By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 3, 2011) US Soccer Players -- It wasn’t crazy to think that John W. Henry and New England Sports Ventures were just what Liverpool Football Club needed when the group, also owners of the Boston Red Sox, took over the club back in October. Henry and his partners had a track record of success, custodianship of an American sports franchise with obvious parallels to Liverpool FC foremost on their resume. Saying all the right things, Henry and NESV swooped in to give the club’s desperate faithful new hope.
It also wasn’t crazy to think that Henry and company would deploy the same tools in the soccer world that helped them turn the Red Sox into a multiple World Series winner after an 86-year title drought. A statistical approach to player evaluation, sometimes called Moneyball, sometimes called sabermetrics, but always a bit confusing to the layman, gave the Red Sox the reputation of savvy collectors of talent.The baseball operation is hardly run on a shoestring budget, and the spending isn’t particularly frugal, but the prevailing wisdom is that the Red Sox turned a new number-crunching approach into a superior level of bang-for-their-buck. Without the resources to compete with the rival Yankees on a dollar-for-dollar basis, ownership installed a system designed to make up for the shortfall.
Monday’s transfer madness in England shows that if NESV is using the same approach with their soccer property, it isn’t precluding them from spending in large amounts when they deem it necessary. At about the same time the Reds were offloading star striker Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50 million, they were making a splash by bringing in Luis Suarez from Ajax and Andy Carroll from Newcastle.
Despite not spending much more on two new strikers than they earned through the sale of one, it was the purchase of Carroll that had observers buzzing. At £35 million, Carroll’s price was 38 percent higher than that of Suarez’s, came out to be slightly more than what Barcelona paid to obtain Spanish all-world striker David Villa from Valencia, set a new British record, and ranked as the eighth highest transfer fee of all time - all for a player with only 19 Premier League games to his name.
The 22-year old Carroll shows promise, as his 11 goals in those 19 Premier League games for Newcastle prove, but the price Liverpool ponied up to get him was shocking. So shocking, in fact, that it seems directly contrary to Moneyball ethos NESV supposedly employs.
Perhaps Henry and NESV panicked. The dying hours of the transfer window does funny things to smart men, leading to rash decisions and exorbitant fees for players hardly worth the money. Though Liverpool have pushed their way up to seventh after a dismal start to the season, Henry and his group didn’t buy the club, a perennial Champions League contender prior to last season, to wallow mid-table.
With fans demanding better, and club legend Kenny Dalglish now manager, the pressure is on NESV to push Liverpool back up to their “rightful” place in English soccer. Torres’s exit multiplied the pressure to make moves that would prove to Liverpool fans that the new ownership is committed to that quick turnaround. Henry himself probably didn’t decide to go after Carroll, but as the face of the ownership group he is ultimately answerable for the choice to do so and the price that was paid.
Depending on how you look at it, the purchase of Carroll could be proof that the Moneyball approach isn’t (yet?) in place at Liverpool, that NESV couldn’t afford to wait for the concept to pay dividends, or that the group did what all clubs with the means do when they have a need: buy, at whatever price the market dictates.
In the reality of the moment, Liverpool was just another rich club overpaying for a domestic player, not the trailblazers of a groundbreaking way to go about tackling the transfer market. It’s very possible that Liverpool will always be the former, has no designs on becoming the latter, and won’t be an English soccer version of NESV’s Red Sox.
Although, to be fair to Henry and NESV, the Moneyball mythology well outweighs its actual role in the Red Sox's success. The team has a method, and they apply it to determining the value of certain players. But it’s not a magic bullet, and very often the Red Sox are forced to augment their roster with big money talent in order to become real contenders.
No great player is so undervalued that only a statistical analysis will undercover them. The Red Sox are able to “win with Moneyball” because they have the funds necessary to sign the type of player that can to make up for the system’s shortfalls.
If the same approach is taken by NESV at Liverpool, expensive signings will remain part of the way the club does business even while they twist the sabermetic-inspired player evaluation process to the game of soccer. Spending on top talent and using statistical analysis in an effort to build a championship caliber team are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Especially when a club, like Liverpool or the Red Sox, has the luxury of doing both.
For Henry and his partners, the beauty of the implication that there’s a Moneyball approach now in place at Liverpool lies in the fans believing that the system gives the club an advantage when it comes to identifying potential signings. Even the eighth largest transfer fee in history could conceivably be explained as the result of a process that identified Andy Carroll as a uniquely valuable talent.
Only time will tell if he was worth the fee, or if Liverpool massively overpaid as so many believe. For the time being, it’s enough that NESV is flexing financial muscle, giving Liverpool fans reason to believe there’s hope for a return to the top of European soccer in the not-too-distant future.
If Liverpool does return to their old winning ways, at least a few people will credit Moneyball as a contributing factor. No one will be entirely sure if it deserves that recognition. We might have Andy Carroll to thank for that.