Liverpool + Moneyball = Unhappy Fans & Media?

The Liverpool sale has been widely discussed here by both Brad Humphreys and James Reade.  Just recently, Paul Hayward of The Guardian wrote up an editorial piece about how it would be bad news for Liverpool if their new owners took a Moneyball approach to managing the club.  The author perpetuates fear of statistics and analytical thinking and analysis of players in sport, especially in football (soccer).  Mr. Hayward especially notes that Arsenal, one club in Europe who is run with such an approach by their manager Arsene Wenger (who has a degree in economics).  He claims that the dictatorship that Wenger runs at Arsenal has been bad for the club, and lead to many bad decisions, yet if one looks at the standings over the last few years, it is quite clear that Arsenal seems to have fared better from one year to the next.

Two reconnaissance stops were the clue. At Fulham, where Roy Hodgson, coincidentally, was manager, success sprang from the restoration of stalled careers – Danny Murphy, Bobby Zamora, Zoltan Gera – and the digging out of hidden treasure (Brede Hangeland). At Arsenal, NESV was touring the Bloomingdales of worldwide scouting: a club where analytical models were so ingrained that Arsène Wenger shipped out Gilberto Silva for taking a fraction of a second longer to redistribute the ball than he had a season earlier.

The authors main argument: statistics may work for baseball in North America, but they will not work for football in England.  He even states:

The urge in matters of scouting is to defend not a computer model but the human eye, intuition, knowledge, the moment of revelation. There was no Moneyball when Liverpool spotted Kevin Keegan or Alan Hansen or when Manchester United, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson, first saw on a parks pitch a young, spindly Ryan Giggs – “a dog chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind”.

Already, this piece has seemed to pick up some ridicule from popular sport sites in the U.S. , though I will be curious how it is received in the U.K.  I understand many fans are suspicious of people using numbers and stats to understand their favorite sport, but if the results produce wins, should they really complain so much?  Looking at the Arsenal model again, they seem to have done quite well both on the field and financially in the last few seasons.

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2 Responses to Liverpool + Moneyball = Unhappy Fans & Media?

  1. jamesreade says:

    Thanks for the heads up Nick, that’s an awful, awful piece of journalism – but sadly quite typical of people over here, so much so that I imagine outside academia and consultancy corridors it will be supported – as exemplified by some of the similarly illiterate comments of Liverpool fans below the article…

  2. Interesting observation. While I am a huge sucker for the implementation of statistics in football, I also realize that there are a number of limitations that are involved when judging a game based purely on statistics.

    The trouble with football is that it is such a fluid sport and that so many actions on the pitch is a cause of so many other actions that it is very difficult to isolate ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ contributions in the course of a game.

    Consider this scenario. While a striker scores a goal from a wingers cross and both men get an assist and a goal (and glory) respectively, it is impossible to quantify the role of say, the second striker, who made such an angular run at that exact moment that he took both defenders with him?

    His contribution to the goal might be greater than the scorer and the passer both, but how do you add a number to that?

    While your Arsenal argument is true (and I generally support this idea) I think there might be some fallacy in the judgment. Because while you say that Arsenal’s performance has improved season by season, for most people this slight improvement fails to register simply because they are comparing this to the the Invincibles squad and the other Arsenal teams at the turn of the century who were actually winning trophies. So relatively speaking in that regard, Arsenal might actually be doing worse.

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