By Paul Tomkins.
Last night’s piece, “We’re All Gonna Die!” provoked a lot of debate, much of which took place on Twitter. There were a lot of interesting comments, plus the usual complaints. (And of course, the usual excellent discussions in the comments on this site.)
I figured it’d be easier to write a (fairly) short addendum on here, rather than reply to various queries in a medium not suited to getting across complex ideas.
Obviously the original piece was fairly long, but it deals with a pretty big issue; it wasn’t 4,500 words on why Alberto Moreno chooses to have a stubbly beard. People moaned about it being far too long, and yet loads of other people asked why this or that wasn’t covered; the kind of things that would have made it 9,000 words long. I always try to cover all bases, but you sometimes overlook things, or simply forget to include them.
I worry that I occasionally repeat myself, but it just happens that some of those ‘omissions’ were covered as recently as last week. While I’ve been doing this too long to let general criticisms bother me – you don’t like my writing? tough shit – I do like to address any misunderstandings people may have, especially if I’ve not explained something properly, and therefore I didn’t do my job properly. (I’m well aware that I can’t make stupid people smart.) I usually try to challenge my own theories as I write and edit a piece, constantly testing them, but interactions with others can help to solidify ideas, and to discover new ways of seeing something.
On the accusations that the piece was just PR for FSG, or post-rationalising failure, or ‘apologism’ that has allowed 25 years of mediocrity to flourish, I think these people have missed the point. I mention in the piece about setting a baseline, and that baseline dates back to work I started doing (with the help of Graeme Riley and others) in 2009 under the guise of the Transfer Price Index; indeed, I probably started on the theory in 2006 or 2007, before Graeme helped further develop and refine it. I have also taken the work I did with Graeme and looked into 3,000+ transfers we covered, to find patterns of success and failure.
Finding the baseline is key; otherwise you’re just shooting from the hip. When police give a polygraph exam they take a baseline, so they know the person’s normal heart-rate, blood pressure, sweat levels, etc. If the suspect is naturally nervous, that will come across; it will mean they have a different baseline to someone who isn’t nervous, but the baseline is vital as being nervous isn’t a crime. (I think I’d be nervous if hooked up to a load of wires whilst being accused of something serious I hadn’t done.) If they are lying, then unless they are sociopaths, their readings will still spike; it’ll just spike from a higher baseline.
I’m trying to find Liverpool’s baseline, and as outlined in the piece, everything screams 5th.
I don’t see how it can be called post-rationalising something when the theories I use predate this season, as well as predating Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, and even predating FSG’s arrival. We have accumulated more data as time passes, and we are learning all the time. But if anyone wants to go back and read Pay As You Play, published back in 2010, you can see all the ideas outlined within, and the basic tenets remain. And of course, I was influenced by Soccernomics and the work on wage bills before that, which I wrote about on the official Liverpool FC site years earlier.
I have criticised previous Liverpool owners and previous Liverpool managers, when they fell below what should be the baseline; I have defended those who haven’t fallen below the baseline. I can categorically prove that Premier League wealth is not as spread around as much as it used to be, and that the league is far less of a meritocracy than the days when Liverpool were the best team in the world. I can categorically prove the increasing links between spending and success, and if you can’t be bothered to read the dozens of pieces I’ve written on the subject, don’t blame me if you don’t understand.
When I write using the models created with the Transfer Price Index database I am usually more accurate than when I write from the heart. No model is ever 100% accurate, and yet according to Graeme in a comment on this site, this happens to be the most predictable of the entire Premier League era. It wasn’t just the name that changed in 1992, but the way the sport works did too. The rich were going to get richer, and fans are happy when it benefits their club but angry when it doesn’t.
Right now, the top four are the top four clubs as ranked team by our TPI model. Liverpool, who rank 5th, are currently sitting 5th. Spurs, who rank 6th, are currently sitting 6th. And over the past decade, the team that ranks 1st has, on average, finished 1st; the team that ranks 2nd has, on average, finished 2nd; ditto for 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th. Only once you get down to mid-table does the model fail over a ten-year average, but by mid-table teams are operating on fairly similar budgets. In any given season a club may have a good year or a bad year, but overall they’ll regress to the mean.
