Moneyball is a simple concept fraught with danger. Popularized by the former General Manager of the Oakland Athletics’ Baseball Club, Billie Beane it is designed to help the teams lower of the scale of financial appeal compete with the bigger teams in on-field success. To do so, he simplified his method for player acquisition down to one unassuming idea, buy assets undervalued by other teams and sell those assets of your own which are overvalued by others.
Moneyball tactics apply to football quite easily, with the proliferation of third party ownership amongst the biggest clubs in the world; inequity in finances is at an all-time high. Teams considered to be lower in the pecking-order must find different ways to be competitive on field, and this drive for instant success presents that.
Bigger teams with more money are far more inclined to forgo loyalty for the sake of spending money on the big name players. This creates an opportunity for smaller clubs to acquire talented players from teams with cultures of winning and high professionals’ standards. An occurrence which has helped two teams in particular push themselves into the championship picture in their respective leagues.
FC Midtjylland are perhaps known as the best exponents of this concept, scouting the players most responsible for the team’s success. Not necessarily the top scorer, or the best passer, but the most influential in style and substance, an approach which bought them Tim Sparv, who stared in their recent Danish league title win along with others such as; Pione Sisto and Patrick Baangard. They break their scouting down to the simplest of methods, they use Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) to find players strengths, such as; where are players most likely to score from, amazingly, FC Midtjylland have become dead-ball specialists, averaging a goal from every dead ball situation.
Another example of moneyball tactics comes from the darlings of the English Premier League this season, Leicester City. Coming off of promotion, they needed talented players for not a lot of money to ensure they were competitive, and using this method, they were able to secure the likes of Marc Albrighton, Robert Huth and Riyad Mahrez for no transfer fees over a two year period. Paired with the minimal outlay for other key players such as; Jamie Vardy, Demarai Gray, Danny Drinkwater, Christian Fuchs and Gokhan Inler – their rise to the top has been inspired by their shrewd transfer business.
Mahrez and Vardy have proven how well this method can work, combining for 24 goals and 16 assits. This is compared to other tandems considered better on the bigger teams, such as Rooney and Mata for Manchester United, who have 12 goals and 7 assists, Aguero and Toure for City who have 22 goals and 5 assists between them.
The positives of this concept have endeared themselves to many teams. AZ Alkmaar have taken it one step further and have hired Billie Beane as an adviser for their scouting department. In a league renowned for an abundance of young talent, AZ are looking to capitalize on it in the most astute way possible.
Whilst this concept can bring success and a period of sustained growth in profit and results, it can also backfire. The most recent and perhaps high profile case of this was Liverpool under Brendan Rogers.
Liverpool owners, the Fenway sports group, who have ties to the Boston Red Sox hired Michael Edwards to be the resident number cruncher in the transfer market with the hope of getting any possible edge to bring Liverpool back from obscurity. However, his decisions and analysis lead to the purchases of busts such as; Dejan Lovern, Fabio Borini, Luis Alberto, Iago Aspas, Rickie Lambert, Lazar Markovic and Mario Balotelli.
In these instances, the clubs from which they were bought understood the level at which they were at and saw that Liverpool were desperate, so, they maximized profit and were able to clear the books of players who were not going to be able to contribute to the level which they required anymore. These purchases were all large outlays for the club which when they failed to live up to the price tags, put undue pressure on Brendan Rodger job.
The formula can work in football, and with the improvements in ‘lower’ leagues in Australia and Asia, the talent pool will only grow. The biggest issue will always be discerning the talented players; Mahrez, Drinkwater, Sparv and Sisto, from those who show that they can be if they wish; Markovic, Aspas and Lovern.