Revealed: How baseball convinced Liverpool to spend £20m on Jordan Henderson
Published 22:30 12/10/11 By Neil McLeman
Liverpool's director of football Damien Comolli is using a stats-based approach that revolutionised baseball to help target new signings.
The story of Billy Beane, the boss of the Oakland Athletics who used the system to punch above their weight against baseball's big-spending giants, has been made into a Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt.
Comolli was the first senior European football figure to contact the American when the Frenchman was working at Tottenham.
The two general managers have since become close friends and regularly discuss their sports.
And Liverpool, whose owners the Fenway Sports Group tried to recruit Beane for their Boston Red Sox baseball team, are now using football-related stats to get more value from the inflated transfer market.
This summer, the Anfield club bought three internationals - Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson - who were all in the top eight chance-creators (see below) in the Premier League last season.
Beane, an open admirer of Comolli’s former boss Arsene Wenger, said other clubs are also following an approach which avoids signing big-name stars on massive salaries.
“The world is so small now and myself and Damien have become close friends,” said Beane, who now also works with the MLS team San Jose Earthquakes.
“I don’t offer Damien advice but I will send him my opinions and he will shoot me straight whether I was right or wrong.
"I root for Damien, I root for [Liverpool owner] John Henry.”
Comolli has admitted his stats obsession comes from Beane.
“The revelation came from reading Moneyball [the book on which the Pit movie is based], that’s when everything fell into place,” he said earlier this year.
Each club’s data approach is top secret but the Liverpool’s recent signing of younger talent shows the Moneyball effect has crossed the Atlantic.
“You know why they sign younger players? The reason is because they are cost-effective,” Beane explained. “They may cost more to acquire, but their wages are lower. With an older player you may be paying for past performance, whereas with a younger player you are paying for future performance.
"It is like stock. Young players are attractive because they are cheaper and offer more value. They may not be as good, but if they perform at a certain level it makes more sense financially.”
But as the £20million signing of 21-year-old Jordan Henderson during a £144m spending spree in the last year proves, big money can still be invested in the transfer market.
“There is a misconception that you never pay much for anybody, that is not true at all,” Beane continued. “You want to make sure you are getting more value than you are paying.
"That may come in the form of a very expensive player it may come in the form of a very young player, but it is not about being cheap or not spending money.
"It is about getting the most out of your dollar, or pound.”
Professor Bill Gerrard of the Leeds University Business worked with Beane for two years at the Earthquakes to produce ‘The Stars Index’.
This judged players on 27 different pieces of information in five categories - defence, attacking, negative stats (misplaced passes and discipline), strikers and goalkeeping - to measure their on-field performance.
This was then combined with openly-available salary levels to give a VFM (Value for Money) rating for every MLS player.
After signing Luis Suarez for £23m in January, Comolli admitted: “For Luis, I looked at the stats over the last three years, notably the number of games played which is an important factor - 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.”
Gerrard, who now works with Saracens, said: “Damien Comoli and Mike Ford (who introduced data analysis at Bolton) are the Billy Beanes of English football.”
Beane added: “We grow up with the view of sport as a romance, but it also a business. The most important thing in any sport is to win. I don’t care if it is particularly attractive.
"I know people love Barcelona because they play in a certain way but, at the end of the day, if you’re not winning, that is what you want to do.
"When [Jose] Mourinho was at Chelsea, it was 1-0 or 2-0, but he won. That was the ambition.
"Most people get over the romance if you are winning.”
BEANE TURNED WIGAN OF BASEBALL INTO WINNERS
Billy Beane brought success to baseball's Oakland Athletics by going against the game's conventional wisdom.
Traditionally, the sport's scouts based their judgements on stats such as batting average and RBIs (runs batted in) - and how a player looked.
Beane based his recruitment policy on less sexy data, such as on-base percentage (a players’ ability to successfully get to first base) which he reckoned were under-valued in the market.
This analytical method, known as sabermetrics amd revealed in the 2003 book Moneyball, has lead to baseball heavyweights the New York Yankees now employing 21 people devoted to statistical analysis.
“Initially, for us, it was using data to properly allocate your resources in a more efficient way,” Beane explained. “And it’s all about evaluating skills and putting a price on them.
“Our club would be like a Blackpool or Wigan. We can’t do the same things like the Yankees or the [Boston] Red Sox - like Wigan can’t do the same things as Manchester United - so you have to do something different.
“Thirty years ago, stockbrokers used to buy stock strictly by feel.
"Let’s put it this way: Anyone with a retirement fund has a choice. They can choose a fund manager who manages their retirement by gut instinct, or one who chooses by research and analysis.
"I know which way I’d choose.”
MOST CHANCES CREATED IN 2010-11 PREMIER LEAGUE
Malouda (Chelsea) 117
Davies (Bolton) 91
Brunt (West Brom) 86
Downing (Aston Villa) 85
Henderson (Sunderland) 82
Barton (Newcastle) 81
Adam (Blackpool) 80
A Young (Aston Villa) 78
Nani (Manchester United) 78
Baines (Everton) 74