It’s perhaps fitting that Damien Comolli, Liverpool’s director of football, should part ways with the club the day following one of the more unpredictable moments in the Premier League season in which Shaun Maloney’s strike defeated Manchester United in the same moment Manchester City saw Tevez score in a 4-0 rout against West Brom.
That’s because Comolli was a supposed disciple of “Moneyball,” the much-ballyhooed concept of using player data and analysis to buy affordable wins rather than expensive stars in the European transfer market, much in the same way Billy Beane did with the Oakland A’s in the 2002 MLB season. In theory, of course, accurate data could allow serious number-crunchers a serious advantage in selecting players with skills not necessarily evident to the untrained observer used to the “scores goals, let’s buy him” approach.
Yet while Comolli espoused to journalists left and right the principles of “Soccernomics” (including the co-author of the book on the subject, Simon Kuper), his work in the transfer market was less Billy Beane and more George Steinbrenner. Stewart Downing approx. £20 million. Jordan Henderson approx. £20 million. Luis Suarez, £22.8 million. And, infamously, Andy Carroll, £35 million. Hardly the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster about one man subverting the European transfer system.
It’s also not as if there isn’t a precedent for smart buying in European club football. Lyon owner and chairman Jean-Michel Aulas, having already revolutionized the club’s transfer policy in the decade prior, won the first of seven straight Ligue 1 titles in the same year the Oakland A’s won twenty games in a row. As Kuper details in Soccernomics, “Aulas thinks that rationality in soccer works more or less like this: If you buy good players for less than they are worth, you will win more games. You will then have more money to buy better players for less than they are worth.”
As is clear to even the least-statistically-inclined fan, Liverpool have clearly bought players for far more than they were worth, and will almost certainly not sell them on at a profit. Surely then these players were purchased to win consistently over the long term, which they also haven’t done. So it’s worth asking: what was Comolli’s approach to player analysis? This, for example, was his take on buying Luis Suarez:
“For Luis, I looked at the stats over the last three years, notably the number of games played which is an important factor,” he told France Football earlier this year. “We turn enormously toward players who don’t get injured. We also took into account the number of assists, his performances against the big teams, against the smaller clubs, in the European Cup, the difference between goals scored at home and away.”
By all means interesting statistics, but not exactly sophisticated, and certainly ones that any manager or director of football would not also seriously look at in the modern era. It’s also unclear how they provide any indication whatsoever how a player will perform in the future. And alarm bells should go off at the mention of “assists”, one of the more dubious recorded statistics in football, which often belies more about position than innate ability. If we take Comolli at his word, it’s also unclear how these stats gave Liverpool any sort of market advantage. Suarez’s stats were stunning for Ajax, for example, having scored 111 goals in 159 appearances for the club. Hardly a diamond in the rough.
To be fair, it’s certainly possible that Comolli’s role was purely in “wheeling and dealing” to get players already wanted by the manager. Kenny Dalglish today said, “Everyone who has come into the club since Damien has been here was of my choice. Once I made the choice who I wanted Damien went away and did a fantastic job of bringing them in.” And Comolli was responsible for bringing in Luka Modric and Gareth Bale to Tottenham (although he also brought in David Bentley).
But the onlooker should be wary of anyone name-dropping sabermetric-y principles when they’re clearly not practicing them. Before we seal the coffin on player analytics and soccer, we should be aware that the vast majority of player data is privately collected and either sold for profit or kept in care by the clubs (to the detriment of research, in my opinion; if open-source can work in drug development and medicine, surely it can work in soccer analytics). Perhaps certain teams and directors of football are in fact using state-of-the-art metrics when buying players on the European transfer market and are keeping it mum. We don’t know. But based on Comolli’s track record, neither he nor Liverpool are among them.
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Sir Alex Ferguson scolds his team good.
Alan Shearer wants an England manager RIGHT NOW.
Robin van Persie is now officially as good as Billy Wright.
Paolo Bandini details another twist in the tail of Lecce’s Serie A season.
Marcello Lippi defends Massimiliano Allegri over sacking rumours.
Incredibile: Del Piero scores in his 700th appearance.
Honigstein mops up after
Robben Dortmund beats Bayern 1-0.
Robben “embarrassed” by the defeat.
Controversial characters in German football.
Real Madrid wins the Madrid derby against Atletico.
Bits and bobs
Nicolas Anelka: co-coaching Shanghai Shenhua.
Japan looks to be in trouble in World Cup 2014 qualification.
James Horncastle underlines the importance of Paul Scholes to Manchester United.
Montpellier on course for a first Ligue 1 title.
A sincere apology to Watford fans.
And that, give or take, is the story so far…