What about Atletico Madrid?
The main criticism of my theory seems to be about what Atletico Madrid did last season, which was undeniably outstanding. But I covered the issue in this piece last week, and it also gets indirectly addressed in the scenario of how it might be better to be the 3rd richest club in the country but the 15th-richest in Europe, rather than the 10th-richest in Europe but only the 5th-richest in your country.
Atletico rank about 19th or 20th in European wealth, but third in La Liga wealth. That means that while they shouldn’t usually be finishing above Real Madrid and Barcelona – and aside from last season they haven’t in donkey’s years – they are more easily able to qualify for the Champions League, and join that virtuous cycle, not least in attracting players. (Madrid is also a more desirable destination to the average football player than Merseyside.) And let’s not forget, they are the first side since Rafa’s Valencia in 2004 to wrest the title from the Spanish Rich Two, while in England, it will be 11 titles in a row shared between our Rich Three. I’ve spoken in length in recent months about how it’s harder to overcome three clubs who are much richer than you than it is to overcome two clubs who are much richer than you, but I’ll briefly sum it up again.
Real Madrid and Barcelona, like Chelsea and Manchester United, fell below their usual high standards last season. Liverpool overtook the Barcelona and Real Madrid of English football of the past decade (Chelsea and United, who had shared eight of the previous nine league titles), but then there was City who, in this comparison, are a weird bastard hybrid not seen in Spain: they are Real Barcelona, or Barçadrid, the third mega-wealthy club. (There’s also no Arsenal equivalent in Spain; has a club outside of the big two qualified for the Champions League almost 20 seasons in a row?)
Perhaps Simeone is also a genius – he may very well be – and Atletico have secret weapons we don’t know about. Maybe they know the way to overcome the odds. But the situations are not directly comparable. La Liga is a different kettle of pescado.
We should have just bought better players
Some people noted “this is all well and good, but why didn’t we just buy better players than Lovren and Balotelli?”
I struggle to cope with the number of such responses.
Why didn’t we just sign better players? Why didn’t anyone think of that?
They say this, having just read a piece discussing the surprisingly low odds on signings working, where I note how United’s two big sure-fire hits of the summer haven’t actually been particularly successful. They say this when the evidence shows that five of the ten costliest signings in the PL era after inflation – so including world-class greats like Andriy Shevchenko – were flops. Maybe Liverpool should have signed Falcao instead of Balotelli.
If you knew Lovren was an accident waiting to happen, fair play to you. But Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher seemed keen on him last season. (Equally, did you know that Can was going to be very good at centre-back?) Everyone knew that Balotelli was a risk, but equally he has world-class talent, if not a high level of application and number of brain cells. All signings are gambles; some more so than others. I’m not saying the transfer window of 2014 was a success, but if you’re the kind of person who always knows who will flop and always knows who will succeed – even if most people have never heard of them – then you really should be working in the sport.
Just sign better players. Then play better football.
Score lots of goals. Keep lots of clean sheets. Win lots of games. Just do it. It’s easy.
Another common reaction is, so why bother, if everything is predetermined by financial clout? It’s a good question, and it’s not easy to answer.
The beauty of football is that crazy things can still happen. The stupidity is thinking that they must happen, and happen all the time. You still bother because, on your day, you might play brilliantly and beat someone stronger than you. As David, you might beat Goliath … but over 38 games Goliath will almost always finish above you.
You still bother because even though you’re not going to date a supermodel, drive a Ferrari and land your dream job, you still get out of bed in the morning and do your best. And if those you’re competing with slip up, you might have a chance of doing better than expected.
You bother because occasionally something brilliant happens, and defies the logic that otherwise defines most seasons. If you’re Burnley, that’s a brief stay in the Premier League. If you’re Liverpool, it’s a Champions League Final or being in a title race on the final day of the season. If you’re Southampton it’s being third halfway through the campaign.
It would be nice if there could be rules in place to make English football fairer, but it’s hard to see how it will ever happen. Interestingly, you couldn’t really have a new Man City- or Chelsea-type scenario, as FFP forbids it. The ‘unnatural’ reemergence of those two old clubs, along with the timing of FFP, means that they are now within the virtuous cycle, whilst Liverpool and Spurs sit outside, mainly because oligarchs and sheiks didn’t buy them.
