Liverpool commit fully to playing numbers game

When Liverpool announced their transfer dealings would be carried out by a committee rather than the manager in autumn 2012 the worst was expected.

Liverpool commit fully to playing numbers game

Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, the club’s second American chairman following the disastrous reign of George Gillet and Tom Hicks which ended in court, had a vision for a game he admitted he didn’t understand.

Using analytical data he hoped to tap into the transfer market and find more Fernando Torreses than Djimi Traorés. He appointed a director of football strategy in Damien Comolli within months of taking over in 2010 and Liverpool spent €150m. But for the one Luis Suarez there were expensive mistakes in Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Doni, Sebastián Coates and, at the time of Comolli’s sacking, Jordan Henderson.

Henry was attempting to bring the ‘Moneyball’ baseball philosophy into the Premier League by using an analytical, evidence-based, statistical approach to assemble a competitive team despite a disadvantaged revenue situation. Put simply, he wanted to compete with Chelsea and Manchester City without incurring the same costs.

Comolli was the gamble that failed. The transfer committee and Brendan Rodgers was his next play.

A group, rather than an individual, was appointed to combine the old approach of spotting talent by the eye with the new one of collecting and analysing player data on a computer. Their goal is to find players for Liverpool with the right age profile and attributes to improve the team and provide long-term value for investment.

“All of those people are all inputting into a process that delivers what a director of football would deliver,” managing director Ian Ayre said.

“It’s a combination of old-school scouting and watching players — and that’s Brendan, his assistants, our scouts — with statistical analysis of players across Europe and the rest of the world. By bringing those two processes together, you get a much more educated view of who you should and shouldn’t be buying.”

Whether it works or not depends on the Liverpool fan you talk to. On Friday night when it emerged that Ukrainian transfer target Yevhen Konoplyanka had fallen through, chances are that support would have told you it was a failure. In truth, only time will tell.

While no one was signed this window, the previous two heralded four new first team players in Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge, Mamadou Sakho and Simon Mignolet. All bar Sakho, who cost €18m, came at bargain prices in today’s game.

It’s at odds with the club’s approach under different ownerships. Since 2008 they have spent, accumulatively, €40,691,493 in transfers. That’s the fourth highest in the Premier League behind Chelsea and City, yet the results have not followed. Conversely, before Manchester United signed Mata, their rivals lay in 10th spot with a net spend of €19,583,486 in that time.

Spending so heavily on marque names that offered little limited the depth of the squad, which was exacerbated in 2012 when midfielder Jonjo Shelvey was asked to play up front as they had no strikers available.

Liverpool learned the hard way that without Champions League and the revenue it brings they could no longer compete financially for high-profile players. Worse still, they were being outbid by a mid-table side when Gaston Ramirez signed for Southampton.

That’s why it was no surprise to see Liverpool fail to invest despite desperately needing a defensive midfielder and two full-backs. The mix of getting the right player for the right price was not to be found.

“January is a very difficult market,” manager Brendan Rodgers said recently.

“It is hard to bring in players that can improve the team, especially in this window. This is a brilliant club and we try to get players in for the now, we need players who can come in now and help us. I’d rather wait and look at our young players than bring in one or two squad players.”

There’s also the justifiable fear of making more mistakes. Only players who fit Rodgers’ style will be signed. Perhaps that’s why Liverpool’s best signings in his era have arguably been in staff. Northern Ireland man Barry Hunter and Dave Fallows were coaxed to join from Manchester City in 2012. Hunter’s role is chief scout and while he doesn’t sit on the committee he feeds information to it, while Fallows acts as head of recruitment. They work in tandem with head of performance and analysis Michael Edwards to compile a database of players to inform decisions and strategy.

That trio are hoping to give Liverpool the edge in the long-term. As the excellent thisisanfield.com blog states: “Use of analytics in transfer activity is still relatively new. This is an area where Liverpool is looking to be cutting edge. The traditional scouting model has always been reliant on the ‘eye’ of scouts on the ground. But Liverpool have realised that you need to look beyond that.

“The methodology being applied at Liverpool will be based on a great deal of data that will arrive at a value parameter for a player. That data may include age, achievements, attributes, attitude, and injury record for example. The list isn’t exhaustive.”

The evidence is in their signings. Every player Rodgers has brought in since he was appointed, with the exception of Kolo Toure to replace Jamie Carragher, has been under 25. It gives Liverpool’s squad the second youngest average age in the Premier League behind Aston Villa. That’s why their decision to sack Frank McParland and Rodolfo Borrell from the youth academy and replace them with the Rodgers-appointed duo of Alex Inglethorpe and Neil Critchley was seen as a bold move in November. Borrell, in particular, taken from Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy, had overseen Raheem Sterling, Jerome Sinclair and Jordon Ibe’s first team debuts in the previous 15 months.

It was Rodgers’ first steps towards bringing the youth academy structures under his remit and embrace the new statistical-based ideology. The Kirby academy had been at odds with Melwood under previous managers but Rodgers can now trust the senior club’s philosophy is being imparted on the up and coming players. McParland and Borrell were merely high-profile victims.

Rodgers had been overhauling it since he arrived, with one of his key appointments, Tim Jenkins, another picked off City’s books, appointed as head of development analysis in the academy. His role, according to his Linkedin profile, is to create “player profiling systems which combine both objective and subjective analysis to accurately display development areas for young players”.

Bringing through the next generation of Steven Gerrards will take years though, hence the importance of the committee in keeping the team competitive. In a market where Gareth Bale is worth €100m it’s the only philosophy Liverpool have.

“We are not in a position to spend money for the sake of it,” Rodgers said last year. “We are trying to build for the future with a sense of the present, which is to strengthen where we can.

“You can only do that if you can bring in players who will enhance the team, or you just stockpile players.”

It’s a new era for Liverpool. Get used to it.

Liverpool’s transfer committee

Brendan Rodgers

First team manager: The Antrim man gives his colleagues a brief on the positions he needs to fill and offers the scouting team’s recommendations.

Dave Fallows

Head of recruitment: Fallows was approached to join before Rodgers’ arrival but was placed on ‘gardening leave’ by City and could not officially work for Liverpool in last summer’s transfer window. Fallows was part of City’s staff where his role as Football Scouting and Recruitment Coordinator. He was charged with assigning scouts, filtering reports, preparing recommendations on the club’s targets and compiling a database of scouted players. He fulfils a similar role with Liverpool.

Michael Edwards

Head of performance and analysis: Appointed by Damien Comolli having worked alongside the Frenchman at Tottenham his role changed from head of analytics to head of performance and analysis at Liverpool. He has a degrees in business management and informatics.

Ian Ayre

Managing Director: Brought in by former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett as commercial director in 2007 where he was responsible for the deal with Standard Chartered. He was previously chairman of Huddersfield Town FC. In March 2011 Fenway Sports Group promoted him to MD.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox