Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Comolli helps to guide the statistical revolution at Liverpool
(by Ben Lyttleton si.com 10-11-11)
This Saturday will mark the anniversary of Fenway Sports Group's takeover of Liverpool and it comes just a few days after UK magazine FourFourTwo published its annual Football Rich List. The magazine ranked FSG owner John W Henry at 20th in the list, and calculated that each Premier League point Liverpool had earned since the purchase has cost Henry a whopping £7.5 million ($11.7M). (The team it beat last week, local rivals Everton, comes in at £48,000 per point, given that owner Bill Kenwright paid £20M for it in 2004.)
Of course, this calculation is skewed and FourFourTwo accepts it is meant as just a bit of fun. But it can also act as an interesting backdrop to Henry's first year in charge, and the application of "Moneyball" or rather 'Soccernomics' theories in football. 'Moneyball', now a film starring Brad Pitt, is the Michael Lewis book in which Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane uses statistics to find previously underestimated players in the transfer market to help his team become champions. "Soccernomics," the football equivalent, advocates data analysis to give teams a competitive edge, not just in recruitment but also in contract management, penalty shootouts, and injury prevention.
While FourFourTwo's figures suggest that not everything the data tells you is helpful, Liverpool's director of football Damien Comolli might not agree.
He is evangelical in his use of data in football, and says now that no major decision at the club is taken without seeing what the stats say. When it works, it can be a great success: as proven by forward Luis Suarez, the new hero at Anfield whose £23 million ($35M) transfer fee is now widely seen as a bargain.
"For Luis, I looked at the stats over the last three years, notably the number of games played which is an important factor," he told France Football earlier this year. "We turn enormously toward players who don't get injured. We also took into account the number of assists, his performances against the big teams, against the smaller clubs, in the European Cup, the difference between goals scored at home and away."
Left back Jose Enrique was another signing backed by the data: when Liverpool missed out on Gael Clichy (whom, when 17 and after a handful of games for Cannes, Comolli had discovered for Arsenal), Comolli drew up a shortlist and noticed that Enrique's statistical figures were impressive, more so than the scouting reports on him. He was also cheaper, in terms of transfer fee and salary, than Clichy. With Enrique one of Liverpool's standout performers thus far this season, it's further evidence that Comolli's methodology has worked.
If only it were always that easy. When a signing doesn't come off, as in the case -- so far, it has to be said -- of Andy Carroll, who cost Liverpool £35M ($54M) in January, and has scored four goals in his first 17 appearances for the club, the whole system is blamed. Comolli bristles at any mention of Carroll in this context, though he did previously admit to Infosport that Suarez had originally been signed to play alongside Fernando Torres, and not Carroll. The problem is that what works for one player might not work for another.
Take this interview with Leaders in Performance last May: "The first thing we used to look for is the talent, but not anymore," Comolli said. "What we want is a talented player but with the right attitude and intelligence. Is he a team player? Is he intelligent enough that he puts himself at the disposal of the team? We need to look a lot more at the psychological aspect of the player, the attitude of the player, the mentality of the player on the pitch than we used to." While that explains why Liverpool wanted Suarez, it also makes Carroll's arrival a little surprising, given the reservations by some scouts about his "attitude and mentality" before he joined.
Comolli's backers, quite reasonably, point out that Suarez and Carroll combined cost almost the same as the sales of Fernando Torres (£50M/$80M) and Ryan Babel (€7M/$9.5M) generated, while Henry has claimed that Carroll's value is actually Fernando Torres less £15M ($23M). That seems disingenuous -- if Torres had joined Chelsea for £25 million ($39M), it's unlikely Newcastle would have sold Carroll for £10 million ($15M).
"Value" is the magic word here: "The whole principle is about creating value, and managing to find a player in the market who is underestimated financially compared to his stats," Comolli told Les Specialistes. The problem with value, as Paul Kelso pointed out in The Daily Telegraph, is that "it is not obvious [to find value] when you are trying to buy a center forward on deadline day in January".
However, it's important to note that "Moneyball" theory does not preclude big-money signings in positions of key value (after all, Henry's Boston Red Sox have spent the second-highest amount in the last decade in Major League Baseball). Comolli sanctioned the deal for Carroll because his age (22), English nationality and rare physical traits had already made him one of Liverpool's primary transfer targets.
