Liverpool Need To Stay Out of the Dark Ages

Liverpool Need To Stay Out of the Dark Ages
October 7, 2015 Paul Tomkins

By Paul Tomkins.

I’ve recently had some sympathy for Neil Ashton of The Daily Mail, given that he is suffering from Bell’s Palsy and continues to present the Sunday Supplement (which I often enjoy, albeit depending on the quality of the guests – and usually, the less ‘tabloid’ they are the better). He has to do his job with half his facial muscles in paralysis, and that takes some bravery. I commend him on that.

However, his attack on Michael Edwards of Liverpool’s transfer committee was a laughable analysis of the situation, and read as quite spiteful. It’s the worst piece I’ve read on what’s been going on at Liverpool for a long time. The tone is horribly tabloid in style, with the strange highlighting of mundane details as if they were the devil’s doing (such as “air-conditioned”). And while Ashton would not have chosen the photos, they showed Rodgers looking solemn and Edwards laughing. Welcome to the modern media, folks.

It read like a hatchet job, written by someone who didn’t understand what they are talking about – or who was purposely choosing to give one side of the story without appreciating the other; indeed, whilst totally ignoring it, and talking like this was still 1975.


Neil Ashton, of the Daily Mail.

I’m someone who grew up as a “proper” football man, if I actually understand what it means to be a”proper” football man. My granddad played for Aston Villa, my dad was a good amateur and I played semi-professionally in the mid-‘90s before being diagnosed with M.E. (at which point I became a season ticket holder at Anfield, with my condition not as serious as it is now). I am also someone who has been using stats for over a decade – doing crazy things like looking at how many goals Liverpool conceded from zonal marking set-pieces under Rafa Benítez, and pointing out the bizarre fact that most years it was fewer than those clubs man-marking.

I’ve also used a lot of data analysis to write hundreds of articles on transfers, and also a successful book, Pay As You Play, in 2010. I’ve probably analysed transfers more than almost anyone else out there, and the work I’ve done with Graeme Riley on the Transfer Price Index will be part of a future academic study, having previously been used by a European Commission investigation into the football trade across the continent. It’s also been used by people within the game.

So I have a foot in both camps. Seeing with your eyes can be helpful, but also misleading (see the work of Daniel Kahneman). Data can shed light, but you also have to know how to read it.

I’ve been defending Brendan Rodgers these past 15 months, but equally, I’ve had reservations about his input into transfers, which I’ve been expressing on this site for quite a while. I’m always happy to look at the positives of any potential new arrival, even if they’re not my cup of tea; and give them time in a red shirt before making bold statements about them. I try to be open minded. But after at least a season at the club I will draw conclusions. Mistakes are easily made, and it needn’t be anybody’s fault – but success rates over a number of signings tell a story.

Those Rodgers brought in – the deals he drove – have been well below what I’d expect based on my extensive analysis of the past 23 years of Premier League activity. To my mind, this is where he made his big mistakes, and why he’s no longer Liverpool manager. Had he got his signings right, his tactical issues wouldn’t have been of a concern.

The great team Rodgers “formed” in 2013/14 revolved around players he inherited or who were brought to the club by the committee. He shaped the team perfectly. But he did not buy the players. And he was “lucky” to have Sturridge and Henderson, in that he didn’t initially want either.

Not one single key player was bought by Rodgers, and with up to ten of the club’s signings driven by him these past three years, that fact remains true today. Joe Allen is his best buy, and he’s been mixed at best. I like Allen, but he’s not made much of an impact – Liverpool could have lived without him. The same applies to all of Rodgers’ own buys.

In contrast, Jurgen Klopp is happy to work with the players given to him. He doesn’t get involved. He knows his strengths. 

And while Rodgers has many strengths, which I defended, spotting a player doesn’t appear to have been one of them. After a few weeks spent working with Jordan Henderson he wanted to swap him for Clint Dempsey, a player on the verge of decline, for about £5m. He didn’t want Daniel Sturridge in 2012, something I found bizarre at the time. He has flip-flopped on Lucas Leiva, and made various other calls that don’t shed a good light on his judgement. I like that he was able to change his mind on players; but his initial impressions were often wayward.

And he wanted to buy some truly mediocre players whom the club had to veto (and while I understand the unease at vetoing a manager’s wishes, Rodgers was never going to be allowed to run the whole show – something only Arsene Wenger does in the modern game, and he has earned the right to retain that power. Jose Mourinho doesn’t run the whole show at Chelsea).

However, Rodgers had some bold ideas and, for a while, got the team playing great football. I truly loved 2013/14, and Rodgers was the perfect manager for those players, at that point in time. The stars were Suarez, Sturridge, Coutinho, Sterling, Gerrard, Henderson and even Flanagan. None of these were Rodgers’ signings, but he helped improve them or reshape their game. That was his strength.

People talked a lot about Rodgers’ ego, and his hubris. I never quite trusted that talk. But I do feel that he needed to be less controlling when he’d never proven himself a good purchaser of players. Remember, this was not Rafa Benítez, arriving with two La Liga titles, adding a Champions League within a season, and buying Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina and Javier Mascherano, amongst other successes, in his first three years at Liverpool.

