The Statistical Revolution

Moneyball: the term used for finding undervalued players who cost less than they should by trawling through data.

The term comes from Michael Lewis’ book about a former baseball player, Billy Beane. Beane had every skill as a baseball player, and those skills propelled him into being a first-round draft pick by the New York Mets. Beane had the tools to go far, but in the end, he failed to live up to the lofty expectations. The reason Beane flopped as a player was due to being unable to deal with the mental rigours of professional baseball. 

Beane explained that being hung up on failure was the reason he never truly fulfilled his potential. After retirement, Beane claimed his view on baseball had changed forever. While General Manager at Oakland Athletic, he approached things a different way. He used data to determine player recruitment, and enjoyed great success on a modest budget. 

The Oakland General Manager soon realised that on-base percentage was more important than hitting, and glory plays. His realisation and outside of the box thinking lead to the hunt for players with good on-base percentage, who were undervalued by other teams. 

Traditionally in football, and most other sports, scouts may draw on availability heuristic. This means that the easier you can bring something to mind, the more weight it holds. A scout would believe the player must be good if they remember their previous actions so immediately. Scouts will sign players because in the last game their target played well or the player scored a great goal; therefore, it was easier to remember. 

This mental shortcut allows for mistakes as players are signed who, over a long run of games might only have had one above-average performance.

Before statistics and endless datasets, one of the first memorable instances of a player being signed based on their traits was Kenny Burns, who famously loved to fight and drink. Nottingham Forest’s Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, took Burns under their wing and helped him through his issues. Burns, at the time, was playing as a converted striker. Clough and Taylor had different ideas, however, and reverted him to a defender due to his aggression and tendencies to be a rough tackler. Burns later became 1978’s football writer’s footballer of the year. 

Burns isn’t the only player that Clough and Taylor did this with as during their auspicious time with The Tricky Trees, they reinvented the careers of Ian Bowyer, Martin O’Neil, and Frank Clark. As long as Clough saw some potential or attributes he liked, he didn’t mind if they were slow, slightly overweight, or any reason their previous clubs would turn their nose up. 

Back to the modern-day, and with companies like Opta, numbers in football have gained traction, and have instilled a far greater standing in the game as football evolves. An example can be found in Chelsea’s N’golo Kante. While playing for FC Caens, he had 4.8 tackles, 2.9 interceptions, and 0.9 clearances per game. 

Leicester bought the Frenchman for £7.6 million and went on to win the Premier League, before selling him at a profit to Chelsea. 

Due to Kante standing at only 5″ 6, he was deemed too small by many scouts for the position he played. The statistics, however, told a different story, and the numbers rarely ever lie. Leicester used this approach regularly with their title-winning season player. Vardy and Mahrez are two other standout examples. 

Vardy was brought from non-league for an impressive £1 million, and the Algerian came from Le Harve at the cost of only £400,000. Both players were extremely undervalued before they signed for Leicester, but showed signs of potential. Vardy was a hungry pressing forward, and Mahrez was a quick and skilful winger who lacked strength. 

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The key is to find the overlooked statistic linked to high performance within a role, before anybody else does. One of the more famous clubs known for Moneyball is Brentford, a team very open about the fact they can’t outspend their competitors. The way this club views it is they must outthink and outsmart their competitors. 

Five years ago, Brentford were bought by lifetime fan, Matthew Benham. The new head-honcho at The Bees made millions through gambling and betting companies and now has his focus on the London based club. Since the takeover, Brentford have since won promotion to the Championship and had a steady stay in the second-tier of English football. Brentford are fully aware they must act

smartly to make the most of their budget. Benham wants the club to be fully sustainable and back in the top-flight of English football. 

Benham decided that their current academy setup also needed to change. Brentford were tired of losing players to bigger teams without receiving the fees to compensate the expenses spent in the production of the academy graduates. Instead, they have created a ‘B team’. The side was set up to recruit youth players released from the Premier League and foreign clubs who see Brentford as their chance to play at a high level.

Sport is littered with examples where other clubs pluck under-performing players with high potential. Flamengo told Ronaldo that they wouldn’t pay his bus fare, and Michael Jordan was kicked off of his college team. 

At Brentford, recruitment is primarily left in the capable hands of Rasmus Ankersen. The Dane says the majority of recruiters spend time managing their mistakes. He believes everything isn’t always as it seems, and football is no different.

“Football is such an overheated and irrational industry,” said Ankersen.

He added, “If you get on a bad run of results, what’s the average lifetime of a manager? 16 months? When we evaluate how well we do, we don’t look at the league tables. We look at these underlying ratings which we trust more. They’re more predictive for where we’re going to go.

“Because of all the randomness in football, you can overachieve with 15 points or underachieve with 15 points. The league table isn’t always so reflective of how strong you are.”

Brentford, who agonisingly fell to Fulham in the Championship Playoff final, must generate £15 million in transfers each season to be a profitable business due to the lack of commercial revenue. It is a reality many teams outside of the big European leagues face. 

Brentford aren’t the only team using such methods, Portugal’s most revered take a similar approach.

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One of Liga NOS’ most successful teams and former Champions League winners, Porto, have adapted the Moneyball method. Porto’s approach is to buy younger players with high potential. The recruitment team will seek a relatively low price for the talent on show, and then work to sell their assets as they grow as players. 

In the early 2000s, Porto realised that to compete with the money in the five major European leagues, they had to be tight when spending. It was decided that if they bought youngsters and gave them regular playing time, other teams will circle. 

