The Net Miracle
So far in the summer transfer window, Tim Sherwood’s rebuilding program has seen 10 players come through the gates of Villa Park to the tune of around £4m net. A whole new team for very little extra outlay from essentially selling two players.
Normally in the Premier League, around £40m (mainly from the sales of Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph), would have been reinvested in three or four players, but Villa have taken a different approach. An approach that seems to have been influenced and aided by the Villa’s signing of Sporting Director Hendrik Almstadt.
Villa’s Secret Weapon?
There has been a lot of conjecture about the role of a ‘Director of Football‘ in English football, based on experiences such as Terry Venable’s brief token gesture role at Portsmouth back in 1996, Denise Wise at Newcastle, or Spurs’ issues with both Frank Arnesen and Franco Baldini, but Aston Villa’s appointing Hendrik Almstadt from Arsenal as a ‘Sporting Director’ should not be confused with that.
At his former club Arsenal, Almstadt’s focus was on statistical based performance from academy up and through to scouting, something that has an ever increasing influence in modern football. It’s an area that Villa CEO Tom Fox told the gathered supporters at the AVST AGM earlier in the year, where Villa needed to catch up.
Since he’s looking to sell the club, chairman Randy Lerner’s has imposed financial restraints in terms of spending on players, so a new approach and mentality had to be taken to make Villa at least competitive in the short-term and give Sherwood a chance while the club was up for sale. It seems that the club have taken an American theory to heart in pursuing such goals.
Aston Villa Moneyball
As soon as Villa started buying Ligue 1 players, MOMS thought, hang on a minute… is Hendrik Almstadt actually Villa’s Jonah Hill?
Some of you may have seen the film from a few years ago called Moneyball (2011), which starred Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The film directed by Bennett Miller (Capote, Foxcatcher) based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, tells the true story of a baseball franchise the Oakland Athletics, who with a limited budget for players, enlisted the services of a stats guy to help build a team of undervalued talent by taking a sophisticated ‘sabermetric’ approach towards scouting and analysing players. The method worked as Oakland gained play-off success despite having the third lowest payroll of all the major baseball teams.
Essentially, in terms of football, it’s an objective statistical approach that would also strip away things like reputation, standing of the clubs they play for, or whether they’re an international, factors that always inflate prices. Equating stats with value, it also tends to bypass a football scout’s influence in the traditional sense.
The more you look at the players Villa have bought in, especially from Ligue 1, it seems Villa have followed a similar route.
Almstadt obviously brings a knowledge of his previous employer Arsenal’s scouting network and appraisals. Is it a coincidence that Villa all of a sudden have turned their attention to the French Ligue 1 in such a concentrated fashion? Historically Villa have only very sporadically bought from that league, yet it’s a market that Arsenal under Arsene Wenger has deep roots in.
The players purchased were players that perhaps didn’t quite make the cut off point of the Arsenal ‘to buy’ list, but were decent prospects. Also when you look at the players Villa have bought, they’ve been players that haven’t carried big reputations, that haven’t been playing at the more successful or glamourous clubs. In fact, the teams they’ve tended to buy from struggled in the French league last season, yet the individual players’ stats have been very respectful despite of that.
Jordan Veretout played for a Nantes team that has finished 14th and 13th in the past two seasons. Jordan Ayew’s Lorient finished 16th last season and Idrissa Gueye’s Lille are a team in decline finishing 8th last season, after being a French Champions League team in recent years (they also won the Ligue 1 title in 2011 before PSG started buying the title). Look at José Ángel Crespo, his team Córdoba CF finished bottom and were relegated from Spain’s La Liga (he’s a defender too, so his stats must have really checked out!).
Even Rudy Gestede fits the bill. Blackburn finished in no-man’s land in 9th place in the Championship last season, but the striker’s goalscoring record remained impressive despite his team’s failings. If you want someone to replace the aerial presence side of Benteke, then the guy who has scored the most headers in the top four leagues since the start of the 2013/14 season would be a decent start. And for £6m, he was real value.
It’s hard to take such an approach in the Premier League when you also have supporter expectations, but none of these players would have been on the lists of Villa fans or the media as likely Villa buys in the summer.
Scott Sinclair was a done deal before Sherwood came to Villa and Micah Richards completely fits the prime factor of getting value in the Moneyball approach, but interestingly apart from these ex-Manchester City players, Villa’s new signings hardly have the winning mentalities that Sherwood talked about bringing to the club. However bringing in proven winners would potentially be at odds with such a Moneyball philosophy, as their prices would be inflated due to their previous success.
“We have a lot of work to do and Hendrik will make the job I have here easier,” said Sherwood of Almstadt joining Villa and there’s no doubt already he’s proving a key addition to the backroom staff.
A Reality in Football?
When Moneyball the film came out four years ago there was talk in the media stating that such a statistical approach couldn’t be applied to football, as football was a fluid team game and the onus of stats wasn’t as accurate or useful as in the context of sports such as baseball, cricket or the NFL.
However, Brentford owner Matthew Benham has applied the statistical Moneyball approach to Brentford last season and transformed them from a promoted League One team instantly into a Championship play-off team. He’s also experienced a similar instant success with the method after buying Danish team FC Midtjylland last year, transforming the club to win the Danish Superliga title. The club had previously never won any major trophy in their history.
The Way Forward?
With football being dictated to by the teams that have the most money, unconventional thinking is needed to try and break the status quo and improve the fortune of teams not blessed with a rich benefactor or regular Champions League money.
Aston Villa tried the ‘young and hungry’ (and cheap) approach, but that was always a dangerous and very long-term game.
With this Moneyball-like approach, the theory is to shorten the odds on the gamble of player recruitment. It’s been proven to work else where, but never in the Premier League. While we find out if it will, I’m pretty sure Sherwood doesn’t mind playing the Brad Pitt role in Villa’s version of it.
PS – Whether you know anything about Baseball or not, the film Moneyball is certainly a recommended watch.
Follow MOMS on Twitter – @oldmansaid