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Could the Moneyball strategy help to rebuild Sunderland AFC?

Finding a squad capable of success ahead of this upcoming season with an empty bank balance and cost cutting measures in place is not going to be easy for anyone in charge. Perhaps the much discussed moneyball strategy could help us going forward?

Southampton v Midtjylland - UEFA Europa League: Play Off Round 1st Leg
FC Midtjylland - advocates of ‘moneyball - celebrate a goal on a famous night on the south coast of England.
Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Ellis Short wants out of the club. He has done for a while.

Last week’s club statement suggested that our failure to appoint Derek McInnes boiled down to the instability of the club’s future ownership. In turn, the statement has prompted numerous rumours that German and/or American consortia want to tie up a cut-price £85 million deal to purchase the club - with the Chairman setting a target of the end of June as a deadline to get the deal done.

One thing that doesn’t seem to have changed though is that we won’t have much money to spend. Rumours are abound that if no deal is tied up by end of June, Short will allow a spend of £15 million - whereas the alleged German led consortium would be supplying even less. In short we have bugger all money no matter which way you look at it.

The fanbase is almost universal in its assessment: the squad needs to be ripped up, torn apart and replaced with a squad capable of - at the very least - putting in a shift. However, with the purse strings tight how does the new manager go about executing the revamp of a Sunderland squad on such a minuscule budget? Perhaps it’s worth giving baseball legend Oakland Athletic’s Billy Beane a call.

Those of you familiar with baseball will know the story, but for those of you who don’t - the idea behind moneyball is that the:

Focus is the team's analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, despite said team’s disadvantaged revenue situation.

Essentially, using statistical analysis to purchase lesser-known or undervalued players to fit a budget and playing style unique to themselves, rather than signing big name, expensive players that don’t always fit. See: Jack Rodwell.

Oakland Athletics had just lost post-season to the New York Yankees in 2001, and Oakland’s General Manager, Beane, had become irritated due to aforementioned the loss against the Yankees and the impending exit of his star players: Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, and Jason Isringhausen.

He was tasked with assembling a competitive team for 2002, but was severely restricted by his budget. Despite a poor opening to the season for them, they eventually won a record breaking 20 games, and in turn finished first in the American League West - largely thanks to the implementation of a moneyball approach to signings and strategies.

Milwaukee Brewers v Oakland Athletics
The first man of moneyball: Billy Beane
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The moneyball concept has since transcended into football, with Leicester City’s Premier League winning team of 2016 thought to have build a squad based on similar methods. Their 4-4-2 counter attacking formation being filled by players bought to fit their style of play, which maximised their performances. The pace of Vardy upfront, and the trickery and speed of Mahrez were aided by the steadfastness of N’Golo Kante who engulfed the middle of the park where he broke up the play with a high-octane brand of pressing.

Leicester allowed themselves to sit deep and play with the opposition in front of them the vast majority of the game, and this totally negated any issues with the lack of athleticism found in Wes Morgan and Robert Huth. Their biggest success story was N’Golo Kante who continues to produce and won the league last year with Chelsea; whereas his old team struggled after losing their key man - albeit after making a very healthy profit on him.

Leicester really relied on bringing in relatively unknown players who were deemed as being undervalued to fuel their success. Few can argue that the likes of Kante, Mahrez and Vardy are anything other than fantastic footballers who cost next to nothing in total - lending credence to the notion that perhaps moneyball does have a place in the beautiful game?

Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League
N’Golo Kante went from an unknown to a two time Premier League champion and player of the season - a player signed based on statistical analysis.
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Danish club FC Midtjylland are also famously known for using data driven signings and tactics to storm to the Danish league title before going onto to beat the likes of Southampton during a successful stint in the Europa League.

Success that began when Brentford’s owner, Matthew Benham, was looking to buy a second club. Benham was recommend the Danish outfit by friend Rasmus Ankersen with both men believing fully in the use of moneyball as key to cultivating footballing success.

They did tweak the technique though slightly, as FC Midtjylland chairman Ankersen explains:

Football is one of the hardest sports to draw statistical conclusions from because it is such a fluid game. Baseball is much easier as it is a series of similar start-stop situations; in football, everything depends on something else. But just because it is hard to find clear causations in football doesn’t mean it can’t be done. There is huge potential in this area.

They use KPI’s (Key performance indicators) to determine where players are most likely to score from. This has yielded an incredible goal per game average from set pieces - proof statistical analysis works. Their former manager Glen Riddersholm could often be seen on his smartphone during games using major shareholder Matthew Benham’s company database to make in game tactical decisions - an ethos that obvious worked due to league success and European qualification.

Back to Sunderland though, and it’s understandable why fans want to see us splash the cash ahead of the coming season;however with our funds confirmed as ‘limited’ by the board, upset and panic are to be expected. Adopting a moneyball approach though could perhaps provide us with a valid blueprint for future growth and success.

Let’s not forget, our most successful period over the past thirty years was very much built in a similar way. Two wingers, a tough tackling midfield, full backs that supported the attacking phases and a little and large forward line - every player Peter Reid brought in to the club was geared towards his vision for Sunderland AFC, and many were signed as relative unknowns. It was only in the latter stages when the likes of Tore Andre Flo were signed to do the job of Niall Quinn (which he couldn’t) when he truly began to falter. Sam Allardyce was also known to be an advocate of statistical analysis, his purchases of Kone, Kirchhoff and Khazri proving detailed scouting will pay dividends for any team willing to embrace it.

Sunderland v Chelsea - Premier League
Khazri and Kone with Kirchhoff in the distance.
Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Everything is pointing towards a heavily reduced budget no matter who owns the club, so maybe the way forward is to look across the pond at Billy Beane’s legendary moneyball technique?

After all, Claudio Ranieri’s remarkable season with Leicester in 2016 was shaped by it while the likes of Brentford and FC Midtjylland punch well above their weight thanks to the statistically-heavy system.

Throwing money at our problems isn’t guaranteed to be a success, but the logical, attentive approach encouraged by a moneyball-style system would certainly encourage patience and tact - characteristics we have sorely lacked as a club in recent years.

Start scouting the lower leagues, the unknown foreign leagues and everything in- between with a specific set up and style in mind. Couple that attention to personnel with a management team that are going to commit to that specific style and we might just start progressing as a club. Who knows, perhaps it’s something we might get right for a change.

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