As we approach the end of the transfer window, the stakes start to rise. Who will break first? Players handing in transfer requests; agents releasing statements to the rumour-mongering ever-knowledgable gossip columnists and managers singing club anthems.
In past seasons, we’ve even had players refusing to play
The Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, has revealed the moody Bulgarian refused to play in games against Sunderland and Chelsea, in which the team dropped five points during their worst-ever start to a season, culminating in Juande Ramos being sacked last weekend. Talking about Berbatov agitating for a move to United over the course of more than a year, Levy said: “We had a player that had refused to play two Premier League games for us, was having a detrimental impact on the dressing room and we’d known for a year that this player wanted out of this club.” Levy added: “I don’t think he treated the club with the respect we deserved. We put him on the map. He signed a long-term contract with this club and I think he should have stayed.”
Is it simply a case of expressing your interest in a player by making a formal bid to the club or do clubs contact the player’s agent – declare an interest – and hope this will unsettle the player? Or is it even more complicated? Damian Commoli has recently been appointed to oversee the transfers at Liverpool, and according to Kevin McCarra is a keen advocate of
Moneyball, the renowned book by Michael Lewis that was published in 2003. Its subject was the Oakland Athletics and, specifically, the general manager Billy Beane.Every manager hopes to crow over an outstanding player he secured for next to nothing. Beane was different because he was not following a hunch so much as questioning traditional attitudes about what it was that truly made the difference in a game. He also has a passion for football and, specifically, an allegiance to Tottenham Hotspur. Comolli, of course, worked at White Hart Lane as director of football for three years and during that period he came to know Beane. “We have been talking at length since 2006 about data application in both football and baseball,” said Comolli. “Everything I’ve been doing has come from what the A’s have been doing in terms of collecting and using data.”
One of the reasons for the Oakland ‘A’s’ success was that they were the first club to start questioning the traditional methods and assumptions of the Major League Baseball Draft System. They ignored the group of scouts at the club who tended to focus on physical athletes (who had the ‘look’ of a potential baseball star), select high school players instead of college players and continue with the same old tried and tested scouting philosophy. Billy Beane and his Oakland backroom team developed a computer programme that analysed specific skills, based on a large range of statistical data.
Instead, they drafted for unconventional statistical prowess: on-base percentage for hitters (rather than batting average) and strikeout/walk ratios for pitchers (rather than velocity). These undervalued stats came cheaply. With the sixth-lowest payroll in baseball in 2002, the Oakland Athletics won an American League best 103 games. They spent $41M that season, while the Yankees, who also won 103 games, spent $126M.
Beane then applied techniques in the transfer market he had learnt studying game theory, a fascinating area of applied mathematics now used in economics, political science and, I suspect, football transfers. Here is a brief explanation from Avinash Dixit, University Professor of Economics at Princeton University,
Game theory studies interactive decision-making, where the outcome for each participant or “player” depends on the actions of all. If you are a player in such a game, when choosing your course of action or “strategy” you must take into account the choices of others. But in thinking about their choices, you must recognize that they are thinking about yours, and in turn trying to take into account your thinking about their thinking, and so on.
These are exactly the kind of interactions that exist within the football transfer market. Prof. Dixit goes on to say,
…some aspects such as figuring out the true motives of rivals and recognizing complex patterns do often resist logical analysis. But many aspects of strategy can be studied and systematized into a science — game theory.
If this isn’t hurting your head yet, then you haven’t got a real head…
Similar ‘mind games’ or game theories exist in advanced poker strategy and other games or markets based on incomplete mis/information.
The football transfer market, especially in a restricted time period during the January window, is complicated by so many external forces. What other clubs perceive your budget is? What other clubs think you think they think the value of the player is? What other clubs watching the negotiation or bid think you will bid so they can ‘bluff’ bid to drive your purchase price higher. Billy Beane was an expert at playing other clubs off against each other, increasing the market by talking to newspapers about ‘the next big thing’ he had no intention of signing.
The current January transfer saga (other than Bent and Adam) has been the attempts to sign Luis Suarez. Here are a few examples of the rumours and factors relating to the potential sale of Suarez.
- Manchester United could be priced out of Suarez deal (13 July, 2010)
- Ajax forced to sell Suarez, Stekelenburg and van der Wiel
- How do you put a price on goal-scoring talent?
- World Cup Uppers and Downers: The stars whose stock has risen…
- Ajax Downplay Suarez to Chelsea Rumours (Dec 09)
- Luiz Suarez to Spurs (4th Jan 2011)
The level of truth in any of the reports needs to be questioned because the source is rarely, if ever, named. The other problem is the loose valuation of the player. The range is £15-£35 million. Liverpool were ‘reported’ to have offered £12.5 million and Ryan Babel (who has just moved to another club for £6 million) taking the total cash value to £18.5 million. This seems to be a fair initial offer, on the lower end of the price range, adding a player who had previously played for Ajax, would not need to acclimatize, whilst remembering that Ajax have got major financial problems and need to cash in on some of their assets. As with any negotiation, the first offer is usually rejected. Both Ajax and Liverpool will be aware that Liverpool expect the first offer to be rejected, but it does offer a slight insight into the maximum bid Liverpool are likely to make.
A mind game of imperfect information, negotiations carried out in public as well as private, under the glare of expectant fans desperate for a ‘major’ signing. The complex nature of transfer negotiations are often ignored in the football press with tiny soundbites and flashing yellow tickers reporting an estimated figure, the contract length and press conference clichés stating the player ‘wants to be at the club for a very long time’ and confirming ‘it had always been his dream to play for the club’. Liverpool might have someone attempting to apply complex theories to select a pool of players the manager can choose from, but they won’t have the success Billy Beane had, he was the first to try it, and we must remember
The main focus of a “Moneyball” approach is about maximizing use of whatever resources you have, and while the methods can be of great help to clubs with limited resources, they can be champions-winners for affluent ones. Chelsea and Arsenal, two of the top four spenders in the Premier League, already use them. It seems unlikely that Manchester United has thrived without them.