Moneyball, by author Michael Lewis, is a famous book, and now movie, about the statistical revolution in professional baseball in the United States. The real life protagonist is Billy Beane who is the general manager of a small market team the Oakland Athletics, which must be more efficient to win regularly in comparison to well-funded competitors. There are European soccer clubs and managers that are known for similar stances. In Italy the club Udinese is known for their calculated approach and in the managerial realm the duo of Clough and Taylor turned the fortunes of several clubs in England with considerably lower funds than the competition.
Billy Beane himself is now an advisor to AZ Alkmaar.
In many ways, it’s a perfect fit. AZ are traditional overperformers in the Dutch top-flight. They won the league in 2009 when the coach was current Manchester United boss, Louis van Gaal. One of the ways AZ gained an advantage over rivals was their use of data analysis: Van Gaal is a firm believer in statistics, while hardly anyone else in Holland is (it’s why no-one has ever asked him properly about the subject). The lack of Dutch interest in Moneyball, the book or the film, sums that up: the increasing role of data in football may be the first tactical revolution that the Dutch, usually early-adopters, have missed.
“There is no real evidence that Dutch clubs are using analysis of on-pitch data to improve performance,” says Simon Gleave, head of analysis at Holland-based analytics company Infostrada Sports. “The Eredivisie is not awash with great innovation in this area. It is new and there’s an opportunity to get an edge.”
Of course, there are those that think that Moneyball will not work in professional soccer. Statistics in football are ultimately misleading and largely irrelevant. A fitting quote is one from the Danish former player and manager, Ebbe Skovdahl: “Statistics are just like miniskirts – they give you good ideas but hide the most important things”.
Football, unlike baseball, isn’t about the raw numbers; it’s about how players gel and complement each other. In a baseball team you can, in most cases, take out a player and replace him with a superior one without issue, regardless of the team’s playing style and tactics. The same cannot be said of football.
The debate continues.