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Damned lies, statistics and sabermetrics

Damien Comollii
Comolli was sacked by Tottenham in 2008 after three years at White Hart Lane

By John Sinnott

Much like Rafael Benitez's time as Liverpool manager the arrival of Damien Comolli at Anfield as the club's director of football strategy is likely to divide opinion both with fans and pundits - good or bad, genius or idiot?

The position of director of football has become almost a dirty word within English football and it is hard to think of an example in the Premier League where it has not ended in tears.

The 38-year-old Comolli, who has been recruited from St Etienne, is a prime example. His time as Tottenham's director of football ended acrimoniously when he was dismissed along with manager Juande Ramos after the club's dreadful start to the 2008-09 season.

Across the Channel the picture is very different and most top European clubs have a director of football overseeing the club's strategy.

"The English model hasn't worked because chairmen haven't matched the right types," European scout Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who has worked for German clubs Hannover 96 and Bayer Leverkusen, told BBC Sport.

"Structurally, it always makes sense that the director of football arrives before the head coach or manager, so he can have a hand in appointing a person who shares his vision.

Sabermetrics is a bit of a red herring in relation to football

European scout Tor-Kristian Karlsen

"It's key that the director of football has no coaching ambitions and that the training ground is the manager's domain - the areas of responsibility must be clearly defined as grey areas just create conflicts."

When Norwegian Karlsen was working for Leverkusen, the Bundesliga club's transfer operation was so profitable that it funded the BayArena outfit's entire operation.

Key to the success of Leverkusen, who reached the Champions League final in 2002, was then general manager Reiner Calmund, who was an ever present figure at the club as coaches came and went.

John W Henry
Liverpool owner John W Henry wants some bang for his buck in the transfer market

Leverkusen had 20 international scouts, five of them working full-time - one each in Brazil and Argentina - earning 50,000 euros (£44,000) a year.

"The philosophy was to be self sufficient and to buy up-and-coming young exciting players, often from Brazil, which Leverkusen could develop and sell on," the 35-year-old Karlsen added.

"Players like Dimitar Berbatov, Lucio, Juan, Ze Roberto and Emerson are good examples of this strategy."

Some of the players Comolli brought to White Hart Lane - Gareth Bale and Benoit Assou-Ekotto for example - provide a clue as to the Frenchman's modus operandi; buy young talent to ensure maximum resale value if they are to be sold on.

Comolli was also responsible for the signing current Tottenham squad members Luka Modric, Heurelho Gomes, David Bentley, Vedran Corluka and Roman Pavlyuchenko, as well as bringing current Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov into English football.

"Big wages and relatively high fees for players in their late 20s and early 30s does not fit with New England Sport Venture's vision," said writer Paul Tomkins, who recently met John W Henry for lunch after Liverpool's owner contacted him on Facebook, having read his books.

"Sometimes you need to pick up a canny older player as a bargain, but the average age of Joe Cole, Christian Poulsen, Raul Meireles and Paul Konchesky, plus the re-signed Fabio Aurelio, is 30," Tomkins continued.

"So far, only Meireles of those five has impressed Liverpool fans this season. I hope it can get back to how the likes of Pepe Reina, Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano, Daniel Agger and Xabi Alonso, who were all bought when they were in their early 20s."

Liverpool's takeover by NESV prompted a swathe of newspaper articles suggesting that the Boston Red Sox's owners wanted to introduce the principle of sabermetrics to the Premier League.

Using statistical analysis to recruit players rather than rely on the subjective judgement of coaches and scouts, sabermetrics was an idea developed by baseball fan Bill James.

French academy row - Football Focus investigates

French academy row - Football Focus investigates

It was an idea put to the test with some success by the Oakland 'A's general manager Billy Beane and author Michael Lewis wrote the book "Moneyball" about the story, which is now being filmed, with Brad Pitt starring.

In the past Comolli has talked of his friendship with Beane, who Henry tried to bring to the Red Sox before hiring James as a consultant, while Chelsea's performance director Mike Forde is a disciple of sabermetrics.

