Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Moneyball: Oakland To Liverpool Via Dortmund

Posted on 3 December 2020 by Jeremy Addley

The 2002 Oakland Athletics became famous for sparking to life the Moneyball theory. A team full of long-time role-players and ‘Bad News Bears’ replicated the production levels of outgoing 2000 American League MVP Jason Giambi, outfielder Johnny Damon and closer Jason Isringhausen.

The famed 2002 season brought to life the idea that analytics could uncover the forgotten or unearthed stars. The idea would eventually evolve into a cornerstone foundation for current English Premier League champions Liverpool.

The birth of an idea

In 2002 the Athletics paved the way forward with modern day data analytics. Team manager Billy Beane rebuilt the roster from a shoestring budget of $41 million. For context, this was $85 million less than the Derek Jeter-led New York Yankees.

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The As used Yale economics graduate Peter Brand to turn their ideas into a formula.

Brand calculated that in order for the As to have a successful rebuild, they had to use his data to craft a team that could score runs that were over the average amount needed to win a singular game. That would then translate into the average amount of games needed to make the playoffs.

They banked on the averages of incoming former Yankees’ play-off hero David Justice, first baseman Scott Hatteberg and reliever Billy Koch proving equal to or better than their all-star production from the season before.

In essence, they became less reliant on individual(s) and more team-centric.

The 2002 As had the best record in the American League West with 103 wins, and broke the season record for most consecutive victories within the regular season (20).

While they would go on to lose to the Minnesota Twins in the first round of the playoffs. What they presented was a way for teams to use data analytics to spend within their means and still garner high potential rewards.

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So how has the theory evolved and made its way beyond that 2002 Oakland side?

Moneyball rolls into Liverpool

In October 2010, the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) completed the $300 million takeover of Liverpool Football Club. The group was headed up by Boston Red Sox owner, John Henry, who had long been fascinated by the idea of Moneyball.

In fact, he unsuccessfully tried to lure Beane to the Red Sox following the conclusion of the 2002 season.

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When FSG completed their takeover, they wished to bring about an evolved style of Moneyball that still replicated the same efficient economic approach that the As had replicated, but could eventually work at the pinnacle of football.

Liverpool went out in search of players under the age of 22 who, in their eyes, had a high potential at a low cost. The best early example would be the acquisition of Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez.

The brilliant Suárez averaged a goal every 130 minutes for Ajax, and either scored or provided an assist every 80 minutes. For £22.8 million, the Reds acquired his services in January 2011.

That same window, flush with money from the £50m sale of Fernando Torres to Chelsea, Liverpool also signed Newcastle striker Andy Carroll for £35 million. The 22-year-old Geordie had averaged a goal every 153 minutes and either assisted or scored in every match in the Premier League.

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Where Liverpool repeatedly went wrong with their early ideas of Moneyball was that they only analysed the numbers, not how the players looked on the pitch.

While Suárez was devastating, for the style of play Liverpool wanted under Kenny Dalglish, Carroll didn’t fit the bill.

His numbers spiked for Newcastle as they played into him as a target man, but Liverpool wanted to play a fast-paced attacking style that someone like Suárez was more suited for.

Liverpool turned to their head of data analytics John Edwards for answers on where the club needed to look for players who fit their criteria. Edwards’s brief was to recommend players based on their underlying numbers and who they were currently playing for.

The idea was that buying from smaller clubs meant that Liverpool could get the style of player they wanted for a smaller fee than had they targeted established superstars.

Edwards identified players such as Roberto Firmino and Emre Can. The only obstacle to his approach becoming policy was then manager Brendan Rodgers, who was opposed to the use of data to recruit players.

Rodgers identified instead Belgian forward Christian Benteke and Croatian defender Dejan Lovren, two players who did not fare well in data analysis.

It is all fine and good to bring players in who the data suggested were undervalued. But to then not link them up with a coach who backed the approach meant the Reds were only going to progress so far.

Mastering the theory

When the time came to replace Rogers as head coach, Edwards would apply the lessons learnt in the early years of Moneyball at Liverpool. Enter Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp.

A major concept of Moneyball is the team-centric idea, with less focus on individuals – an absolute necessity for this project to work as it did in Oakland.

Liverpool needed a coach who would have the same attacking style as Rodgers, but would be comfortable working in an environment the power was distributed.

At Borussia Dortmund, Klopp had worked under sporting director Michael Zorc. The former German international identified players such as Robert Lewandowski, Ilkay Gündoğan and Mats Hummels, and Klopp would then be tasked with coaching these players to their ceiling.

This was the model Liverpool aimed to replicate – and improve on.

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With Klopp’s arrival in October 2015, Edwards was appointed to the role of sporting director. His analysis of data and Klopp’s football nous combined to identify undervalued targets that would fit the German’s system.

As they grew more successful under Klopp, Liverpool would evolve from the ideas pioneered by Beane in Oaklands. The Reds could afford to sign superstar talent such as Southampton’s Dutch defender Virgil Van Dijk and Roma’s Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson Becker, lifting them to heights that the As simply couldn’t replicate.

With the financial backing that FSG provided, Liverpool could afford to go one better, using an adapted version of the Oakland As formula, identifying the final pieces and being prepared to spend big to get them.

In short, Liverpool added another level to the house that Billy built.