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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Liverpool, Rodgers, the Transfer Committee and Stats

Since Brendan Rodgers got sacked as Liverpool manager, the British tabloid press has taken it upon itself to point out the flaws of the “transfer committee” tasked with devising a transfer strategy for the red side of Merseyside. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that those leaks probably  came from the Rodgers camp who are as proficient in that regard as Andrea Pirlo is at looking handsome. The transfer committee at Liverpool consisted of Mike Gordon (the most footbally and thus hands-on of the owners at Fenway Sports Group- the Liverpool owners), Mike Edwards as Director of Technical Performance, David Fallows as Head of Recruitment and Chief Scout Barry Hunter reflecting the desire to base recruitment decisions on some form of statistical thinking. Ian Ayre in his capacity as Managing Director was tasked with executing said transfers by negotiating fees and contracts.

In many ways, this is nothing different from what goes on at the vast majority of clubs. The transfer process is so complicated that one person can’t hold all the power. The problem is that other clubs have not fallen to framing this in terms of a “committee”. At Chelsea, the “transfer committee” consists of Michael Emenalo, Jose Mourinho and Marina Granovskaia. At Arsenal, it’ll consist of Dick Law, Ivan Gazidis, Arsene Wenger and Steve Rowley.

The bad press the Liverpool model has received is reflective of English football’s distrust of the Continental inclined Director of Football model and obsession with the Manager as Dictator model. The Gaffer mentality of one all knowing messiah making all the decisions at one club is flawed as it places all power with one man- a dictator who surely shouldn’t be trusted to make all important decisions on his own. It fails to take into cognizance the fact that football is a multi disciplinary sport meaning that some areas have to be delegated to specialists. Also, what happens when the manager gets a bigger job or is sacked for poor performance? The new manager comes in and disagrees with the previous manager’s thinking and seeks to undo them? The European paradigm on the game is to build the club so comprehensively that it is not beholden to any one person – particularly the manager. In fairness, exposure to two of the most far reaching managers of all time: Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger – rightly viewed as changing the DNA of their clubs partially through their longevity, has skewed expectations and influenced the conceptualization of the Manager as Dictator. The problem with this line of thinking is that it takes what were freaks- exceptions, distorts the narrative and tries to hold it as the norm.

The Brazilian Juninho Pernambucano was a star in that successful Lyon side.

The transfer committee/ Director of Football model is the best for player recruitment. For one, it works with the principle that “two heads are better than one” which lends itself to a more joined up pattern of thinking. The greatest testimony for this paradigm is 2002-2008 Olympic Lyonnais who reached the peak of Ligue 1 using a committee consisting of Club President/Owner Jean-Michel Aulas, Director of Football Bernard Lacombe and whoever happened to be Manager (Jacques Santini, Paul Le Guen, Gerard Houllier and Alain Perrin). Post Lyon, all those Managers had checkered records while Lyon swept Ligue 1 seven consecutive times. The British press has failed to mention the success stories of the “two heads are better than one” approach in the domestic game. Arsenal’s success in the first decade of Wenger’s reign culminating in the Invincibles was largely due to the relationship between David Dein and Wenger. Dein was the more realistic and football backwater savvy ying to Wenger’s more parsimonious and training ground oriented yang. It therefore wasn’t surprising to some that Dein’s departure coincided with the years of drought. There’s also the Brian Clough- Peter Taylor axis that took a provincial club like Nottingham Forest to two European titles. This approach also rids the club making decisions based on extraneous biases. For instance, in their book seeking to explain curious football phenomena, Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski highlight an unnamed club whose scouts were found to constantly recommend blonde players. As colour is an eye catching variable, this magnified certain players to the scouts. By not allowing one person so much power, the continental model allows clubs not to fall to “systemic failures”.

Wenger and Dein were a successful tag team.

Clough and Taylor won two European titles at Forest

The Liverpool attempt to mimic the European model failed for one reason: They had a Manager who did not believe in it. As such, it makes some sense of the Press’ obsession with the topic: it’s been on Rodgers’ prompt through off the record leaks. It’s particularly odd that the club hired Rodgers who made it clear he wouldn’t work with a Director of Football then opted to build the club in such a way that it was practicing this model in the truest form possible except having a designated Director of Football after experimenting with it during the first iteration of FSG-Liverpool- Damien Comolli was Director of Football while Kenny Dalglish was Manager. Rodgers’ contempt for the committee meant that the committee was doomed as there was palpable distrust and discord in the recruitment strategy. On this ground alone, his sack and replacement with Klopp makes practical and logical sense. German clubs have a reputation for being well run and efficient explaining the Committee/ Director of Football’s ubiquity on those shores. Klopp knows no other way of working so he’ll be able to buy into the approach in a way Rodgers couldn’t.
The committee and Fenway Sports Group would also be advised to stick to one recruitment theme instead of following fads. Since taking over Liverpool, their transfer strategy has oscillated from Buying British via Moneyball (Carroll, Downing, Henderson, Adam) to Recreate Rodgers’s Swansea (Allen, Borini) to Undervalued Young (ish) Players from Abroad with a Positive Sell On Value (Ilori, Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto, Coutinho, Sakho) to Pick Off Southampton (Lallana, Lambert, Lovren) and presently Premier League Proven (Ings, Clyne, Benteke, Milner).

Finally, it is worth reconsidering the manner in which statistics are evaluated in football. The denigration of performance analysts as “geeks” and “laptop gurus” reeks of a culture that struggles with adapting to new ideas and concepts. The very essence of statistics in the game is to provide a guide- a sort of filter through which one can match to fill the criteria desired holistically as opposed to the reductionist take that seeks to blame the failure of signings on stats. Just as certain journalists are quick to point out that West Brom’s Nigerian striker, Brown Ideye was purchased based solely on stats (misapplication), there are success stories that prove that when applied properly, it can bear results. Take Arsenal’s Brazilian defender Gabriel as a case study. Using stats, Gabriel’s (then at Villareal) name was flagged up on the Arsenal database. He fit a profile. The club dispatched their scout to run an eye over him and when satisfied, they signed him. The Diego Costa fracas aside, he’s been a success providing a steel and ruggedness not seen in the more polished recent day Arsenal defenders and Arsenal are still yet to concede a goal in the league when Gabriel is on the pitch. (Watch that end this weekend).

At top level sport, it all comes down to the little margins. These margins are what ensured Liverpool faltered at the finish line two seasons ago. This underlines the need to reduce the margin for error and ensure decisions are made as rationally as possible. It is to address this need and desire that clubs opt for a model that has a degree of collectivist thinking and statistical grounding. As Arsene Wenger suggested at Arsenal’s Annual General Meeting yesterday “We have a core of people around the team who can help us. Unbelievable amount of detail and data on every game, every day. What 12 years ago was my eye, now I have to select the 4/5 pieces of information [needed] to be efficient.” It’s the era of big data- seeing is not enough.

Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained, Simon Kuper & Stefan Syzmanski, Harper Sport, 2010
Liverpool will keep struggling until FSG and Brendan Rodgers stick to a plan, Rory Smith, ESPN FC, June 11 2015

Originally published on Culture Custodian on October 16th 2015


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