Tommy Martin: Liverpool's owners hitting it out of the ballpark

Nobody could possibly say that players and coaches don’t win championships; equally, Liverpool’s owners are proof that organisations certainly do, writes Tommy Martin.

Tommy Martin: Liverpool's owners hitting it out of the ballpark
Tom Werner, chairman of Liverpool, with Jurgen Klopp, manage and John W Henry, principal owner, with wife Linda Pizzuti at Anfield. The whole organisation at the club can take credit for the title win.

When lockdown brought Liverpool’s march toward Premier League glory to a temporary halt, many armchair viewers passed the time by tuning into the title-chase of another red machine.

Netflix’s documentary The Last Dance depicted the terrible beauty of how Michael Jordan drove the Chicago Bulls to a third straight NBA championship in 1998, their sixth in eight seasons.

For the most part a portrait of Jordan as a sort of omni- potent vengeful deity, a major plotline concerned the enmity between the Bulls’ star player and the club’s general manager Jerry Krause. Krause planned to break up the all-conquering team at the end of the 1998 season and build anew.

“Players and coaches don’t win championships, organisations do,” Krause famously said, his words mocked down the years by Jordan’s enduring legend.

Things have changed since Jordan’s heyday. While players and coaches still win championships, people now understand that organisations do too. Those run by John Henry and his company Fenway Sports Group certainly do. FSG transformed the Boston Red Sox from accursed long-time losers to the most successful team in 21st century baseball, with four World Series.

As Liverpool celebrate a first title in 30 years, their fans can wonder if FSG can repeat the trick.

The first mention of Henry in Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s seminal account of baseball’s data analytics revolution, occurs not long after Jordan smoked his last celebratory cigar. Henry bought the Florida Marlins in January 1999. “Inefficiencies in the financial markets had made Henry a billionaire,” Lewis writes, “and he saw some familiar idiocies in the market for baseball players.”

Henry soon got fed up at the Marlins, running aground on the rigid baseball orthodoxies that Moneyball’s hero, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, had begun to sweep away. Lewis’s story ends with Henry offering Beane the chance to do it his way at the Red Sox, newly acquired by Henry.

For Liverpool’s title-winning team, that’s where the story begins.

Pretty much every Liverpool fan knows the short version: American financial whizzes, the Red Sox, lather on some stats geekery and hey presto! Venerable but shambling sporting institution is recast as 21st-century dynasty. Then, repeat in the north-west of England, down to the swanky facelift given to both clubs’ beloved, atmospheric old grounds.

And pretty much every Liverpool fan knows it wasn’t that simple. The Red Sox 2004 World Series title, their first in 86 years, came a little over two years into Henry’s ownership of the club and a year after the publication of Moneyball. Beane turned down the job of general manager, as it turned out; instead the Red Sox hired a 28-year-old Yale graduate called Theo Epstein, who parlayed the analytics revolution pioneered by Beane into the Red Sox’s famine-ending triumph.

But if baseball was ready for the revolution, football was not. At least it wasn’t in 2010, when Henry’s New England Sports Ventures (renamed FSG in 2011) prised Liverpool from the grasping hands of despised owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who had mortgaged the club to cover losses elsewhere in their business empires.

FSG were financially outgunned by the wealthy owners of Manchester City and Chelsea, as well as Manchester United’s commercial juggernaut. Nor did their business model permit throwing good money after bad.

Under FSG, Liverpool would have to wash its own face; they would pursue value and statistical judgement in signings, not easy in the chaotic bazaar of the football transfer market. Key off-field recruits were questionable too. Damien Comolli was among their first, his time as director of football strategy responsible for the signing of Luis Suarez and Jordan Henderson, but also the £35m squandered on Andy Carroll.

Kenny Dalglish’s appointment as manager felt like a short-term palliative to the club’s fractured soul; Brendan Rodgers sounded like the right man for a time, until a tendency to speak in forked tongue over club policy exhausted FSG’s patience. This was the era of the “transfer committee”, a term almost designed to provoked guffaws of derision from traditionalist football men and whom the club’s owners felt Rodgers would unfairly deflect blame towards.

But Liverpool made some good appointments too, even before the arrival of Jurgen Klopp in 2015. The transfer committee was headed by Michael Edwards, an analytics guru brought to the club by Comolli whose influence grew as Rodgers’ fortunes declined.

“It took Michael Edwards winning more and more of the battles internally to get us to the point that when we met with Jurgen he said, ‘I really want to coach this group. This will be fun,’” Henry later said.

In Klopp, Liverpool had found a football man who was open-minded enough to not only listen to the data boffins like Edwards, but to use the dry numbers to power his seemingly organic, full-throttle passion project.

In this way, Liverpool’s success did indeed follow FSG’s Red Sox blueprint: Data-driven decision-making married to sweeping big club sensibility. Like the Red Sox, Liverpool drilled the numbers before turning up unlikely transfer targets, most famously the £8 million given to Hull for Andy Robertson, while making big money moves when necessary, like with Alisson Becker and Virgil Van Dijk.

After waiting 86 years for their coveted title, Red Sox fans only had to wait three more for their next. For the 2007 season they mixed their usual clever recruitment with the grand gesture of a €52m contract to acquire Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Earlier this season it seemed Liverpool were following a similar plan: Takumi Minamino snapped up from Red Bull Salzburg for relative peanuts, Timo Werner seemingly on the way from Leipzig as the big ticket item.

But then Covid-19 happened. Cue months of uncertainty about the game’s very future, certainly in its current turbo-contractual state. A good time to look at inefficiencies in the market then, and FSG have opted for retrenchment.

The Werner deal was a no-go, as Klopp explained, given that the club at one point thought it might have to go asking already-contracted players to take a salary waiver. Plans to expand Anfield’s capacity to 61,000 were pushed out for a year. Given their vast broadcasting revenues, Premier League clubs are more insulated than most against football in empty stadiums.

Liverpool, though would surely miss the heave and thrust of Anfield over time.

Liverpool are thriving commercially under FSG, their revenues having tripled in the last decade to over €600m.

Yet that still leaves them seventh in the most recent Deloitte Football Money League, underpowered to defeat their domestic and European rivals in purely financial terms. Others too are copying the analytical methods that have helped Liverpool, in the way that rivals like the Houston Astros and LA Dodgers usurped the Red Sox role as baseball’s data kings.

Yet in 2018, 14 years after they ended the Curse of the Bambino, the Red Sox won the World Series again, with the club’s best regular season record in 106 years and smashing a host of other milestones along the way.

In that time Henry and FSG had tweaked the balance between analytics and tradition in their running of the club and usually found a way to keep ahead of the chasing pack.

No-one who has watched Klopp and his brilliant team in action could possibly say that players and coaches don’t win championships; equally, Liverpool’s owners are proof that organisations certainly do.

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