Fans of the Toronto Blue Jays should be pleased with the decision by the Red Sox to move away from analytics, and LFC is part of the reason.
I grew up like many US children of my peers in Generation X, as I played youth soccer but was otherwise disengaged from the game – there was effectively zero sports media coverage in the US at the time. Instead, I was a maniac for baseball, basketball and American football. My mother was born and raised outside Glasgow, Scotland, and as I matured into adulthood and reconnected with my heritage, I progressively became a more engaged soccer fan. As a matter of familial heritage, I am a Celtic supporter and remember vividly, when on my first of two childhood trips to Scotland at the age of five, my grandfather presented me with a 1967 Celtic pennant celebrating their winning the European Cup. The Lisbon Lions, as that Celtic team was called, were truly an amazing story, as 14 of the 15 players were all born within 10 miles of Celtic Park.
I’ve grown to love soccer over the past 20 years and now only my annual Blue Jays odyssey results in more hours of TV viewing. I enjoy watching attractive soccer outside of Celtic matches and haven’t had any strong allegiances otherwise….until today.
Nick Cafardo published a story today in the Boston Globe regarding Red Sox owner, John Henry, stating that the Red Sox are going to be de-emphasizing their use of analytics, which is very contrary as nearly all MLB teams continue to invest heavily into their baseball operations departments. The move seems quite odd and appears to have perplexed quite a number of people, but I think the Blue Jays and other AL East team fans have Liverpool Football Club (LFC) to thank for this apparent Red Sox reversal.
For those who are not aware, the Red Sox and LFC are both owned by the Fenway Sports Group (FSG). Fenway Sports Group acquired LFC in 2010, and its relationship with LFC supporters has been an interesting one ever since. For those readers who may not be up on their English Premiere League history, LFC are a historic club who has had only fleeting success over the past couple of decades, as the club has not won a league title since 1990. LFC supporters recently made news for walking out en masse at a recent game in protest of an increase in ticket prices for what many supporters consider to be working class-level tickets. FSG management responded by relenting for the most part and issued a groveling letter of apology.
How FSG has managed LFC has been a major bone of contention within some soccer circles. Traditionally, most big clubs’ player decisions have been made by a single leader, whether it be a Presidential system like at Real Madrid or a manager-driven system like Manchester United used under Sir Alex Ferguson. Regardless, the manager has typically had a lot of say as to the kind of players he wants to play the kind of system he deploys within his team. FSG took both of those typical models and threw them right out the window, and attempted to have LFC adopt the same sort of model they had deployed successfully at the Red Sox.
The evolution of analytics at the Red Sox was advanced by Theo Epstein, and the success appeared to have driven FSG leadership to believe that the “Moneyball” evolution would also be applicable in soccer. This has been very controversial in England and amongst LFC supporters, as a largely nameless “transfer committee” has been responsible for which players to buy/sell. One can imagine a smoke filled room with Mark Shapiro, Ross Atkins and Tony Lacava as being the Blue Jays’ version, which is obviously the sort of model that Shapiro brought with him from Cleveland. Ironically, Alex Anthopolous landed in a similar “committee” structure at the Dodgers.
In most respects, the adoption of this structure has been a pretty epic failure. I won’t pretend to be an expert on soccer strategy and/or tactics, but I think I know enough to say that the differences between baseball saber metrics and soccer analytics are dramatic. Style of play and strategy are not nearly as significant in baseball compared to soccer. Generally speaking, baseball is a pretty linear situation when analyzing the production value of each player and rolling that up to the team level.
Soccer is quite different, in that one can have a holding midfielder which plays at a world class level in one system and then looks completely lost in another. Certain kinds of strikers need servicing from the wings into the box, while others need to play off another attacking player to help with creating chances.
It appears that FSG has been having problems figuring out how to analyze and quantify these kinds of issues as it relates to acquiring players and making them fit with the managers they hire and the style in which they want to play. LFC replaced their manager this season and brought on highly regarded Jurgen Klopp. Klopp came from a situation where he had significant say in player development and the transfer market, and he likely had his pick to manage at many big clubs within Europe. I think it is highly unlikely that Klopp would have went to LFC without assurances that he would have significant control.
Can you imagine Tommy Lasorda or Connie Mack taking a call from some “suit” telling them how to construct their daily lineup? That is now the world we live in within Major League Baseball, but the Red Sox may be heading in the other direction. This appears to have been accelerated when they hired Dave Dombrowski as President of Baseball Operations, as Dombrowski has been more of an old school decision maker. I think a great deal of these developments at both the Red Sox and LFC may be as a result of FSG’s experience with LFC.
I expect the Red Sox will live to regret these decisions, and that the two sports likely require different approaches when incorporating analytics into decision making. As a Blue Jays fan, I am thrilled that FSG seems to be throwing on the brakes of progress at the Red Sox, and I can only hope that Mr. Klopp, with the help of a lot of FSG money and a summer transfer window, can lead LFC to a top four position in next year’s English Premiere League. In fact, if they win the league, then the Red Sox may even try to bring Lasorda out of retirement to implement some small ball….we can only hope.
*FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: wyliepoon UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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