The rise and rise of the Premier League and the exponential rise of the finances involved, mean it’s incredibly difficult for a club like Norwich City to compete at the top level. It’s especially difficult with Delia Smith and Michael Wynn-Jones at the helm.
While they’ve done incredible things for this club and the community, football has moved on and, according to reports, so now have City’s majority shareholders.
There are a number of articles on MFW on Mark Attanasio and the group looking to invest/takeover Norwich City, so I’ll leave that for now.
But if you have been living under a rock, and don’t know who Attanasio is, he’s the owner of Major League Baseball side, Milwaukee Brewers – who are top of the NL Central – and who is reported to have a net worth of £700m.
In this piece, I’ll be looking at the importance of statistics in baseball, the ‘Moneyball’ approach, and how City have already been incorporating some of these values into their transfer business over recent years.
Baseball is one of the most stat-driven sports in the world. The league table is decided on a percentage. Year on year, teams try to find the best players for the lowest price by focusing almost solely on stats. and the Brewers are one of the best at doing this.
The Brew Crew’s 2022 payroll is roughly $130m – 19th in the MLB. Despite this, the team currently sits sixth in the overall standings and came fourth, overall, last year.
This is down to the intuitive signing of ‘hidden gems’ increasing the club’s value over time. This is something many would associate with Norwich City, particularly since Stuart Webber came in as Sporting Director.
Since 2017-18, City have amassed transfer profits of roughly £44 million, and that’s without taking into account the free transfers who’ve come into the club and gone on to play a pivotal role – Teemu Pukki, Mario Vrancic, Tim Krul, Tom Trybull etc.
Obviously, some transfers haven’t worked out but, overall, we’ve made a comfortable profit and been consistent in that period.
A lot of fans aren’t happy with being a yo-yo club, bouncing up and down between the Championship and the Premier League, but with the limited finances available, Norwich have had to deal well.
- Emi Buendia: Joined in 2018 for £1.35m, sold in 2021 for £34.5m.
- James Maddison: Joined in 2016 for £2.39m, sold in 2018 for £22.5m.
- Ben Godfrey: Joined in 2016 for £2.66m, sold in 2020 for £24.75m.
City have signed players for pennies in a modern market and crafted them into superstars, similarly to how the Milwaukee Brewers do their business.
Signing players on the cheap to sell for big bucks is also a fundamental part of clubs like Brentford and Barnsley, commonly associated with the Moneyball approach. If you’re unfamiliar with Moneyball, The Athletic sum it up perfectly as: “A byword for data use in sports, especially recruitment.”
There’s both a book and a movie on the journey of Billy Beane (the founder of Moneyball) and how he used statistics as General Manager of MLB side, Oakland Athletics, to take them into the playoffs and defy the odds as one of the poorest sides in Big League Baseball. It’s a fascinating story.
Since Moneyball’s increase in popularity, many MLB managers have attempted to replicate Beane’s success, and naturally, this approach has found its way into other sports. In football, most notably with Brentford.
The Bees’ recruitment is data-driven and looks into undervalued markets to get players on the cheap, with a big sell-on value. The parallels with City’s approach to transfers over recent years is obvious.
Both philosophies place priority on finding players, perhaps with an injury record, but generally just gambles, to save money with the hope that their value will increase and you’ll be able to make a profit.
Grant Hanley’s an example of this. He’d had a poor season with Newcastle, reducing his stock, so Norwich took a gamble and now he’s a regular Scotland international and club captain.
A main part of the book/movie’s plot is how Oakland Athletics lose starman, Jason Giambi, and replace him by analysing Giambi’s stats from the year before and ‘recreating him in the aggregate’.
This means signing a number of average players to do the same job as the star player before, but cheaper. An example of this in City’s case, is the departure of Emi Buendia.
In the 2020-21 season, Buendia racked up 32 goal contributions in the Championship. Then, following his summer departure for £34.5m, Stuart Webber decided it wasn’t viable to spend that money trying to replace Buendia, so he decided to recreate him in the aggregate, reducing the gamble and saving money.