Porto have accumulated £364,284,000 in transfers alone since the change in strategy. This approach is somewhat different to Brentford as Porto scout for the next big thing, instead of buying players who are statistically sound, but also undervalued. 

One of the best examples of profit made at Porto is James Rodriguez. The Colombian cost £6,375,985 and was sold for a smidge over £40 million. The table below should make for interesting reading:

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There are players in Porto’s current crop who could be moved on for a good profit. Players like Alex Telles and Danilo Periera, are valuable assets that can be sold for a tidy profit. Telles, who joined for £5.85 million from Galatasaray, is now valued at £28 million. Periera, who joined for £4.5 million from Maritimo, is now worth £21.6 million. All estimates are according to Transfermarkt.com. 

From 2002 to 2016, Porto have spent £401,867,353 and received £811,671,945, leaving the club with a total profit of £373,899,500.  

The Portuguese powerhouse tends to scout young players from South America due to the successes they have had in the past. Players such as Anderson, Hulk, Falcao, Alex Sandro, and Danilo, are all players from the continent who Porto managed to sign and sell on for a healthy profit. 

Over the last ten years, Porto have enjoyed an extremely successful spell. Since 2010, they have won their league five times, the domestic cup twice, and were triumphant in the Europa League on one occasion.

This year’s campaign, Porto won the league with 82 points, beating Benfica to the Liga NOS crown by five points.

By dominating in their domestic league and putting up a fight in Europe, Porto have been able to offer first-team football to players from smaller clubs and more obscure leagues. The competitive football on offer is of a high standard, and if new signings can prove their worth, resale values can, and do, rocket. 

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The club from Yorkshire were taken over by a consortium in 2017. One of the members was none other than Billy Beane, the baseball player who spearheaded the whole concept. 

Since the takeover, Barnsley have spent an average of £1 million less for players than their market value suggests. The recruitment strategy in Yorkshire has focused on signing younger players, with the average age coming through the door at 22.1.

Barnsley have managed to make small profits over time with an expenditure of +£1.75m, although this doesn’t seem huge, it is a healthy sign as the club aren’t losing money. The Barnsley fans have seen this takeover in a positive light mainly, and many see this as a good way to grow. 

There are some concerns, as for the club promotion must be a priority, and fans on Barnsleyfc.org forums have expressed a worry that the club are focusing their energy on finding gems then staying up. 

Following the takeover, Barnsley, in their first season in 2017/18, were relegated to League 1. However, in the 2018/19 season the finished second, seeing them jump straight back up. In the season just gone, in 2019/20, they managed to survive from relegation narrowly. 

The club’s growth will depend a lot on this window, and next season, if they can survive again, they will be able to establish themselves as regulars in England’s second flight league. Overall, Barnsley has been performing as expected if not slightly overachieving. Their fans will be happy to see the Yorkshire club staying up for another season. 

The consortium majority shareholder is Chien Lee, who owns OGC Nice in France. At Nice there has been some evidence to support the idea of Moneyball, their most recent example in Allan Saint-Maxim, they bought the Frenchman for £9million from Monaco before selling him for £16 million to Newcastle. 

The owner of the current Premier League winners, John W. Henry, is a huge fan of Moneyball. It shouldn’t be a surprise considering he also owns the Red Socks. 

Beane was offered the General Manager post at the Boston Red Socks, with the terms set to make him the highest-paid manager in sport. Beane rejected the offer, and a few years later, the Red Socks won the World Series using an adapted method of Moneyball. Beane, in the past, has praised the work at Liverpool, saying that the technique doesn’t necessarily mean buying cheap but finding undervalued players. 

Liverpool’s signing of Mohammed Salah for £40 million is a prime example of this. The Egyptian certainly wasn’t cheap, but he was undervalued. Now, under the right management and surrounded by a certain standard of players, he is thriving, potentially doubling his worth. 

Another great example is Jean Michael Seri, he cost the club around £900k and was sold to Fulham for £27 million. This method can help Barnsley as we have seen if appropriately used, it can generate a lot of money. Having the man who started it all as an ambassador and minority owner will undoubtedly help ensure the club use the method efficiently. 

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The same can be said about Van Dijk and Allison to a certain extent. However, these two players are the most expensive in their positions, but is fair to say that since coming to Liverpool, and providing the right fit for League Champions’ model, they have excelled even further. This relates to Beane saying you don’t always have to find a bargain, but an underutilised player who would be more valuable in your team than elsewhere. 

It isn’t always recruitment of players that falls under the ‘Moneyball’ umbrella, as Jurgen Klopp’s appointment acts as a prime example. Liverpool’s Director of Research, Ian Graham, carried out a study on eliminating random football elements to end up without distortions. He did this study without watching any football and solely used just data. When he first met Klopp, he mentioned a game where Klopp’s Dortmund lost to Mainz. 

The German replied: “Did you see the game? We killed them.” 

Graham didn’t see the game, but he did see the data for it. Graham suggested to Klopp, due to his style of play, certain players who he knew would thrive under that playing style. 

Klopp has mentioned that a considerable part of his success has come from Graham and his department of analysts who work hard to irradicate random errors in football. 

The method of Moneyball is becoming more and more used in the sport, from teams on a budget, to the Premier League winners themselves. It has proven to be a very successful technique, and one that as the modern game develops, we should see adopted more and more.

Words by Connor Williams@C_Williams61097

Graphic by Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_