The 2003 book, and subsequent smash hit movie, has changed the way fans, coaches and players of Baseball look at their sport but does ‘Moneyball’ translate when applied to The Beautiful Game?
By Paul Mullaney – @contepomi90
Ever since reading Michael Lewis’s book ‘Moneyball’ (like all good American sports hipsters, I’d read it before there was even talk of a film) it got me wondering – is something similar possible with football?
The book tells the story of Billy Beane, General Manager of Major League Baseball team the Oakland Athletics and his implementation of a revolutionary way of running a baseball club. In a league where money ruled and where the clubs with the biggest budgets were guaranteed to dominate, Beane found a way round this by focusing on statistical categories which had previously been overlooked and turned his team from rank outsiders to genuine contenders.
Football finds itself in a similar position, at least as far as the financial aspect is concerned. For the most part, the teams with the most money are those that dominate and with the help of a wealthy backer and inexhaustible funds, it’s now possible to buy success within a couple of years – just look at Chelsea, Manchester City or PSG. The long-term implications of such an imbalance within football are worrying, even with the new financial fair play rules proposed by UEFA.
The question now is: could a similar statistical approach be taken in football which might see a team compete for honours despite the handicap of a limited budget? Could a team who, unable to compete in the transfer market for the game’s top players, managed to identify and emphasise areas of the game and under-appreciated attributes of players, do what Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics pulled off and close the gap?
At the moment it seems unlikely, yet it took time for this sort of thinking to develop in the MLB. We might look at baseball as a sport in which statistics form a logical, central part of the game and assume that this has always been the case, but it hasn’t. Broadcasters, pundits and managers might talk about On-base percentage, slugging percentage and Earned Run Averages (all statistics which featured heavily in Billy Beane’s philosophy) now, but going further back these were disregarded or simply unheard of. As Lewis highlights in his book, the focus was all about speed, the ability to pull off spectacular plays and other attributes which wowed scouts but, when analysed, were in fact pretty over-rated.
Essentially, it took Beane’s pioneering approach to the game for these areas to be properly understood.
Football might just need a Billy Beane for the same thing to happen.
Now, it goes without saying that there are obvious differences between the two sports which could get in the way of making such a comparison, or of lessons learned from baseball being applied in football. For a start, although baseball is a team game in that competition is between two sets of players, the emphasis is placed heavily on the individual. It is the individual alone at the plate facing off against another individual pitching from the mound. Teamwork is important but when broken down the game is about the individual, and his ability to perform. Football too comes down to solo performances but the cohesion and unity required from any great team far outstrips that which we see in baseball. In football the individual is nothing without the team and as a result it can be harder to break the game down into individual statistical categories which influence how the game turns out but it’s quite possible there are areas of the game we’re overlooking.
For example, do teams place enough emphasis on players who score goals from set pieces? Good set-piece takers receive a lot of attention but can the same be said about players who have a record of getting on the end of corners and free kicks and scoring goals?
The same can be said of long throw-ins. Rory Delap at Stoke City proved that if you are capable of getting the same sort of distance on a long throw as he is then you can frequently create chances from otherwise meaningless passages of play but in the years since few teams have followed suit. Of course, much of this might be to do with the lack of a player who has the ability to get the ball right into the danger area from a throw-in but might it be worth the while of a manager to include a player in his team based on such an attribute, even if he didn’t merit it for the rest of his game?
Then there’s a whole host of other statistics which, although they are often referred to, are perhaps not properly understood or again, not properly appreciated. Pass completion percentage. Tackles per game. Chances created. Interceptions. Cross completion percentage. Distance covered. All of these stats are readily available at the top level in football but when managers do their business in the transfer market, the emphasis tends to be placed more on a player’s attributes and his physical dimensions rather than how he fares when compared to other similar players statistically. Were a manager to focus more on this he might end up with some bargains who other managers hadn’t happened to spot.
Football still seems largely averse to the use of statistics. Pundits and commentators can regularly be heard today doubting their significance and scoffing at those who try to use statistics to make a point about a game as though there is some secret to football that only those who played the game are able to understand. In a recent game in the African Nations Cup between DR Congo and Mali, Leroy Rosenior could be heard on commentary proclaiming “I’m not a great believer in stats.” This is a mirror image of how it was, and, to a certain extent how it is in baseball today but a lot changed after the Oakland Athletics’ success forced people to sit up and take notice. They had proved that, if properly understood, the power of statistics and analysis could be harnessed and could be instrumental in a team winning, regardless of how the skeptics might see it.
And this is the key. Statistics and figures can be an invaluable way of understanding more about a game but only on the condition that the right statistics are highlighted in the first place. It’s no use focusing on certain categories and on certain areas of the game when in reality, these have little impact on how things turn out or on results. Some statistics merely tell us what has happened, but others can give us an indication as to why certain things are happening, and allow us to make predictions based on them which might lead to success.
Of course, all of this is just pure speculation. Such an approach if applied in football might yield unexpected benefits and see a team come from nowhere to challenge for honours but it could just as easily result in a team getting relegated. The point here is more that thinking outside of the box is essential for sports to grow and develop so that they don’t become stagnant and uninteresting. We should always be ready to embrace new ideas in sport, particularly if they make it possible to upset the established order.
Billy Beane managed to pull it off in baseball.
Someone might be waiting to do the same in football.
What do you think of Moneyball and its potential within Football? Give us your thoughts below or send us a tweet @talkingbaws!