Tomkins' latest book "Pay As You Play", which has been talked of as the football equivalent of "Moneyball", looks at the relationship between money and success in the Premier League.

"The data shows that it wasn't purely money behind [Sir] Alex Ferguson's success at Manchester United, but that in some seasons - particularly the first few years, and at times when rivals posed a greater threat - it played a more pronounced role," wrote Tomkins and his co-authors Graeme Riley and Gary Fulcher.

That conclusion suggests that as much as NESV want to obtain more 'bang for their buck' in the transfer market if Liverpool are to win the Premier League in the future plenty of greenbacks will be needed. That is the size of the task facing Comolli.

Karlsen, however, remains sceptical about the application of statistical analysis to the business of talent identification.

"Baseball consists of set pieces, so it's perfect for cricket," argued Karlsen. "But football has too many variables, cultures and styles. It's difficult to rate players merely on statistics. Sabermetrics is a bit of a red herring in relation to football."

For Karlsen, who has described identifying talent as like "detective work", the key principles to transfers are timing, the ability to target cheaper and developing markets and to always have a resale value in mind.

"In addition to possessing the trained eye, what's really important is to understand the relationship between value and quality so you can compare players from different countries or even continents and their respective attributes and measure up which player represent best value," he commented.

The Norwegian pointed to his recommendation to German team Hannover to buy Hungarian international midfielder Szabolcs Huszti from French club Metz for £200,000, who was then sold to Russian team Zenit St Petersburg for £2.5m.

"Huszti might not be a household name but this transfer illustrates that you can create value and a business model out of shrewd player transactions," said Karlsen, who worked under Graham Taylor at Watford between 1998 and 2000.

"It's about knowing the world wide markets, prices and sniffing out an opportunity."

Another top European scout, who works for a top-four Premier League club, has also questioned whether statistical analysis would ever be able to evaluate a player's character.

"It's very important to consider a player's mentality. We have a very good spirit at our club, so you have to be very careful. If you bring two or three players with a bad attitude it could be disastrous," the scout, who did not want to be named, told BBC Sport.

"You don't have to have been a player to excel as a scout, but when you've played it's almost as if you can smell a good player. That's why it is important to watch players over a long period."

Key for this scout, who has been working for his club for eight years, was to build a long-term, trusting relationship with the manager and to be always watching and analysing.


"I love my life and football is my passion. I watch football all the time, even when I'm home, sometimes three games in an evening on televsion. My girlfriend hasn't watched a movie in six months," he added.

Like Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, there is a little that Comolli does not know about the French market but Karlsen has suggested Liverpool's new football strategist should also look elsewhere as he goes about the business of reshaping Anfield's transfer operation.

"First and foremost Liverpool should devote a minimum 25% of their resources to exploiting their local area. There's nothing that excites a Liverpool fan more than when a local academy kid pulls on that red strip," Karlsen said.

"He should also keep a close eye on the German market. It's undervalued if you compare the quality to the going rates, even compared to France. Holland, Spain and Italy are also expensive markets with great domestic competition for the best talent."

There are just over 50 days to the opening of the January transfer window. No pressure then on Comolli.....


Comolli will benefit Liverpool - Hodgson

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see also
Comolli takes Liverpool position
03 Nov 10 |  Liverpool
Benitez hits back at Hodgson jibe
01 Nov 10 |  Europe
Bolton 0-1 Liverpool
31 Oct 10 |  Premier League
Henry pledges to revive Liverpool
16 Oct 10 |  Liverpool
Hodgson named new Liverpool boss
01 Jul 10 |  Liverpool
Comolli makes St Etienne return
10 Nov 08 |  Europe
Bale earning his Spurs
03 Nov 10 |  Tottenham
Tottenham sack Ramos for Redknapp
26 Oct 08 |  Tottenham
Comolli replaces Arnesen at Spurs
08 Sep 05 |  Tottenham

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