Oakland As, Moneyball and Football Manager

As a dedicated Football Manager player and fervent reader of sports literature, my views on football and how it should be played are constantly being twisted and mutated. Every book drastically changes my FM behaviour and likewise, the results of FM experiments can affect the way in which I receive potential ideas in books. Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson and Brilliant Orange by David Winner have clearly moulded my tactical and philosophical approach to Football Manager as well as my armchair punditry on real life games. Strangely, the book which inspired me to write this, what can only be described as a ridiculously verbose and incoherent collection of points, doesn’t even touch upon football and resembles less of a sports book than a rags-to-riches story about the usefulness of business nous and statistics.



Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, follows the story of the Oakland A’s, a financially disadvantaged baseball side who turned to the use of statistical data to find heavily undervalued player traits. Traditional stat indicators for good ballers include batting average and stolen bases, but these also have a significant value attached to them and it is therefore more sensible to look more closely at other, less traditional stats not usually linked to high-performance players. Another key idea in the A’s scouting ideology is to ignore the scouts more often than not. Similar to the ‘blonde hair phenomenon’, which scouts are fooled by in football (fair-haired players are much more noticeable than dark haired players and stand out more regardless of their performance), baseball talent-spotters rule out players if they don’t look ‘right’. Jeremy Brown, a catcher who would later become a Major League player, is called a ‘bad body catcher’ and accused of having a ‘big butt’ by the scouts. The stats said otherwise, and the A’s signed him. As far as I’m concerned, the A’s ideas have a number of uses in football and FM – Lyon have been using similar ideals for a number of years to prolonged success. The depth of FM allows us to analyse undervalued traits and stats and use these to our advantage, without the risk of other teams adopting these strategies (the AI isn’t that advanced). I can’t lie and say I’ve thoroughly analysed and have hard evidence of these ideas being absolutely true which will make this whole thread criticising traditional perception-based assumptions slightly oxymoronic. But this is the way I play, and this is how I win.

Personality

The ‘psychological makeup’ is a key decision factor for Billy Beane, the A’s manager when he and his scouts are planning their draft picks early on in the book. The results of a psychological test given to all prospective players is valued highly and even the most revered players are ruled out if they are lacking in the mind.

This is translated to FM in the form of the hidden attributes which combine to make an overall personality in the player’s personal tab. Luckily for us, we don’t have to rule out youngsters due to their psychology since senior players can influence every single one of the hidden attributes and potentially increase them from 1 to 20 in just one tutelage period. This does, however, mean that your senior players should be absolutely prize role models so you can develop problem youngsters into the Paul Scholes’ and Xavis of the world. Development of players is heavily reliant on personality as part of the magic triangle, and potential can remain untapped if clubs fail to seize upon a high-potential player and transform him into the most driven, most professional they can. A player with 20 professionalism will train with so much more ardour than a player with 1 professionalism that it’d be like adding five extra clicks to each training slider. It’s that much of an effect on work ethic. A number of low-professionalism, high-potential players will be spurted out by big clubs aged 17/18 for a lack of growth and you can pick these up for free, tutor them and turn them into model pupils. This isn’t something I do unless I know they’ve got the potential to go on to be in my first team but it would be an effective money making strategy for the likes of Wigan or Fulham.

Easily transformable to an Angel, in FM at least

Of course, this relies on having role models available to get that conveyor belt going. Over 24 year-olds with poor personalities simply creates a sticky, creaky and ineffectual conveyor belt because you’ll have to buy ready-made youngsters for huge prices. Most of those 190 PA prodigies you see people buying all the time cost an absolute bomb because they’ve developed early on as a result of a good personality. They’ve got bags of determination, professionalism and ambition and you have to pay a premium. The way I do it means you only have to shell out for proven professionals initially and you can breed a team ethos which goes round in a never ending cycle. The problem children are tutored, they grow up and tutor the problem children of the next generation, creating a brilliantly effective and financially sound developmental cycle.