When Liverpool went close to the title in 2008/09 – winning more points than Rodgers’ side, but up against a supreme Man United (Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney and Berbatov) – it was with those aforementioned signings. But even that was in “the old days”, before pretty much every club moved away from putting so much money in the hands of one man. Benítez is at Real Madrid now, but he’s not buying the players.

Anyway, here are a few gems from Neil Ashton’s piece, with my response below each strange paragraph.

“Michael Edwards, who is based at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, has become FSG’s go-to guy in England after aligning himself with the data-driven model of the group’s baseball team, the Boston Red Sox.”

Welcome to 2015, Neil. Go and visit any football club and see what’s going on. Indeed, I think you did the same with Southampton and reached a totally different conclusion about their massive staff of analysts.

This cosy relationship with FSG, dropping the owners emails throughout the day and increasing his power at the club, led to a strained relationship with former manager Brendan Rodgers.”

How dare employees email their bosses. And throughout the day! Who does that? And shame on FSG for taking a daily interest and wanting to be kept in the loop.

Presumably Brendan Rodgers also contacts people as part of his working life?

Edwards encourages staff to use his nickname ‘Eddie’, giving a matey feel to the working environment. It is understood Rodgers has another name for him.”

Edwards has a nickname. He is therefore a witch. Burn him.

(I thought people in football were supposed to have nicknames? Or is that only “proper” football people?)

Also, if Rodgers has another name for him, how do you know that? It all sounds a bit unprofessional – just like the people who call Rodgers ‘David Brent’, which is something I’ve found rather pathetic. If Rodgers has his own snide nicknames for people then that makes him as bad as the morons on Twitter I spent far too long defending him against.

“Edwards fell perfectly into place with FSG’s Moneyball strategy, the statistical model designed to extract maximum value in the transfer market. Clearly, with the club 10th in the league and paying up to three times the going rate for players, it needs refinement.

It was Rodgers who pushed for Lovren, Lallana and Benteke, three of the four most expensive signings made during his tenure. And for Mario Balotelli, at £16m – albeit as a last resort. On average, the players purchased by Rodgers were far more costly than those given to him by the committee.

The committee paid just £12m for Sturridge and £8m for Coutinho. Now, this is picking and choosing examples, admittedly, but we’d all take Sakho (committee) over Lovren (Rodgers), and Sakho was slightly cheaper. The committee failed with a few cheap punts like Aspas, but it’s not like Rickie Lambert looked even remotely like a Liverpool player, despite his love of the club. That was a cheap Rodgers punt that failed. It happens.

Moneyball, a grossly misunderstood term, is just about seeing value where others might not – something Southampton do. But Rodgers wanted proven Premier League players (the benefit of which is an utter myth, based on my analysis of 3,000 transfers since 1992). So Southampton would find cheap foreign players, like Lovren, by using video analysis (they even showed the player videos when they signed him, pointing out how they’d identified his strengths and weaknesses) and then a year later Rodgers would pay £20m for him. That’s not Moneyball. That’s not even remotely smart.

Despite a lack of playing experience at any relevant level, Edwards, who earns £300,000 a year, has a big say on Liverpool’s notorious transfer committee. He would arrive for meetings with Rodgers, managing director Ian Ayre, chief scout Barry Hunter and head of recruitment Dave Fallows armed with the latest data on potential targets.”

Jose Mourinho has a lack of playing experience at any relevant level.

The same applies to Rafa Benítez.

Hell, it applies to Brendan Rodgers too. Or did I miss his wonderful playing career?

Why does this even matter in 2015?

The committee have yet to explain how they came up with the figure of £29million to sign Brazilian forward Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim, who finished eighth in the Bundesliga last season.”

Presumably the figure came about through negotiations. It’s a starting figure of £22m rising to £29m. Quite why Liverpool would pay that for one of the stars of the Bundesliga (32 league goals in his final two seasons, when playing from deeper areas), who has been playing regularly for Brazil this past year (four goals in his first 11 caps), is beyond me.

Firmino also arrived late for preseason because he was off swanning around playing for Brazil – what a waste of space!

And who do the committee have to explain that to?

And yet it was Rodgers who wanted to pay £32.5m for Benteke, something the club was clearly uneasy about, given the tentative bids. (And if we’re focusing on where the team finished, Villa were almost relegated.)

For the record, I like both players, and neither has had enough time to be judged a success or a flop – you have to at least allow a season. Or even half a season. It would be daft to label Benteke a flop because he’s got just two goals, one fewer than Danny Ings, despite costing what may end up being six or seven times more.

“Divock Origi, billed as ‘a world-class talent’ by Rodgers when he was signed from Lille, could not even come off the bench in the club’s last two league games. There are countless other errors.

Divock Origi did well at the World Cup when he was 19. And Rodgers was the one who called him a world-class talent. Which he is, for his age-group.

Rodgers chose to use Ings ahead of Origi. Which, to date, looks fair enough. Origi will get his chance. How can a mere kid be an error so soon after arriving as a 4th-choice striker?

