entries, penalty box entries and regains of the ball in the final third (see the pressing game of Barcelona and, to an extent, Manchester United).
Stoke City’s style is the most rudimentary example of soccernomics on a football pitch. Each full-back generally looks for Peter Crouch on an angle (final third entry) and, in turn, the striker will attempt to cushion the ball down into the penalty area (penalty box entry) for his partner or a midfield runner. It goes almost without saying that the higher these two statistics are over a season, the more likely Stoke are to end up with a shot on goal.
Add to that Rory Delap’s long throws and the team’s height, which they seek to exploit on set plays, and it is no surprise that Stoke score many of their goals in and around the six-yard box, where they have a succession of players making individually tailored runs, as was the case at Villa Park on Monday night, when Robert Huth headed home Jermaine Pennant’s free-kick.
Where the success of soccernomics is concerned, Stoke are a great example of the match-up that is required between a set of tactics and the players who have the attributes to execute them to the fullest.
A friend in the game told me that at Bolton, Sam Allardyce studied hundreds of Premier League corners to see where the clearing header, on average, would land. Once he identified a pattern (it’s usually a front-post header that is cleared towards the dugout), he placed a man on the exact spot where the ball generally made its first contact with the pitch; thus, the odds of Bolton conceding a goal from the second phase of play were severely reduced.
Years ago, at my first club, the manager would spend hours coming up with set plays that he would go through with us on the training pitch. One role that is nearly always taken up at every level of the game is the “position of maximum opportunity”, or pomo. The pomo is the space inhabited by a striker, usually after pulling away from the goalkeeper after a corner is taken. It is the space in between the six-yard line and the back post and is important because a high percentage of headers won by the attacking team are flicked towards this area. God forbid if one of our forwards weren’t there. “That is the difference between you becoming a millionaire and spending the rest of your career at the fucking Dog and Duck!” he used to scream if someone went awol.
As for Comolli, the transfers of Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam will probably tarnish his reputation for a little while yet, although it is easy to overlook some very important variables (notwithstanding the fact that all four may yet come good for Liverpool).
First, football is not a matter of one pitcher trying to outfox one batter. It is a team game and no amount of statistics can legislate for two players that can’t stand to be in the same room as each other, no matter how many final third entries they’ve made in the past two seasons. Second, while we have transfer windows, “value” will always be a subjective term. Carroll could have had amazing statistics but, with Liverpool’s bank balance swollen from the sale of Fernando Torres, their being in desperate need of a striker and the transfer window ticking down, his price was always going to be skewed.
It is a shame for Liverpool because soccernomics certainly has a role to play. But facts are facts and, for a man seemingly obsessed with numbers, the uncomfortable stats are there for everyone to see: Liverpool are 33 points behind Manchester United, £120m worse off and eighth in the Premier League. But using his system, I bet Comolli could disprove all of that.