But of course, FFP will also help to keep Everton below Liverpool most seasons, and help to keep Burnley below Everton, and so on. Had FFP come in 15-20 years ago, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal would have been laughing, Chelsea and City would be nowhere. Had it come in 30 years ago, Liverpool and Everton would have been laughing. Timing is everything, and it’s a bit like being Notts County or Luton Town in 1992: you get kicked out of town just as the gravy train arrives. As I said in the article in question, City effectively squeezed Liverpool out of the top four; hence the ‘quart into a pint pot’ analogy.
FFP does not stop clubs improving their financial situation, but unless there is fudging and lying – dodgy sponsorship deals, etc – it has to be done gradually. Increase capacity and you increase match-day income. Increase shirt sales and you increase income. But increasing capacity at Anfield has taken 15 years of farting about, and even though work is now well underway you can’t rebuild a stadium overnight. Global shirt sales are tied to success on the pitch, but that success will go to those who already have the money; Chelsea now have a big international fanbase when they didn’t 12 years ago. You can hope that your club makes lots of little improvements – minimal gains – but it’s not like other clubs aren’t using analytics, or taking their own special bedding on away trips, or utilising sports science, or employing sports psychologists, or developing outstanding academies, and so on. As someone noted on the TTT forum, we’re not trying to outsmart dumb; we’re trying to outsmart smart. (And rich.)
To break the model, and burst through, it probably needs something radical. The Anfield Wrap’s Neil Atkinson thinks it should be going all-out to score as many goals as possible; to ‘buy’ goals, as he puts it. I’m not convinced it’s easy to do, but equally, something along those lines almost worked last season.
While I don’t see how you actually go about doing it, it’s an interesting concept, and one that understands that just doing what everyone else is doing, but with weaker resources, isn’t really gonna fly. Equally, given that clean sheets guarantee points, and that, in and of themselves are worth more than a goal, maybe a 7-0-3 formation might work, if the front three are good enough to nick a goal and the seven at the back form a kind of human spiderweb across the goal. Maybe you need to put all your players on the left side of the pitch, so that the opposition hasn’t got a clue what to do. These last two are extreme and largely silly solutions, but they highlight the difficulties of actually making a radical impact.
In Denmark, FC Midtjylland, who have former TTT guest scribe Ted Knutson running the analytics, are devising all kinds of novel approaches that have seen them go top of the table. But they also know that it’s only possible because of their small stature as a club – you can try some crazy stuff when you don’t have hundreds of millions of fans going apeshit mental about it if it doesn’t garner immediate rewards. And the Danish Superliga is a meritocracy. Midtjylland’s cleverness is not restricted to transfer analytics; they work on elaborate free-kick scenarios and recently scored four in one game. Presumably – and I haven’t seem them play – they then have less time to work on passing movements, etc, in training; and are perhaps doing what Sam Allardyce did at Bolton – but which he couldn’t repeat at clubs where a certain style and swagger was expected. Still, it’s great to see innovation, and in Midtjylland’s case is perfect for their environment.
Ultimately, we still need to bother because there’s still plenty to enjoy. If you remove the seething rage and ulcer-inducing desire to have your team succeed or you feel like the world has ended, you can actually just watch football like they used to in the old days: go along, enjoy the game, and not take it all so rabidly seriously. You can be passionate without being an arsehole. You can have dreams without being a douche when those dreams don’t come true.
Of course, when you pay £50 a time (or £100 a month to Sky) it’s hard to brush off a bad performance, but you can do what I did on New Year’s Day, and marvel at the skill without the result being the only thing that matters. You can take a more mindful approach, where you value what you have rather than stress about what you have not. You shouldn’t have to accept players who are not trying, and those who are not good enough, but if you expect more than is realistic you will only feel disappointed.
Finally, someone noted the old saying “shoot for the stars and you might hit the moon”, or variations on that theme, and yet to me I seem to hear and read is “why aren’t we fucking hitting the stars?!!!!!” (Note: number of exclamation marks reduced.)