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Moneyball Signing:It’s that time of the year when the so-called ‘moles’ are the most sought-after people to all hardcore football fans, everyone wishes to see their club buy a magic wand in the form of marquee signings. Clubs, however, try to get players at reasonable prices in order to maintain ‘value-for-money’. In this regard, a new term has taken transfer market over the last few seasons: ‘Moneyball signing’.
The term was first used by Michael Lewis in his bestselling book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”. Lewis coined the term totally in perspective of the baseball game. The book portrays the fairy tale rise of Oakland Athletics baseball team under the stewardship of general manager Billy Beane. Beane adopted some revolutionary methods and tactics for his team and made them successful ahead of their more glamorous rivals. He came up with new ways to judge each player’s ability. Beane argued that the statistical indicators that were being used were never the true indicators of a player’s performance; rather he opted for advanced statistical techniques that helped him find talented unproven players at lower prices. The idea of Moneyball is based on the use of sabermetrics, where a range of statistics and trends are used to predict the potential of a player. So profound and out-of-box idea was Moneyball that it soon entered the baseball terminology. All teams that follow similar methods are said to have adopted the ‘Moneyball methods’! The Boston Red Sox team was one of the teams that took this idea on board and won the World Series in 2004 after 86 years. They again won in 2007. However, that does not necessarily imply that the concept of Moneyball is the most ideal one as there have been so many instances of failures of this particular approach.
Given the apparent potential of the concept, it was not long before Moneyball was borrowed heavily by football. Beane says: “Every business has metrics that correlate to success, it’s just finding them and which ones are the most valuable and which ones do you invest in and which ones you get a return on“. In recent years, Liverpool is said to have adopted the idea. Damien Comolli, the then Director of Football of the club and a friend of Billy Beane, was a proponent of the Moneyball concept. Also, the club is owned by John W. Henry, the Boston Red Sox owner and so it is easy to see why they went for this strategy. Sporting franchises who invest in football clubs tend to look for rational reasons for opting for the paths they choose, the old school methods of scouting almost no longer appeals to them. Comolli used to put so much emphasis on the statistical performance of the players to analyse them while recruiting that he came to be known as Damien ‘Stats’ Comolli.
However, players brought through this style of scouting failed to generate the desired results and Liverpool suffered a mediocre season. Although this may be a one-off incident but the question of viability still remains regarding the Moneyball concept in football.
Sabermetrics used in baseball is defined as: “the search for objective knowledge about baseball“; where instead of scouts, all that is required are computers containing the players’ databases. Players are drafted in based on the practice of sabermetrics. Now consider the same being applied to football. A club team requires no scouting network but loads of data concerning players’ performances based on which they will be recruited. Players with relatively low vital statistics – like number of goals scored / assists given – such as Xavi (7 assists in La Liga 2011-12 compared to Mesut Ozil‘s 17 and Angel Di Maria ‘s 15) will be the most neglected!
So it can be seen how flawed the Moneyball concept can be if used without any consideration for basic football philosophy. The closest definition of Moneyball in football can be: “Maximum return on investment on players being recruited”. But the performance indicator of players cannot be statistics alone. For instance, Real Madrid had bought players like Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso for quite similar hefty price tags three seasons back. However, at this point of time, no one can argue Alonso’s contribution to Los Blancos over the seasons although there is little to show in terms of statistics when compared to Benzema. At the same time, it has to be accepted that there is room for statistics in modern football as modern day managers do use various tools to analyse the performance of their respective teams. Having said that, pure statistics of players cannot possibly be the way in football. Football is much more than a team of individuals and a successful team thrives on collective performance. Actually the elements of Moneyball concept of unearthing undervalued players has been in and around for quite some time now and it’s the major way for clubs who have to work on a threadbare budget, more so under the current economic climate. There are managers who are experts in spotting talents and nurturing them into world-class players. Arsene Wenger is one of them who happens to be exceptionally good in signing young talents and getting returns in terms of on-pitch performance or resale value. Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Nicolas Anelka are some prime examples. On the basis of these ideals, Wenger has taken Arsenal forward both in terms of results on the pitch and solid financial footings.