DUNLAVY:

Money­ball has cost War­bur­ton

The Football League Paper - - FRONT PAGE -

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?

Why now?

Dis­cov­ered

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.

Ham­strung

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.

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