Will unheralded physicist change the way football clubs buy and sell players?
The numbers game: Liverpool has tried to apply "moneyball" to football.
June 2nd, 2014
01:11 PM ET

Will unheralded physicist change the way football clubs buy and sell players?

By John Sinnott

It was a side that thrilled the English Premier League.

From the glut of goals provided by Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, to the speed of Raheem Sterling and the guile of Philippe Coutinho, as well as the deployment of Steven Gerrard as football's answer to the quarterback, Liverpool's re-emergence last season was the arguably the biggest surprise in the race for the title.

If Liverpool ultimately fell short in finishing second, some compensation came in the form of player awards for Suarez and a manager of the year award for Brendan Rodgers.

But one man’s name was never mentioned in despatches in discussions as to why a team that had finished seventh the previous season gave eventual winners Manchester City the fright of their lives.

That man was Ian Graham, a Cambridge graduate, who holds a PhD in theoretical physics.

A self-confessed fan of the club, Liverpool's Director of Research Graham declined an interview with CNN, saying through an intermediary that he preferred to stay “silent on all media pieces on soccerball analytics.”

Beloved in baseball, though still widely distrusted in football, the concept behind “Moneyball” is to use statistics to recruit players who might go on to become a star for your team, or someone you sell for a lot of money.

One man willing to talk about Graham was his former boss Henry Stott of Decision Technology, a company that is providing “player recruitment advice and strategy consultancy” to another English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur.

Read: Mauricio Pochettino appointed Spurs boss

Between 2005 and 2012 Graham was Decision Technology's head of football research developing "a set of statistical models for the prediction of football matches and the rating of players," according to the company's website.

Describing Graham as a “really bright guy,” Stott recruited the physicist from Cambridge, one of England’s most prestigious universities. “I interviewed lots of people before appointing Ian after his predecessor went to work for a bookmakers.

“Ian will be influencing their decision making,” added Stott of Graham’s work at Liverpool.

At one point Liverpool had been talking to Decision Technology about working for them, but in the end, according to Stott, the club’s American owner John W Henry opted to headhunt Graham instead.

Henry also runs the Boston Red Sox and played a part in the “Moneyball” book and movie.

Michael Lewis’ book tells the story of general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team Billy Beane and his attempts to scout players by analysing statistics. After Henry bought the Red Sox in 2002 he offered Beane the post of General Manager but was turned down. In 2002, the Athletics had set an AL record by winning 20 consecutive games.

Under the era of Liverpool’s former technical director Damien Comolli, the English side was arguably an example of how not to do “Moneyball,” having bought forward Andy Carroll from Newcastle United for £35 million ($56 million) before selling him to West Ham for a huge loss.

Comolli, however, might suggest that Suarez's signing more than makes up for the Frenchman’s aberrations between November 2010 and April 2012 in buying and selling players, as the Uruguayan’s transfer value has probably tripled since he joined Liverpool from Ajax for €26.5 million ($35.8 million).

Since Comolli’s departure, Liverpool’s work in the transfer market has been more successful, with Sturridge, Coutinho and goalkeeper Simon Mignolet playing a leading part in Liverpool’s successful campaign, which culminated in qualification for the lucrative European Champions League.

The Anfield club’s work in the transfer window continues to surprise, notably the recent signing of Southampton and England international striker Rickie Lambert, 32, whose career has flourished while playing for the South Coast club.

“We help analyse players,” said Stott explaining Decision Technology’s work with Spurs. “We basically do ‘Moneyball’ with them in relation to the evaluation of players and other statistical questions – for example what are Spurs’ chances of reaching the Champions League in any given year?”

It was during Comolli’s tenure that Decision Technology started working with Spurs.

“Quantification of players is not a silver bullet,” said Stott, who has has co-authored the Times' Fink Tank football column for over 10 years.

“It’s a different source of information and it can’t see the subtleties of a player that a scout can.

“The analysis runs across 7,000 players across 21 leagues over three seasons. No scout can watch that much football. But what we do doesn’t undermine the work that scouts do. What you have to remember about data is that there is no sentimentality about data.”

Last season Spurs were widely criticized for spending £110m on seven players after selling Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for a world record transfer fee. Spurs finished the season in sixth position on 69 points, but Stott points to the steady progression Spurs have been making.

“When we started working with them, they had 55 points in the league. Our forecasts are just one part of the input – and that will be the same at Liverpool,” said Stott, talking broadly about the use of statistics in player recruitment.

“Other people will be involved in the decision making process such as Franco Baldini,” he added, referring to Spur’s Italian director of football, a role previously held by Comolli, who worked at White Hart Lane between 2005 and 2008.

This analytic approach to the "beautiful game" can throw up suprising conclusions, not least when it come to one of European football's traditional powerhouses.

Despite Holland’s reputation for developing young players and the Dutch national team's tendency to punch above its weight on the international stage, Stott argues that Decision Technology’s analysis has led them to be “not huge fans of the Dutch league.”

He adds: “You can evaluate how a Dutch team might be against an English team. You trace it back like a spider’s web cross checking European matches between team. We can track those matches and calibrate those leagues. The Dutch teams are not as strong as other leagues.”

According to Stott, it’s primarily Spurs and Liverpool in the England Premier League that are actively engaged in the use of statistical analysis in relation to player recruitment, though he also cited the influence of Gavin Fleig at Manchester City.

Fleig said he was unable to speak to CNN as he was about to go on paternity leave.

While working for Decision Technology, Graham did give an interview to the British news agency Press Association, explaining the nuances of relating statistics to transfer analysis.

"Analysis is hard to do because of the nature of the game. It's hard to explain because of the extra work required in generating meaningful results and hard to sell because there is no great tradition of statistical analysis in the game.

"But that doesn't mean it's not useful. What is necessary is an appreciation of the advantages and limitations of statistical analysis.

"In my experience, one can develop tools that evaluate players despite the fluid nature of football. It's just very tough to do."

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Liverpool looks set to scale dizzy heights in the near future. All the best to footballers and fans of FC Liverpool.

    June 11, 2014 at 7:32 am | Reply
  2. phkenyon1990

    I'm a Blackburn fan but would love to see liverpool to develop their stars to help them reach their old heights and win some trophies. I have great faith in sterling and Sturridge to perform for Liverpool and England as I say in bigphillysfootyblog.wordpress.com

    August 4, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Reply

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