By Danny Wyn Griffith.
Billy Beane, former first draft Major League Baseball pick turned Sporting Analytics enthusiast, has made his first and much-anticipated venture into Football in an Official Adviser capacity for Dutch Eredivisie club, AZ Alkmaar.
Ever since a best-selling book called Moneyball – about his ideology and antics as General Manager of The Oakland A’s – was converted into a Hollywood film back in 2011, his name has been attached to folklore by the Sporting Economics and Analytics field.
Having Brad Pitt play his character in the film may have had a part to play in it. Although, for everyone that’s taken an extra interest in his achievements within Baseball management – they quickly look past this coincidence.
Over the past fifteen years, the Oakland A’s went on to reach the play-offs eight times despite having the fifth or sixth lowest budget among the 30 teams involved in the Baseball Major Leagues.
Looking at long-term achievements, there is no Football equivalent to Baseball’s Oakland A’s.
Currently, it’s like 6th placed English Premier League side Southampton selling their prized assets last summer, but doing so each year for fifteen years whilst still achieving a top-six finish nearly every season.
Forgetting English Football and looking across the shores, Borussia Dortmund is another potential example. However, even they’ve shown this season it’s pretty much inconceivable a bad-patch may come along by doing exactly that.
Billy Beane has been able to maintain performance levels by trading players at the right time, and for the right amounts. To put it simpler, he uses data analysis to find value that may not strike the eye at first view.
From time-to-time, a player comes along that has his value to a team-sport demeaned because he may be suspect to injuries, say. It’s here that Billy Beane saw a gap in the Baseball market and decided to exploit it.
He picked up on a theory by Kansas-born Bill James that on-base percentage within Baseball was overlooked and underappreciated, therefore moved to take advantage of it – and thoroughly did.
Factory worker James studied Baseball in his spare time. He went on to achieve bestsellers when his scribbles and thoughts were eventually sold as books.
James stated that ‘his books were outside baseball and shows you what the sport looks like if you take a step back from it and study it intensely.’
In Football though, it would be harder to spot an undervalued part of the game given the fast pace it is played at. It’s not a stop-start sport like Baseball.
However, dead-ball situations are sections of the game where Billy Beane and Bill James’ methods could make a difference. You’re able to take that step back and analyse the situation from a free-kick or corner.
If AZ were expecting Billy Beane to make an immediate impact, it is during these situations he may be able to achieve his first positive progressions within Football.
Scoring rates from free-kicks and corners are incredibly low to think that so much concentration is given to these situations.
As Ben Lyttleton of Soccernomics and The Guardian recently stated, Cristiano Ronaldo had failed to convert any of his previous 54 free-kick attempts as of the 26th of March 2015. (Typically though, he scored his first of the season as I uploaded this piece.)
The brilliant Soccernomics book has a theory that you have a better chance of scoring from dead-ball situations if you play it short to a teammate. The reasoning being that a number of players are holed up in the wall or marking in the box; therefore it allows space to develop in other areas of the opposition’s final-third.
Dutch Football followers might just pick up on the increased numbers of AZ short-corners or free-kicks over the coming year, perhaps.
Billy Beane’s success isn’t only down to his and James’ own ideology. He places emphasis on ‘making sure he is always the dumbest guy in the room.’
He decided to surround himself with people that were experts in their own field, may it be Baseball or not. One of his staff, Farhan Zaidi, had a PHD in Behavioural Economics but no thorough knowledge of the sport. He is now the General Manager of the LA Dodgers.
Billy Beane bringing analytic ideology into Football will not be a completely new experience, though. Nowadays, most top-tiered teams have statistical analysis specialists employed throughout their clubs.
Surprisingly perhaps, but it was Sam Allardyce at Bolton Wanderers in 1999 who first placed more emphasis on employing good statisticians, rather than good players – not that he was able to afford any.
Bolton were known as overachievers during Allardyce’s eight years in the North West of England. They saw seasoned veterans like Jay Jay Okocha and Ivan Campo arrive cheaply to great effect. Billy Beane has had similar success with older athletes across the Atlantic.
One of his analysts at the time, Mike Forde (later went onto become Chelsea’s Performance Director) found that ‘the ball changed hands 400 times during a match, on average.’
Allardyce was apparently infatuated by this stat, and emphasised the importance of instantly switching to defensive positions once the ball was lost.
People with an outside view of the game have more reason to pick up on these aspects as they look at the game differently to a coach.
Therefore, Allardyce’s decision to employ statisticians paid dividends – similar to Billy Beane’s at The Oakland A’s.
Beane’s contract with The Oakland A’s comes to an end in 2019. Afterwards, he intends to become involved in English Football, per The Guardian. If his plans come to fruition, English Football might be given the statistical shake-up of a lifetime.
Firstly though, the influence he has around the cheese markets of Alkmaar will bear much influence on his future intentions.
Some info sourced from The Guardian articles and the Soccernomics book.