Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Sabremetrics: The future of the transfer window?

The news arrived today that Damien Comolli, ex-Tottenham director of football, has been appointed as Liverpool's new director of football strategy. This may seem of little importance or interest to many people but it is an indication of a new style of player recruitment that Liverpool are likely to adopt.

The new owner at Anfield, John W. Henry, is a devote believer in sabermetrics. Sabermetrics, to put it simply, is the use of statical analysis when scouting and signing new players. Comolli is the first of what is likely to be a number of back-room signings geared towards embracing this approach to the transfer market.

It is a recruitment technique that has become increasingly popular in statistic-driven American sports ever since the book Moneyball was published back in 2003. The book outlines how Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, has used sabermetrics to assemble a very competitive team despite the Athletics being one of the most financial restrained teams in the league.

Henry hired Theo Epstein, a 28-year-old Princeton graduate, as his general manager when at the Boston Red Sox. Epstein utilised sabermetrics and led the Red Sox to two World Series titles.

Epstein, as Beane had done, looked at statistics beyond simply the number of home-runs a player scored to show how effective and efficient different players were. The question is, how can this approach be adapted into the world of football?

Henry and the new team he is assembling behind the scenes at Merseyside will be hoping that sabermetrics will help Liverpool get optimum value for money when the transfer window opens. They are not alone either. Arsène Wenger has also taken a heavily statistically driven approach to signing players. Comolli used this approach while at Tottenham too. He was responsible for the signing many of Harry Redknapp's successful crop of current players, including Inter Milan-terroriser Gareth Bale.

There are, however, some critical things sabermetrics cannot easily account for - strength, fitness and, more importantly, mental toughness and attitude. These mental attributes are things that Wenger has gone to lengths to compile files on when he is looking into signing a player.

Moneyball does not offer a directly transferable system. What it does is outline a scientific approach to looking at sports stars. The days of a manager or scout using experience and instinct to find potential signings are being replaced by men in suits sat in offices with calculators and graphs.

Rob Marrs over at Left Back in the Changing Room has written many pieces on the use of sabermetrics in football, which largely responsible for influencing this post. When offering an example of how this technique can be used, Marrs states that football managers can get value for money in the transfer market by ensuring they sign players on quality, albeit often not eye-catching, and not purely on hype or reputation. This can be done by taking the following into consideration:

  • Looking in countries that are often not scouted – like Steve Bruce did with Palacios and Valencia.
  • Buying players without a 'wow status' – like Lucas at Liverpool or Makélélé at Chelsea.
  • Buying ageing players or rebuilding players in a new style or position.
  • Looking at the less used stats;
  1. Number of touches – indicates a player's ability to get into the right position to receive the ball, his fitness and how willing their team-mates are to pass to him.
  2. Shot creation – shows how many chances they create, not simply just assists that can be misleading.
  3. Ball retention – helps to show the use of players who may not be as involved in attacking play.
  4. Balls won – highlights a player defensive ability.
  5. Ground covered – illustrates a player's fitness and their willingness to work for the team.

If nothing else, sabermetrics cannot be said to not be an interesting development in the world of sports. It is essentially what many football fans with lots of free time have been doing for years - sat in front of a computer screen playing Football Manager.

As I say, sabermetrics is nothing new. It is a well established and widely used system. With Henry and the New England Sports Ventures now taking their first steps to implement sabermetrics at Liverpool it will be very interesting to see what impact this has on the club's fortunes on and off the pitch.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

1 comment:

  1. Chris Hughton must be using this technique after unearthing Tiote. Interesting post vominic.


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