Liverpool’s ride to a title fueled by stealing a chapter from “Moneyball”

In an era of big spending around the Premier League, Liverpool had its fair share of big contracts. More importantly, it had smart contracts.

It’s not enough to buy good players. You must also buy the right players. That’s Liverpool’s theory and it delivered club soccer’s biggest prize Saturday.

The Champions League final itself was far from a classic. Liverpool won, but was second-best to Tottenham Hotspur for most of a game in which both sides looked tired from the long season and played in disjointed fashion following a three-week break. Liverpool triumphed with goals from Mohamed Salah and Divock Origi, earning the Merseyside club a sixth European Cup and doubling the tally of the next most-successful English team, Manchester United.

Many people will summarize Liverpool’s victory as payoff for acquiring Salah from Roma two years ago for $42 million. While that move epitomizes the Moneyball approach to recruitment upon which Liverpool’s recent success has been built; the Egyptian forward’s career-high numbers since his 2017 move have seen his value skyrocket to many multiples of what Liverpool paid for him.

Taking inspiration from Michael Lewis’ 2003 best-selling book examining how baseball’s Oakland A’s managed to outperform their financial means through data analysis and the eschewing of accepted wisdoms, many soccer teams have tried to replicate those methods.

None have done so as astutely as Liverpool.

John Henry, the billionaire trader whose Fenway Sports Group investment firm owns Liverpool, tried to recruit Billy Beane, the former Oakland A’s general manager who was the central figure in Moneyball, for his Boston Red Sox in 2002. Beane accepted an offer that would have made him the highest-paid GM in Major League Baseball history, only to have a change of heart and stay with the A’s.

In Michael Edwards, Liverpool’s sporting director, Henry has found soccer’s answer to Billy Beane.

Edwards, who had a short, low-level professional soccer career before playing semi-pro alongside his studies, has degrees in business management and informatics. He previously worked in various analytical roles at Portsmouth and Tottenham. He joined Liverpool in 2011 as ‘head of performance and analysis. Through demonstrating his ability to harness advancing analytical methods, he steadily accrued greater responsibility until he was appointed sporting director in 2016, a role which sees him preside over the club’s transfer dealings.

Edwards is trusted implicitly by manager Jurgen Klopp. To the point a skeptical Klopp allowed himself to be convinced of Salah’s merits before signing off on the Egyptian’s acquisition in 2017.  Klopp listened to Edwards’s faith in the player’s performance numbers.

Liverpool has not won a domestic league title in 29 years, but it came closer to ending that drought this year than at any point in the last three decades. The 97 points the Reds accumulated in 2018-19 is a tally no side except Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City has ever been able to top. Manchester City reached 100 in 2017-18 and, agonizingly for Liverpool supporters – 98 this season.

Among the stars of Liverpool’s season have been left-back Andrew Robertson and midfielder Giorginio Wijnaldum, who were both plucked from relegated clubs for relatively inexpensive fees ($10.4m and $30m, respectively). They were players in whom there was little interest elsewhere.

Scotland international Robertson now shares the Premier League record for most assists in a single season with homegrown teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold. Robertson is regarded as one of Europe’s best in his position. Wijnaldum has been a vitally reliable presence in the middle third and was a catalyst in the remarkable 4-0 win over Barcelona at Anfield last month, booking Liverpool’s place in the Champions League final.

Salah and Sadio Mane, the Premier League’s joint-highest scorers this season, were signed for similar fees, and each would surely fetch upwards of $150m on the open market right now. Defender Joel Matip, imperious against Spurs on Saturday, was signed as a free agent. Roberto Firmino’s $38m fee now looks a steal.

There have, of course, been misses. Players such as Mario Balotelli, whom the data and purchase price suggested was a bargain to be had, didn’t perform to plan on the pitch. But Liverpool’s ability to sell high and at the right time has not only allowed such mishaps to be absorbed, but has also enabled the Reds to go big for the right player.

Liverpool’s net spend in Klopp’s four years at the club stands at just $164m, a fraction of that of Manchester City and Manchester United. Much of this is owed to the $185m sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in January 2018. It has been helped by savvy smaller deals, such as the $19.5m and $25m sales of Jordon Ibe and Dominic Solanke, both to Bournemouth.

In effect, the Coutinho sale funded Liverpool’s pursuits of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson, whose Anfield moves set records for the highest fees ever paid for a defender and a goalkeeper. And Liverpool’s boldness in making such signings has been as big a factor in its ascent to the summit of European soccer as its Moneyball moves.

Just 18 months ago, Liverpool was on relatively even footing with Tottenham. With parallels between Klopp’s and Mauricio Pochettino’s philosophies on team-building and playing style, each club each club espoused a healthy, organic, slow-burn approach, which had been enough to make them regular contenders for a coveted top-four Premier League finish.

But in pursuit on that elusive league title, Liverpool recognized the need to make transformative additions in key positions of weakness in order to narrow the gap to City.

Southampton’s Van Dijk was identified as the ideal center back for Klopp’s system – the $97.5m Liverpool paid to get its man in January 2018 initially attracted derision. Alisson became the most-expensive goalkeeper of all time when he followed Salah’s path from Roma to Merseyside last summer, with his $73m fee deemed by many to be excessive for a player in his position.

At the end of his first full season as a Liverpool player, Van Dijk is widely regarded as the best center back in the world and was named PFA Player of the Year. He is being tipped to be the first defender to win the Ballon d’Or since Fabio Cannavaro in 2006.

Liverpool reached the Champions League final in 2017, too, and were defeated 3-1 by Real Madrid. That night, two grave errors by goalkeeper Loris Karius, who had been a $6m signing from German side Mainz, cost Klopp’s men. Alisson may have cost 12 times as much as Karius, but his eight saves in this year’s final against Spurs proved invaluable.

The manager’s role in Liverpool’s transfer-market success should not be underestimated, either. Klopp’s infectious enthusiasm, high-octane, fun playing style and proven record of getting the best out of his charges makes him Liverpool’s greatest asset. His intense methods are physically demanding, but he gets buy-in immediately, fostering a cohesiveness unique to Anfield.

When up against state-funded super-clubs and oil billions, fighting fire with fire won’t work. It might be necessary to spend big, but it’s vitally important that you spend smart — the Liverpool way.

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