Market trends

Just one of a series of over-priced strikers fought over by Europe’s elite

Billy Beane and his statisticians found that the five ‘tools’ of baseball were extremely overvalued. Traditional scouts would look primarily for speed, strength, hitting for average (safe hitting to maximise probability of getting on base), hitting for power and fielding, meaning those players who did not ‘look’ like they had these tools were neglected by the scouts, and those who did were fought for and were highly coveted. Other stats like on-base and slugging percentage were found, by Oakland’s sabermetrician Paul DePodesta, to go hand in hand with a high number of team runs, making it easy for the A’s to manipulate the transfer/draft market. Lyon are the footballing proponents of a shrewd transfer policy which took advantage of market inefficiencies like these.

One of the rules of the Lyon strategy is to avoid centre-forwards. Good centre-forwards are like the five-tool players of the baseball world and they therefore look to develop their own strikers. Karim Benzema is a perfect example of this, having come through Lyon’s academy before being sold to Real Madrid at the peak of his value for £33m. Strikers score goals, and goals are the most obvious thing to measure a player’s performance by, just like batting average for baseball hitters. The Oakland A’s found they could make huge financial gains by transforming mediocre fielders into catchers – other teams overvalued these by looking at stats that were not a true measure of the catcher’s ability. Catchers were much too expensive for the A’s to buy, so they turned to developing them, and selling them on. This has a perhaps weak link to FM, but a nevertheless profitable one. You can only have four coaches? Make sure your best ones are attacking/shooting ones – this way you can focus your youth development on strikers who will score goals. Goalscorers sell for more than targetmen or hold-up players (goalscorers look more valuable because their contribution is more measurable). If you’re not Manchester United or Real Madrid, forget trying to make a Dimitar Berbatov, and look towards developing pacy, composed finishers. You’ll see the difference in the Halifax.

Lyon also found that goalkeepers were undervalued. Goalies tend to stay at one club for at least 5 years and move to big clubs when they are in their early to mid twenties for less than £10m. Petr Cech moved to Chelsea for £7m in 2004 aged 22 and has been a tremendous safeguard for the Blues since then. The impact of a goalkeeper is significantly less obvious than a striker who can command a high transfer fee from banging in goals, which makes them much better to buy than sell. When you look at the athletic capabilities of Iker Casillas, for example, it is hard to believe that goalkeepers are not up there with strikers as the most desirable players in football. On my long term save on FM11, I found an amazing number of world-class goalkeepers who cost little more than £10m each and ended up with five in my first team. I thought I could sell them on for big dolla but I quickly learnt that teams are not willing to pay £30m+ for players they cannot directly judge the performances of.

Cheap as chips

Englishmen carry a premium somewhat similar to strikers when sold between British clubs. The homegrown rules that the FA have implemented in recent years have only blown up this ballooning value and now we see 21 year old Brits being sold for £20m (Phil Jones and Jordan Henderson, for example), allowing smaller clubs to make a small fortune out of their unproven produce. As promising as Jones and Henderson are, they have offered a small sample of evidence to command such high transfer fees and it suggests a certain level of panicking beneath the surface at Manchester United and Liverpool to fill up with homegrown players. 17 year olds bought in from abroad have a lower chance of success but you can still pay half the price for five or six youngsters and one of them will probably go big if you use your eyes and ears. Even before the homegrown rules, Englishmen carried a mark-up, mostly thanks to the ludicrous ethnocentrism and distrust of foreigners of our country with the new rules have doubled or trebled this. Scandinavians and Dutchmen seem to be the bargain buys nowadays, since they have the never-say-die kind of attitudes that your idiosyncratic South Americans may not, but with a bit of ‘culture’.

Billy Beane has his own set of rules when it comes to buying and selling, but due to the differences between transfer systems, only one of these can really be translated and used effectively in football. Paraphrased, Beane says players should always have a value to you; ‘put a dollar figure on it’. Knowing what every single player’s highest/lowest (depending on whether you’re the buying or selling club) is what the likes of Leeds failed to establish, and the ramifications of this can be horribly bad. Obviously, my choice to use Leeds as an example is a tad deceptive, since Chelsea and most recently Man City have got away with it (in my defence, both of these latter clubs have, reportedly, got bottomless pots of money), but this is nevertheless a very important point. I find a notepad file or in-game note for my players/transfer targets works well to ensure I don’t get swayed by negotiations, however convincing. It is  simply imperative that you know how much each and every player in your little realm of the FM world is worth in a true market.

One comment on “Oakland As, Moneyball and Football Manager

  1. Pingback: About the Author | Back To The Drawing Board

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