Earlier in the week I wrote about Lee Congerton, the surely discredited ‘Data Director’, formerly of Sunderland AFC.
He is not the first casualty of football’s obsession with MoneyBall or Soccernomics, nor will he be the last; but the use of data, metrics and technical scouting and coaching in football is undergoing a revolution, and developments are moving at a pace way beyond what Congerton was doing at Hamburg before he joined Sunderland.
That revolution is being fired by two facets – first, the costly mistakes of men like Congerton and Damien Comolli of Liverpool infamy, who rapidly disproved their own theories and boasts; and second – advances in technology, which are transforming how all of us think about, enjoy and analyse football.
Data is everywhere in football now. From computer games like Championship Manager, to free-to-access websites where punters like you and me can analyse the pass completion rate of our team, or see which player ran the furthest kilometres in ninety minutes.
The likes of whoscored.com and squawka.com provide freely available data for fans, enthusiasts and wannabe analysts. Moneyball spawned a generation of such wannabes, but on a professional level, earning big bucks. The work of Billy Beane, the inspiration for Moneyball and hailed as the original pioneer, is over a decade old now, so the market and the techniques used should be nearing a level of some maturity or, more likely, saturation.
Professional sport is now awash with mathematicians, economists and statisticians. A lot of them are young, in their twenties or thirties and many of them work with football clubs but have never played, managed or coached in the sport. Some of them are very clever people, some of them are charlatans.
At Sunderland we have our very own example in Steve Houston, who is currently listed as ‘Head of Scouting’ at the club. Houston typifies this generation as a former consultant in the world of insurance, who wangled a traineeship at NBA basketball club Houston Rockets, and ended up working in America for a number of years during the Moneyball boom. He brought much of his experience back to England and took it to Chelsea and then Hamburg, before arriving at Sunderland under Lee Congerton.
There is, though, a rapidly emerging reassessment of all this data-driven malarkey in football, because quite frankly, much of it has failed to have any impact and some of it has been plain embarrassing. Closer to home, Sunderland disproved just about every theory that ever emerged.
Take the authors of the book Soccernomics, who were certain it was down to money; one of their main findings: "in short, the more you pay your players in wages, the higher you will finish". Sunderland disproved that one with ease. Over the past five years, Sunderland have consistently been in the top ten highest wage bills in the Premier League. During the past five years, Sunderland have consistently finished well short of a top ten league position in the Premier League.
In an article in 2012, one of the ‘guys’, Dan Kennett, claimed that Steven Fletcher was ‘deadly’. The stats, gathered from Fletcher’s appearances at Wolves, proved it and Dan went as far as to confidently assert that "There are a number of teams who have goal scoring issues in the Premier League - Sunderland, Everton, Wigan and Liverpool", and that if one of them made a move for Steven Fletcher, it would prove that Soccernomics or data-driven football really worked.
Tragically, it was all a fallacy. Those ‘stats’ went some way to over-inflating Steven Fletcher’s market value and Sunderland, being Sunderland, were happy to pay £12m for his services. In return, Fletcher scored a paltry twenty five goals in his next hundred-odd appearances and now, at the age of just 29, is having to try and resurrect his career in the Championship.
There were three notable examples at Sunderland of where the Congerton-Houston data scouting collaboration backfired. They were ‘their’ signings of Jordi Gomez, Costel Pantillimon and Billy Jones. One of the tenets of Moneyball or Soccernomics is the pursuit of finding players whose ‘stats’ suggest they are undervalued and picking them up for a bargain. It’s the conjurer’s trick of buying an apparent donkey for buttons, who will amaze the world with his ‘till now hidden talents, that only the ‘Stats’ guy could see.
At Sunderland, Congerton and Houston prepared to dazzle the footballing world by unveiling the great Gomez-Pantillimon-Jones trick. All were signed on a free transfer and the computers at the Academy of Light must have been positively flashing with excitement at their undervalued ‘stats’. Indeed, if stories are to be believed, there was dancing in the boardroom at securing the services of Billy Jones.
Ultimately, Pantillimon was possibly the most successful of that trio, but even that was short lived. A season and a half after he signed, he was gone. Gomez was patently too slow for the Premier League and Billy Jones has struggled to hold down a place.
The other problem – everyone is doing it. Sam Allardyce was doing it in the mid-nineties at Bolton, Arsene Wenger has been doing it for twenty years. All clubs subscribe to these mega-database services. Unless you’re bloody brilliant at interpreting the mass of data these things produce, you’re gaining no competitive advantage whatsoever. That’s why every player of promise has at least four clubs chasing them – everyone is looking at the same data. If it’s wrong, they’re all wrong.
Take Sebastian Coates who was signed to Liverpool during the tenure of then Director of Football, Damien Comolli. Comolli hailed him as the ‘complete package’ at the time, but he only ever made twelve appearances in the league. It doesn’t take a huge leap to surmise that Congerton’s Sunderland were using the same data as Liverpool and presumed that despite his lack of impact on Merseyside, he was still an undervalued prospect they could make something of. They didn’t, and there lies another footballer surplus to requirements at the Stadium of Light, out on loan at Sporting Lisbon. Somebody’s calculations were wrong and Sunderland copied them? Forget Soccernomics, this is Sundernomics.
Like all maturing ‘markets’, the cream rises to the top and the chancers and shysters will fall away from this boom in Soccernomics. What we will be left with, are the brilliant individuals who can actually interpret data properly and use it in new, innovative, dynamic ways to get ahead of the rest.
The current future, if you like, is installing multiple high performance cameras in stadia that will analyse every move and every passage of play for data gurus to pore over and analyse. Some are saying we might even see data doping – agents inflating a player’s performance data to boost wage demands. It’s mind boggling.
But, back to today’s world on Wearside - why did Leicester identify N’Golo Kante and sign him for £5.6m at the same time that Sunderland identified Jeremain Lens as the man they needed and signed him for £8m? Sundernomics, that’s why.
But, did the January transfer window, which saw Jan Kirchhoff, Lamine Kone and Whabi Khazri arrive, demonstrate a shift in performance for Sunderland’s scouting department; or was it something else?
Has Sunderland’s approach to technical scouting matured or has Sam Allardyce’s arrival and influence enabled a revolution at a club which has, so far, made a right hash of it? Sundernomics indeed.