With “Moneyball” baseball executive Billy Beane joining a consortium to acquire English football club Barnsley, supporters of the second-tier side may soon find themselves asking what is the philosophy and how successful has it been?
Moneyball shot to attention in 2003 with Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”, telling the tale of Oakland Athletics baseball team and their incredible success against the odds, spearheaded by general manager Beane, before becoming the inspiration for the 2011 film starring Brad Pitt.
Beane took on a failing team on a limited budget to an American League record of 20 consecutive wins, on the way to finishing top of the American League West in 2002.
Beane’s idea revolves around the use of data in the recruitment process to assess a player’s value. Players who had been previously overlooked, but showed impressive statistics, were given another chance to huge success.
The idea has been transferred to football with a wealth of data available to football clubs.
Liverpool, whose owner John W. Henry, of Fenway Sports Group, is a big fan of Moneyball and Beane, have used data-based recruitment techniques to mixed success.
Former director of football Damien Comolli was charged with implementing the strategy in late 2010, and soon had sold Spanish striker Fernando Torres to Chelsea for a then British record of 50 million pounds ($68 million). Comolli then brought in two players with the money: Uruguayan attacker Luis Suarez and English striker Andy Carroll.
“For Luis, I looked at the stats over the last three years, notably the number of games played – we turn enormously toward players who don’t get injured.” Comolli said in 2011.
“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.”
English second tier side Brentford are another who have experimented with data-driven recruitment. The Championship club reached the playoff semi-finals in 2015, however it had been announced earlier that year that manager Mark Warburton would be leaving his position at the end of the season.
Warburton had fallen out with owner Matthew Benham, who favoured the use of data. Benham also owns a betting company that produces football statistics.
“He (Benham) wants recruitment to be based more on mathematical modelling and statistics allied to normal scouting methods,” Warburton said shortly after his departure. “For me, I have a different philosophy.”
Benham also owns FC Midtjylland in Denmark, a team only founded in 1999. Since taking a controlling interest in 2014, Benham’s data techniques have been implemented to great success.
“We think we’ve got some tools that will make us evaluate teams and players much more accurately with data rather than the human eye,” then-chairman Rasmus Ankersen said in 2015.
Midtjylland stormed to the 2014/15 Danish title. Barnsley may not become Premier League champions, but Beane’s ideas may just give them a better chance.