Moneyball has cost Warburton
IS MATTHEW Benham crazy? Or a radical visionary dragging football into the 21st century? Either way, the question on everyone’s lips is ‘Why?’ Why sack Mark Warburton, a guy who, in just 12 months at the helm, has hauled Brentford from League One to within touching distance of the top flight?
Why implement a continental coaching structure when the current set-up is the envy of the Championship?
Why overhaul recruitment when the existing panel of Benham, Warburton, David Weir and Frank McParland have unearthed bargain-basement gems like Andre Gray?
There can be but one answer. Benham believes he has discovered the statistical Philosopher’s Stone. The former City trader is trying to Moneyball the opposition.
“Matthew wants recruitment to be based more on mathematical modelling and statistics allied to normal scouting methods,” said Warburton when asked why the pair had decided on a parting of the ways.“I had a different philosophy but he’s the owner and that’s the direction he’s taken.”
Now a bestselling book and major Hollywood movie, Moneyball was the process by which Billy Beane transformed the Oakland A’s from hapless no-hopers into one of Major League Baseball’s biggest hitters.
In essence, Beane realised that oranges are not the only fruit; that the stats which traditionally drove up a player’s price weren’t necessarily the best indication of value.
So instead of going after the biggest hitters or the fastest pitchers, he signed up those with the highest On-Base Percentage, an unwanted and undervalued skill that Beane’s exhaustive number-crunching told him was critical to any team’s success.
The results were spectacular. The A’s reached the end-of-season play-offs eight times in the last 15 years despite having the sixthlowest budget of all 30 teams.
Nobody knows the Moneyball story better than Benham. The Bees owner made his fortune by building a statistical model that helped him gamble – very successfully – on sports. He knows his way around a spreadsheet.
Of course, in the age of OPTA, it is easy to conclude that no statistical stone has been left unturned. In any given match, we can dis- cover at the touch of a button how far a player has run, how many successful passes they’ve made, and in which direction. Pep Guardiola famously calculated that no player should take more than three touches or press for more than three seconds.
But then people thought the world was flat until bolder explorers discovered it wasn’t. Benham must be convinced he has found a new method of attributing value to a player that nobody else is using, at least in England.
Maybe it’s a way of predicting injuries. Maybe he’s modelled the parameters which determine whether an 18-year-old will make the grade. Perhaps he’s found a way to quantify leadership.Who knows? Whatever the case, his ruthlessness makes more sense in this light. With Moneyball, time is precious. When Beane started in 2000, nobody knew what he was up to so the A’s had a competitive advantage.
Now, the New York Yankees employ 20 statisticians. As their GM Brian Cashman said:“When Moneyball was revealed, it was like Coke’s secret formula.” Even Beane admits it is now difficult for the A’s to locate an unmined seam.
Benham knows that Brentford are hamstrung by low gates and Financial Fair Play rules. He knows they cannot afford Premier League wages. He knows that the gap between rich and poor will only increase. So he wants to deploy his secret weapon before the fat cats cotton on and the gulf becomes too wide to bridge.
It is brutally harsh on Warburton and his staff. It is a kick in the teeth for the fans. After all, it is one thing to rip up a failing system in an act of desperation, quite another to abandon a successful formula in pursuit of the Holy Grail.
But until Benham’s experiment has failed, let’s reserve judgement. Football is notoriously conservative and ridicule is the default reaction to those who buck a trend.
But ten years ago people mocked Beane’s geekery. Now? As Cashman says: “The oldschool scouts used to come to the owner and say ‘this guy looks good in a uniform’. Now, you don’t hear that anymore.”
Benham may pay for his principles. His team may implode. But maybe – just maybe – he could be the man who finally hauls football out of its old-school straitjacket and into the modern age.