The 2011/12 season at Anfield will go down as one marred by controversy, briefly treated to success, but ultimately underwhelming. It also confirmed two things about the footballing community: it’s rash and it’s still scared of numbers.
In late 2010, Liverpool hired Damien Comolli as Director of Football Strategy, who was later reassigned as the Director of Football. Comolli arrived at Liverpool on one man’s advice: Billy Beane. In October 2010 the Boston Red Sox owner John Henry bought Liverpool Football Club. Henry is a statistics man and believes in the science of sport and the numbers of it, too. In the same way that he had enjoyed the fruits of success of sabermetrics – the specialized analysis of baseball through objective evidence, especially baseball statistics – he wanted similar at Liverpool, too. He wanted success at Anfield with numbers. In baseball it had won the Red Sox their first two World Series in over 85 years. So, just a month after buying the club, Henry hired Comolli on Beane’s advice. Why Beane? Well Beane was the man who had fathered Moneyball – an extreme statistical approach to analysing and scouting players and it had led to an American League record of 20 games unbeaten.
The man who had brought Luka Modric, Dimitar Berbatov and Gareth Bale to Tottenham began to exert his control at Liverpool. Comolli used data to make his transfers. He sold Fernando Torres and purchased Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez in the final few days of the January transfer market 2011 for a net spend of £8m. He sold the Spaniard due to his rate of decline: his top sprint pace, number of shots on goal and completed passes in the final third were all falling. He bought Carroll and Suarez on their statistics and their subsequent predicted growth. Prior to last season he took the same approach.
In the summer of 2011 the Frenchman bought Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson. The CIES Football Observatory can show us why: Downing had 17% of Aston Villa’s total “club production” – a measurement that takes into account chances created, assists, key passes, successful dribbles and the like – it was the highest share of an individual in the entire league. Similarly, Jordan Henderson had a similar dominance at Sunderland – he was responsible for just under 14% of all of Sunderland’s passes match-to-match.
John Henry appreciated that football is “too dynamic” to allow statistics to guide recruitment alone, but was confident that using such an approach would raise the chances of success in transfers. What he hadn’t appreciated was the rashness of the football community and their irrational fear and/or hatred of numbers.
Therefore, in the summer of 2012 after Liverpool had finished 8th in the Premier League, their lowest finish since the 1993/94 campaign (the Premier League’s second season), Henry had his liberal philosophy overpowered by the conservative footballing community and was left with no choice but to part ways with Comolli and his data that had brought success to Arsenal in the ’90s and Saint-Ettiene in ’00s. As Kuper and Szymanski phrase it in Soccernomics: “The forces of tradition were too strong.”
Liverpool’s 2011/12 campaign was more than just an 8th-placed finish and a Carling Cup trophy. It was the confirmation that football is still – in the majority, at least – ignorant to the science and numbers of the sport. It has, however, undoubtedly cause a ripple in the footballing world that may change it for the better.
Liverpool’s preparations for the new season has largely been taken up by their backroom actions: sacking Kenny Dalglish, their well-aired selection process for his successor – courtesy of Dave Whelan and the eventual hiring of Brendon Rodgers.
Since then, in between frequent lovefests with the media over Brendan Rodgers, the loudest noises coming from Anfield have been the doors closing behind Alberto Aquilani. So much so that nobody really heard Fabio Borini sneak in as Aquilani stomped out en route to Fiorentina.