Liverpool have served as a cautionary tale in recent times that money alone can not buy you success, let alone guarantee it, and their approach, broadly based around the Moneyball principles has had a ruinous effect on the club and its finances ever since, but with Financial Fair Play (FFP) on the horizon, could it ever work again in the Premier League?
After the Merseyside giant were taken over by Fenway Sports Group back in 2010, they subsequently set about a massive and somewhat radical overhaul of the entire squad, bringing in a whole host of emerging English talent on hefty wages and with weighty price-tags to try and justify. Without trying to delve too deeply into any sort of dull net-spend debate, the moves were given a big helping hand by the fact that they managed to flog Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50m and without that deal, it’s doubtful we’d have seen quite so many faces come into the club in such a manner in what was a short space of time.
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However, fast-forward a year on and all the major players involved in the Moneyball approach have either been sacked, moved on or marginalised and it will perhaps have to go down as one of the worst cases of financial mismanagement in top flight history.
Andy Carroll has left on loan to West Ham after being deemed surplus to requirements and incapable of integrating into the sides new style of play by Brendan Rodgers. Stewart Downing has fallen out with the new manager and been mooted as a potential left-back, such is his ineffectiveness on the wing. Jordan Henderson hasn’t started a league game all season, seemingly confined to run-outs, albeit impressive ones, in the Europa League, while both Damien Comolli and Kenny Dalglish were given the boot last season.
I think that it’s fair to say that things have not quite gone according to plan, but is that because there’s something inherently wrong with the principle itself or was it just implemented poorly? The club’s principle owner John W. Henry is said to have buried himself in statistics with an almost obsessive zeal to try and counteract his natural feel for the game and this over-reliance in trying to essentially ‘buy’ wins didn’t quite come off, with the individual players involved struggling for both form and fitness.
Moreover, with FFP coming into effect at the start of next season, buying wins, or rather players capable of contributing percentages of a win, whether it be with a successful cross, heading prowess or the ability to dictate the tempo from deep, it may be seen as a viable alternative for a lot of clubs.
There are of course plenty of clubs that still employ old-school managers which boil the game down to little more than 22 players running about on a bit of grass with a ball, while others lurch too far the other way and get dogmatically bogged down in philosophy, but Moneyball could provide a sort of half-way house for both.
It’s obviously a lot easier to quantify in baseball where to pick up and ‘buy’ wins from and highlight key areas of the team to improve than it is in football; a game where there are simply too many variants to successfully judge. Statistics are a fantastic tool but they have to be used in context.
If a player completes 95% of his passes, that in itself is meaningless as it doesn’t take into account the impact of those passes and in what area of the pitch that they were made, but more and more they’re having an effect on the way the game is taught and pass completion stats have become immeasurably popular the past year or so.
With transfer budgets set to be reigned in even further from the start of next season, as every club looks to comply with the FFP rules, getting more bang for your buck will be of paramount importance. The problem with Liverpool recently has not been that Moneyball was in itself incapable of being applied to the Premier League, which is still relatively unproven, it’s that the players they invested in simply weren’t good enough or capable of fulfilling the tasks outlined for them.
Newcastle have adopted something a lot closer to what traditionally was known as Moneyball, because it was never supposed to involve the large sums of money that Liverpool ended up paying out, rather getting the best out of a relatively cheap player before selling him on at a profit after he did his job well.
While too much may have been made that the club ‘found’ the likes of Papiss Cisse, Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote, given that they were all already established stars in their own right just in leagues unfamiliar to most here in England, their success is proof that buying players for a decent price with the aim of selling them on at a huge profit is a decent course to pursue. Whether it’s a sustainable long-term project remains to be seen, I have my doubts, but there’s no denying that they’ve become an excellent side in the last two years by following this pretty basic principle.
Moneyball may not be given a second chance in the top flight simply by virtue of association with the terrible way it was mishandled by Liverpool and if any set of supporters hear that their club is thought to be looking at seriously trying this approach, it will likely be met with widespread dismay. It’s become something of a dirty word of late, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t work in England,we simply don’t know for sure yet and with FFP starting soon, it could be an avenue that many smaller clubs take.
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