The sign of a good book, or a good film, is that it changes you in some way. I’ve seen films that made me want to do things with my life, read books that have made me do others, maybe not what was intended, but that’s the nature of art – once something is released, it belongs to the world, and the world is free to decide what it means.
I was recommended a course book recently, all about big data and the way it can and will affect the world we live in. In some ways, data is already having an impact on sport – sabermetrics is big business in baseball, and a lot of its ideas have spread into other arenas, too.
I took a few things from Everybody Lies, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, but some of the more interesting tales were regarding the beginning of the statistically based era, and the ‘edges’ that people have over their competition.
THE SPREAD OF ‘MONEYBALL’
I’m aware of Moneyball, of course, and how its philosophy has spread to football and even the teams that operate according to its dicta. A couple of times in the last few weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to be at Griffin Park to see Brentford play. I say lucky because not only is it one of the most wonderful venues to watch football, nor just because Bees fans are a lovely bunch, but the when Brentford are on song, the football they play is zippy, slick and incisive.
Brentford owner Matthew Benham is one of the most prominent advocates of statistics in football, his side being packed with players who perform well in certain identified areas, and the team is set up to maximise their abilities. The first time I saw them, against Wigan, they ripped the Latics apart, focusing on an obvious advantage. Said Benrahma on the right wing was lightning quick and appeared to have the ball glued to his feet; he cut Wigan to ribbons countless times.
Benrahma is just one of a host of exciting players in West London. Neal Maupay, Ollie Watkins, Sergi Canos (I could go on) are all attacking players that allow Brentford to make the most of their budget, and pose an almost constant threat. Yet against Reading a couple of weekends Brentford were flat, their limitations exposed.
The Biscuitmen were happy to allow them the ball, happy to sit a little deeper and invite Brentford to attack them, knowing, largely, how attacks would come. Fast bowlers in cricket, and baseball pitchers, speak of a need to keep batters ‘honest’ by hurling the ball close to their body, ensuring that they’re never entirely comfortable.
Reading were exactly that. Comfortable.
THE NEED FOR A PLAN B.
It wasn’t that there was no Plan B (Bee?) for Brentford, but rather that players who are selected because of their abilities to do things that most regularly bring about success can become a little predictable in that approach.
Give Benrahma the ball, for example, and he will run with it. He might go outside and cross, he might cut inside and give it to a team-mate – and he will do so at pace. He is less likely to thread a low through ball into the path of an on-rushing midfielder, nor fizz in a shot from 25 yards. Both may bring about success only rarely but the wider the range of options a defender thinks you have, the more difficult it is to predict.
A week on, the draw with Leeds saw a different Brentford, as away games have tended to do. It is a more compact set-up, reliant on the explosive pace of the forward line, and Romaine Sawyers linking rather than driving. It was very nearly good enough to win the game at Leeds, but Pontus Jansson was playing the big man role he does every now any then.
Brentford will come good again, I have no doubt, but they looked flat and without ideas against Reading and didn’t make the best of themselves at Elland Road – a little like the problems Liverpool have been experiencing, starting with Napoli in the Champions League. When your game is based around slick and vibrant attacking, it is fairly obvious when it isn’t working out.
That attack has found themselves lacking somewhat now in games against Chelsea and Manchester City as well as Napoli. Good teams, all, but each opponent is at the level the Liverpool consider themselves to be. In context, the Reds should have been able to play their natural game in each of those matches.
Perhaps Liverpool themselves pose an pertinent point regarding ‘Moneyball’ in that their wealth allows them to buy players of a much higher calibre than Brentford – underrated at their level, maybe, but on a different echelon to the Championship.
It is that approach that has seen the likes of Sadio Mane and Virgil Van Dijk move to Anfield – both for big money, but also Andy Robertson and Joe Gomez, for lesser fees.
They have recruited well, and progressed to a higher and higher level. There maybe some limit to how far it can take them. In some ways, it mirrors the progress of Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund side, and their best performance under him is now the same, too. How much further it, and he, can get them, will be interesting.
One of the reasons statistics have worked so well in American sports is that they work somewhat differently to the free market of football; they have salary caps, they have a draft system for young players, and the weaker teams are rewarded with the stronger youngsters.
THE BEST PLAYERS WILL BE AT THE BEST CLUBS
That does not exist in football. In theory, should statistical analysis continue to develop, its importance to clubs will increase too. That will ensure that the ‘best’ players will end up at the best clubs sooner.
How could they not? The money will be at the best clubs, and their best chance of success will be signing the best players at the youngest age possible, the process will simply repeat and repeat, the rich getting richer all the while.
Unless the game changes dramatically, the same attributes that are highly sought after by statisticians today will remain so, and the players who possess them will see their values go up and up. Football teams will not give up an edge if there is one possible, especially at the top level.
In that case, it would become something of a closed shop for the dreamers, for the left backs who desert their post, find themselves in enemy territory and wallop the ball home from 40 yards, condemned to history by the nine times out of ten they fail to test the goalkeeper.
It might a Doomsday scenario perhaps, but it is not impossible to imagine that all clubs going forward will have their own statisticians signing players based on their own choice of most valuable attributes. Is it too wild to think that they will be largely the same?
For now, Liverpool, Brentford and some other clubs point a direction towards the future but it is a path that football has not yet trodden with any certainty. ‘Marginal gains’ might represent the best opportunity for teams to punch above their weight in the short time, but if their lessons are learned across the board, it could be disastrous for competitive football as a whole.