I finally got round to watching Moneyball this weekend. Despite finding baseball outrageously bland, it was a film I’ve wanted to see for quite a while, due to my salacious obsession with sports statistics.
For those of you who are unaware of the plot of Moneyball, it is based on the true story of baseball side Oakland Athletics and its general manager Billy Beane who struggled through seasons with a low playing budget. In a bid to match the top teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the franchise adopts sabermetrics – a form of statistical analysis to assess baseball players.
It was a great film, with Brad Pitt putting in a solid performance in the role of Beane, and made me wonder whether the way of thinking could be replicated in other sports, most notably football.
If the success of Moneyball was based on statistics alone then the answer is simple – football can learn nothing. Baseball is a game where a player needs to show a very limited number of skills and these can be represented in a finite number of statistics.
Football is not like this. Primarily, teamwork is absolutely vital. If you assembled a team comprising of the best baseball players in each position statistically they are likely to win the World Series. There is no guarantee of that in football – see the Galacticos etc.
But a misconception about Moneyball is that it is solely based on statistics. Absolutely not. The only reason Oakland were utilising statistics was to gain an advantage in the field and to win games. As Peter Brand says: “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.”
And as that is the case, it could be argued that many teams are now embracing the fundamentals of Moneyball by improving their scouting resources and playing the transfer market.
Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund are two examples, though the former has gone off the rails in recent years. But Udinese are perhaps the best case.
Ten years ago, Bianconeri finished 14th in Serie A, avoiding relegation to the Italian second tier by just a point. A decade later, the club has a squad which many in the division envy. Quality, young footballers have been bought relatively cheap from far-flung countries, like Ghanaian Kwadwo Asamoah and Chilean Mauricio Isla. Undoubtedly these players will be sold for huge profits and at the right time, as Gokhan Inler and Alexis Sanchez have in previous years. This tactic has seen Udinese break into Italy’s exclusive group of elite sides.
The primary functions of Moneyball, namely to gain an advantage over a wealthier opponent, can be extrapolated to whichever sport. It’s not just about statistics.