Liverpool owners FSG shocked many last week when they dismissed Damien Comolli from his position as Director of Football as part of a day of dismissals at Anfield which also saw, among others the Head of Sports Science and Medicine, Dr. Peter Brukner, find himself heading towards the unemployment queue.
Whilst initially Commoli’s departure was announced under the guise of “mutual consent”, Liverpool Chairman Tom Werner made it quite clear that Comolli have been sacked for failing to do the job he had been appointed to do in a manner which FSG deemed acceptable.
Comolli was, it must be assumed, appointed to implement the “moneyball” philosophy which FSG are apparently hoping to bring to Liverpool. Moneyball is an interesting phenomenon who stems from baseball, a sport in which John Henry in particular has a very successful past after being the part owner of the Florida Marlins team which won a world series, and the majority owner of the legendary Boston Red Sox who have won two world series since his bought the club in 2003.
Moneyball is based on a number of ideas. First and foremost there’s a buy low, sell high philosophy. This requires extensive scouting to buy young players at minimal expense and nurturing their talent so that you get the best out of them before moving them on in return for a bigger reward. It also involves finding underappreciated and under-rated experienced players who have specific attributes to bring to your team from a statistical point of view as moneyball incorporates a lot of sabermetrics, or statistical performance analysis.
There are a number of problems with trying to run a football club, specifically a football club of the stature of Liverpool by using moneyball ideas. First and foremost is the challenge of acquiring young players. In American sports there is an annual draft where the best young players become available to professional teams having either spent time nurturing their talents in college, or often in Europe. Some are drafted direct from high school in baseball. In these circumstances clubs have scouts watching players for a minimum of two years before they become draft eligible meaning that you’ve had plenty of time to look at every aspect of the game. Also in baseball they have a complex minor league system where a player will move up through 3 to 4 different levels of play before making their Major League debut which ensures that only the cream rises to the top. The system in football is obviously completely different and players coming from youth academies and reserve teams into first team football are far less experienced or proven than their baseball counterparts.
Moneyball works if your aim is to be slightly above mediocrity or if you’re a smaller club looking to punch well above your weight. The Oakland A’s are the pioneers of moneyball. They have won a total of ZERO American League Championships and ZERO World Series during the moneyball era. Their aim is simply to make the playoffs each year, the equivalent of Liverpool simply aiming for a top six finish. Billy Beane is the man who has become famous for his moneyball theories at the Oakland A’s. He’s become famous for making a mediocre team slightly less mediocre. He’s the David Moyes of baseball and his club are the Everton of Baseball. Their idea of success doesn’t involve winning anything. The Tampa Bay Rays are one of the smallest franchises in baseball and their aim is to punch above their weight, move their best players on to other clubs when they become too expensive to keep and then aim to rebuild through the draft. If they have success along the way, great, but they concern themselves more with balancing the books and keeping the production line of talent ticking over. In footballing terms the Rays are similar to Club Athletic of Bilbao. The aims of a club like Liverpool are significantly higher than either Everton, or Club Athletic. Or at least they should be.
It should be noted that whilst FSG proclaim moneyball as their way of doing things, the fact of the matter is that they don’t practice what they preach. The Boston Red Sox might posture about moneyball but what they do is not moneyball. They spend big to win big. We need to do the same. The Red Sox went out in 2011 and signed two of the premier free agents to massive contracts. Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez are superstars who will spend their prime years with the Red Sox and are unlikely to ever play elsewhere given their ages and the contracts they were given in terms of both the money they are being paid, and the lengths of those contracts. Liverpool need to spend big this summer. A transfer kitty of £30million simply isn’t going to get the job done unless a number of big name players are sold.
I’ve heard talk of FSG’s strategy being about sustainable success, that’s all well and good but you have to have success before you sustain it. You simply can’t have sustainable success without first having success, it’s just not possible in any way. You can’t be mediocre and then spend less and expect that to pass as sustainable success. Speculate to accumulate.
And forget this low wage structure talk as if it’s their way of doing things which they are bringing from America, the Red Sox always have one of the highest wage bills in baseball. The idea that top class players will come to play for Liverpool without Liverpool paying the big wages is just utter nonsense. We’ve been left behind by the top clubs because of this type of ideology to be honest. Not willing to pay the big wages? Won’t sign the big players. Plain and simple. It has far less to do with Champions League than is it does with wages. If Liverpool want to bring in Christian Eriksen, Iker Muniain or any of the other top class attacking talents they have looked at in the last year they can do, as long as they pay the wages that make the move attractive to those players.
In fairness, whilst Liverpool have been talked about as a club who are implementing moneyball, they really haven’t in at least one aspect. The transfer market, specifically on the purchasing side of things. Liverpool failed in the purchasing side of the transfer market under Comolli. Not just that, they’ve failed miserably not just in terms of moneyball but in terms of doing anything close to a good job. Andy Carroll was worth no more than £12million, Liverpool paid £35million. Stewart Downing was worth no more than £12million, Liverpool paid £20million. Jordan Henderson was worth no more than £8million, Liverpool paid £16million. People say Liverpool have paid for their potential but Carroll and Downing will never be worth close to what Liverpool paid for them. People say they were bought for their resale value, but Carroll and Downing are going to be players Liverpool lose huge money on. Henderson has the talent to become worthy of his price tag, but Liverpool won’t make profit on him. That’s not how resale value works under the ideas of moneyball. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Regardless of Kenny Dalglish claiming responsibility for the signings, a tactical move on Dalglish’s part in my view, Comolli did the negotiations and finalized the deals, overspending massively in the process.
If you include Charlie Adam with the three that I’ve mentioned, Liverpool have spent £77million or so on four players, none of whom are or ever will be world class. They could have bought three world class, or potentially world class like Luis Suarez, players for that type of money as well as an undervalued gem like Yohan Cabaye, but they didn’t. One argument for this is that they spend big money on British players because the wages would be lower. It is a valid argument but it shows immense stupidity on the clubs behalf. Between the four players mentioned they are earning roughly £11million a year. Three players of the Suarez calibre would have cost roughly £3-4million a year more. Is it really not worth paying that little bit extra when those players would give you a far better chance of qualifying for the Champions League and the riches that tournament would bring? Are the ambitions so small time?
Another argument is that they want Premier League proven players who wouldn’t need a settling in period. If that’s true then why are people still using settling in as an excuse for the poor seasons those players have had? It’s utter nonsense. And the fact is that Adam, Henderson and Carroll weren’t proven to be good players in the Premier League. Adam had one season in the league and was hugely inconsistent, Carroll had half a season and was nothing more than a flash in the pan, Michael Ricketts-esque sensation at the time, and Henderson, whilst he’d had two full seasons, was only 20. No player is proven at that age. Downing had proven he was a good player for a mid-table team but he’d also proven that he was incapable of having two good seasons back to back. The strategy of who they targeted was just poor and Downing, Adam and Henderson were all signed based of strong statistical reports which moulded well with building a team around Carroll.
There’s really little point in me getting into the statistical side of things in depth because that’s an article in itself, I’ll just say that football is a more dynamic and unpredictable sport than baseball with more intangibles to consider. Due to the stop start nature of baseball as well as the fact that most baseball players are specialists in merely one position, it’s a totally different ballgame and much easier to analysis statistically. If you want to judge a football player, go and watch footage off him from fifteen or so matches over the course of about three years. You’ll get a far better idea of what he’s like that you will by simply watching him two or three times and then looking at statistics.
When you’re in the position Liverpool are in you need to bring in top class talent who can improve the team substantially, rather than second rate talent who make minimal difference, or players who are viewed as being “for the future”. You can’t spend £51million on two players and then talk about seeing the best of them in 3 years or so. You sign two top players now, and then each season you sign one or two top class 17 or 18 years who can be brought into the team slowly. People seem wrapped up on players like Hazard and Cavani, and those two we can rule out. They are too expensive and too highly sought after. But what about Muniain, Eriksen, Ramirez, Jovetic, Torje or Belhanda as alternatives to Hazard? What about Huntelaar, Dzeko, Negredo or Adebayor as alternatives to Cavani? I could go on and on naming players that Liverpool could attract but the club aren’t hiring me as a scout anytime soon so there’s no point.
FSG bought Liverpool for peanuts and have a net spend of roughly £40million on transfers thus far. It’s time for them to step up and spend big this summer. They must appoint a CEO to run the club because they’re rarely in the country and Ian Ayre is a Commercial Director and nothing more. He’s CEO in title only. He’s out of his depth trying to run a football club. They must go out and find the right man to run the club. David Dein would be perfect but seems unlikely.
They must then, or better yet the new CEO must then, appoint a new Director of Football to put in place a proper transfer strategy for the summer. A Director of Football with proper contacts, the respect of the world wide footballing community and the ability to bring top class talent into the club. Former Barcelona Director of Football, Txiki Bergeristan is probably the best choice. He’s available, he knows people within the club, he’s got respect throughout the game and he knows how to get the job done.
Sacking Comolli was the right move to make but others, including Kenny Dalglish, must also have their positions reviewed and adjusted to keep the club moving in the right direction. That direction must not include moneyball, not at the minute anyway.