Liverpool braced for statistical revolution
Billy Beane, who conquered American sport with his unique analysis, says his methods can work in football
The baseball manager Billy Beane, whose statistical approach to buying and deploying players, enshrined in the multimillion-selling American sports book Moneyball, will form part of Liverpool's future under the ownership of John W Henry, has urged British football to grasp a concept which he believes will offer the club a vital competitive advantage.
Henry's new director of football strategy at Anfield, Damien Comolli, a close friend of Beane, said this week that the American's metrics system – which breaks down every piece of action into numbers which can prove the ultimate judge of a player's ability – is something he believed in "massively".
Beane – who, having used metrics to transform the relatively impoverished Oakland A's, is translating them to Major League Soccer club San Jose Earthquakes, which he part owns – said that the science can be applied to a more fluid sport than baseball, one in which cause and effect and an individual's contribution to a team are trickier to ascertain. "Any change is going to be greeted with suspicion. It's a natural reaction to anything," he said. "But I don't think there's a business anywhere in the world which is not using metrics, not as a template for success but as a tool. All sports are about numbers and it's just a question of finding which ones correlate to a particular sport."
But The Independent has established that the British sports scientist who worked with Beane to introduce the concept at the Earthquakes has quit British football for a rugby union Premiership club because of the deep-seated scepticism among football coaches.
Dr Bill Gerrard, the Leeds Business School's professor of sports management and finance, has already identified key metrics criteria for football – such as a successful entry into the final third of the field, second-ball possession or passing tempo, depending on the style of game adopted by a particular team – which can make a tangible difference to match preparation. His work at the Earthquakes included a player-by-player analysis based on 30 actions in a game which, when applied to the salaries of those players, revealed precisely which players represented best value for money.
But though there has been some use of ProZone statistics in British football, Gerrard said he could not get coaches to accept his ideas, while club directors who do appreciate their value are unwilling to force them on the coaching staff. "There's only so far you can bang your head against a brick wall," Dr Gerrard said. "It was great working with Billy because he combined intelligence and imagination. But there is a very deep anti-intellectualism running through the British game. I found it much easier to get into the boardroom to explain the value of metrics, but boardrooms will not meddle or be seen to meddle. A lot of football boardrooms in this country know what I do but there has been no interaction with coaches and nothing has come of it."
Dr Gerrard has undertaken work for Bolton – the Premier League club which has embraced metrics more than any other – as well as Arsenal. He was also invited by Comolli to spend time observing the system at Tottenham, though said scepticism prevailed over the then performance director's idea. "The one thing Damien had created at Tottenham was a collegiate atmosphere of being able to discuss ideas [like this]," Dr Gerrard said "But by the time he invited me to Tottenham, Juande Ramos had arrived [as manager] and he was old-school and that was not the way he operated."
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