There will always be errors. Approximately half of all players signed in the Premier League era has failed to make an impact, or proved a waste of money. Approximately 10% work out as great buys, and these are often younger players, and come more frequently from overseas than the Premier League.

“After each Liverpool game Edwards emails analysis and data to the club’s owners in America, detailing where the match was won and lost. It has made for grim reading this season. Edwards has used his relationship with FSG to strengthen his hand at the club, becoming a trusted source of information to a group of people who are obsessed with statistical analysis.”

Obsessed, I tell yer!

The truth is that Liverpool use information as part of a process. No players are bought without scouting them as well. The stats are a way to identify talent, and to look at strengths of weaknesses. Human eyes are also used. It’s the same at all clubs, even Manchester City and Chelsea. I know some of the people doing that very job, and how they go about it.

“Edwards can tap away at a laptop and within seconds tell you how many assists the 24-year-old Turkish left back Eren Albayrak has made for Rizespor this season (four).”

In 2015, who actually gives a shit about assists? To me, that sentence reads like saying young people go to Our Price to buy CDs.

“Edwards and his team of analysts have invented a new language for football. Strikers are all about goal expectancy, chances created and the percentage of successful passes in the final third. Old-school managers just want to know if the boy can put the ball in the net. Defensive midfielders are judged on interceptions and the number of challenges won in the centre of the pitch.”

All clubs use analytics. Many use goal expectancy (xG), chances created and the percentage of successful passes in the final third – and have been doing so for years. They use other stuff, too.

Sam Allardyce apparently fined his players for shooting from outside the box because he knew it was a one-in-40 chance of scoring (something I’d have done to Liverpool players against Carlisle, such was their stupidity with 29 long-range efforts against the worst defence in English football). There’s your old-school manager, er, building a career around stats. I may not like Allardyce very much – he frequently comes across as an almighty prick – but he massively over-performed as a manager at Bolton with the aid of stats. He’s very good at his job.

Meanwhile, Neil Lennon got rid of the analytics people at Bolton, as he thinks it’s “all a load of nonsense” – and they sit in the Championship relegation zone. Good old proper football people!

“The increasing influence of analysts, young men who have no experience of scouting or recruiting players, has meant the end of the road for good football men such as Mel Johnson. He was the scout who recommended Liverpool sign talented young winger Jordon Ibe from Wycombe but was sacked, shamefully, in November 2014.”

Ibe is indeed a talented young winger. But he’s also having a poor 6-9 months, and has had just a handful of good games for the club (which is nothing to worry about yet). He’s a little younger than Divock Origi, who has 15 caps for Belgium and a goal at a World Cup. Ibe has yet to score for Liverpool. Ibe has great potential. So does Origi. Origi was excellent against Sion last week, by the way. That means he’s had an excellent game this season, unlike Ibe.

Ibe has been at Liverpool for four years. Origi has been at Liverpool for eight league games. When there is a squad of 25 players, some of whom are just starting out, not everyone will be in the XI, right?

What’s with this “good football men” bollocks?

And hasn’t Edwards been part of the recruitment process at Premier League clubs for well over a decade now? Longer, indeed, than Rodgers has been in management. Edwards was at Portsmouth when they were good, Spurs when they were good, and Liverpool, when they almost won the title based on some of his recommendations.

“Instead a new breed sits in air-conditioned offices, cutting up videos from matches all over the world and burying their heads in the stats. Edwards, along with his vast team of analysts, constantly monitors the opposition, providing detail about playing positions, style, routines, set-pieces and other important matchday information.”

Exactly what kind of voodoo is this, with air-conditioned offices? Why aren’t they working from caves, carving their ideas into stone tablets?

Why are they collating information? What good has information ever done anyone?

What good can come from analysing things?

Ashton wrote a very positive piece a while back about the very same ideas being used by Southampton, where they employ something like 26 analysts. It’s a different challenge at Liverpool, but Liverpool are doing nothing different to Manchester City and other big clubs. They just have less money.

“Edwards was head-hunted by Damien Comolli when the Frenchman became director of football at Liverpool, turning down an increased salary of £250,000 a year at White Hart Lane to join the Anfield revolution. Levy was distraught.”

So Edwards was at Spurs when they were signing lots of great players, and then joined Liverpool, who signed Jordon Henderson and Luis Suarez. Shortly after, the committee forced Daniel Sturridge onto Rodgers (according to The Times’ Tony Barrett), after the manager originally turned him down (having bought, er, Fabio Borini). Oh, and they gave him Coutinho, too. So that’s four great buys in a period of a couple of years, with Edwards a key figure.

The committee’s signings from the summer of 2013 did not work out. And Rodgers used his great success coaching that season to get more control of the transfer budget. At which point the team got much worse.

I will always be grateful to Rodgers for his part in a glorious season, and I still like much about the man. He’s a good manager.

But I’m looking forward to things being better under Jurgen Klopp. And if he doesn’t like the transfer committee, with his vastly superior experience to Rodgers, and his desire not to meddle in such things, then I might take him seriously. Unlike Rodgers, he seems just what we need right now.