Comolli himself never made the grade as a professional player: he was in the youth team at Monaco but found his path blocked by the likes of Lilian Thuram and Emmanuel Petit. At 19, he was coaching Monaco's U-16 team, before Arsene Wenger, then coaching Nagoya Grampus Eight, persuaded him to move to Japan and coach the goalkeepers at Nagasaki U-18s. One year later, he was working for Wenger at Arsenal, as a scout covering Europe.
It was Wenger who first ignited Comolli's commitment to statistics, after the coach noted Manchester United had the best percentage of successful passes in the opposition half and that Roy Keane won the most one-on-one challenges in the Premier League. "Now you know why they win," Wenger told him.
"The revelation came from reading 'Moneyball', that's when everything fell into place," Comolli told France Football. "Thanks to someone I know, I became friends with Billy Beane, the hero of the book, and ever since 2005 I have worked enormously on that." Just as his friendship with Beane was developing, he became Spurs director of football in September 2005. In three years at White Hart Lane, Comolli signed 26 players, eight of whom are still there now. The successes include the likes of Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Benoit Assou-Ekotto; the flops, David Bentley, Gilberto and Hossam Ghaly.
Paul Tomkins, in Pay as You Play: The True Price of Success in the Premier League Era, calculated that of Comolli's signings, around 30 percent were big profit-makers, and 25 percent flops, with the rest somewhere in between, with an "overall estimated genuine profit of £26.5M ($41M)". It was Comolli's work at White Hart Lane -- as well as a ringing endorsement from Beane himself -- that convinced Henry to hire him.
Comolli has denied the claims of Soccernomics author Simon Kuper that there is a power struggle with Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish. "Comolli is very close to Beane, who is bringing Moneyball to football, while Dalglish is an excellent manager on gut feel," Kuper told The Score last week.
Comolli, quite reasonably, insisted that so much summer business could not have happened had the two men disagreed. On top of the players brought in, Liverpool sold 14 players and moved out another nine on loan: in some cases, like Christian Poulsen and Milan Jovanovic, it bought out the player's contract and in others, like Joe Cole, is still subsidizing his salary.
One French reporter who knows Comolli well suggested that the summer deals were an expensive compromise: Comolli wanted young players knowing their value would increase, while Dalglish wanted British players. The result: almost £50M ($80M) spent on Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing.
In any case, Comolli knows all about power struggles: in his last job at Saint-Etienne, the club's joint-owners were constantly at war with Comolli stuck in the middle. Bernard Caiazzo was the businessman who liked big-name players and enjoyed the attention that comes with owning a club, while Roland Romeyer preferred hardworking players, spoke like a supporter, and was happier in the background. The pair bickered nonstop and the club only just survived relegation. After Comolli left, Saint-Etienne changed its administrative structure and results immediately improved. (That spell also explains why he gets very little credit, and still has a relatively low profile, in France.)
Martin Jol also blamed Comolli for his failure as Tottenham Hotspur coach. "Comolli was responsible, he was responsible for most of the football things," Jol told a news conference after his recent appointment as Fulham coach. It's true that Comolli had bought Darren Bent and Didier Zokora against Jol's wishes, but the club still finished fifth in successive seasons. It was only after Jol's fallout with Dimitar Berbatov, which coincided with Spurs' worst start for 19 years, one win in 10 league games, that the Dutchman was dismissed in October 2007. Comolli's choice as successor was Juande Ramos (who at Sevilla had brought out the best in Fredi Kanoute, a player that struggled under Jol at Spurs) but 13 months and a League Cup trophy later, both men had left the club.
The other lesson Comolli took from Wenger, which is another part of the "Soccernomics" remit, is to always replace your best players while they are still there. (Wenger did this by signing Emmanuel Adebayor before Thierry Henry left, Robin Van Persie before Dennis Bergkamp left, Mathieu Flamini before Patrick Vieira left and he has done the same with Jack Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas.) The Torres deal was done too quickly for that to happen, while it remains to be seen whether Jordan Henderson could prove to be a long-term replacement for Steven Gerrard, or Sebastien Coates for Jamie Carragher.
If you add Stewart Downing to Suarez and Enrique as successful purchases so far, you can sympathize with Comolli's reaction whenever Carroll is brought up. He may not like it, but Comolli knows it's the fate of the sporting director to be remembered for his flops.
And even if Carroll does struggle to improve, Comolli is already helping Liverpool to a profit on and off the pitch. On Saturday, Liverpool welcome Manchester United to Anfield, 12 months to the day that FSG bought the club. One year on, the mood is better, the squad is trimmer, and the future is brighter. Comolli has played his role.