City spent £19.8m on Christos Tzolis and Milot Rashica, who’d managed a combined 34 goal contributions the year before, in European top flights.
If the signings would have gone to plan, we’d have made £14.7m, and brought the firepower to better Buendia’s role in the side, and might’ve stayed up. That, of course, isn’t the way it worked out.
The fundamentals are clear though, and this ‘sabermetric’ view where stats are prioritised and every decision is made by a spreadsheet could be coming to Carrow Road, should Mark Attanasio and his fellow investors play a prominent role in Norwich City.
Interesting explanation for what some see as a scattergun approach to recruitment by SW. Theory was great; practice not so much.
I bought the book some years ago; you have saved me from having to read it!
Computer programmes provide information, people make decisions. Tis the latter that let us down, one person has left the second one remains, that’s the problem.
You could say that Spurs tried it sold Bale for £85m+ and then purchased 7 players to cover what he could do sadly not many made the grade and most left losing the club money.
In the world of stats a spreadsheet can be a great asset but you also need someone to watch the target preform in various conditions taking a 19yr old who isn’t use to playing on a wet cold December night and expecting him to do the same as he did on a warm night in his home country that the nights never drop below 10c just doesn’t work.
Scouting must play a big part in any stat driven recruitment I think it was Frank at Brentford said when they paid Peterborough £10m for a player that they had the stats but had to have eyes on every game to analyse his overall play and temperament, talk to people that knew him, played with him all the things video’s doesn’t tell you, then see if that fits your style of play and lastly will he fit into the group you already have.
MLB when you walk to the plate it’s you against the pitcher one on one not 11 v 11 as in Cricket 11 v 1/2
Jamie Lauder says
I completely agree. In theory, the transfers made were good ones, but perhaps a lack of common sense in some areas were their downfall.
Tim Ball says
This is the stark truth of football today Jamie unless you are taken over by the likes of Saudi Arabia or Dubai.
The truth is this extra investment which me and many others on here have called for does not come with a guarantee, as I have said to keep expectation down.
But and it is a big but, it gives us a chance to become a EPL club that can at least compete at that higher level for longer than one season, something I and many others do not think possible under our present owners/custodians.
It is early days but these people do come with good reputations and that counts for a lot.
I hope things progress as this does sound promising.
I wonder if there is investment or are they just buying MF’s shares – if so then all the money will go to him and not the club.
My biggest worry is who at the club would this gentleman trust spending any money he invests as so far none have proved that good
Jamie Lauder says
I must admit, I hadn’t thought about that. If Webber’s still at the club, and I imagine he will be, then will Attanasio be reluctant to invest?
I wouldn’t be surprised if he waits until City (hopefully) get promoted, and then start investing ahead of the following Premier League campaign.
Tim N says
The godfather of football stats has an article about him on the BBC today – https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/61648608 “Charles Reep: The military accountant who brought data analysis to English game”.
Jamie Lauder says
Wow! Thank you for sharing that, Tim. Really insightful look at football statistics in English football.
I lived in the Bay Area when Billy Beane was putting his theories in place and it made for some interesting decisions. Watch the movie and there is the key scene when the analyst is sitting at the table for the first time with Brad Pitt (BB) and is surrounded by a room full of stereotypical old school baseball guys and is a reflection of what has been in place in English football for decades -old school knows best. While it’s a great story and there are many valuable approaches that came out of the concept there are two issues that remain. First, it’s operating on the assumption that the player who has been identified is going to produce at the same level or higher, thereby making it a good decision. Second, someone has to make the final decision whether to commit or pass on a player. We’ve seen it happen this past year and the article comments to the fact that players performed at ‘x’ level two years ago and then didn’t the following year for Norwich. Frankly, there is a massive amount of this going on already but as we’ve seen, nothing is guaranteed. I think it also demonstrates just how different leagues are in other countries and possibly why someone like Lambert was successful trolling through the lower leagues and bringing in players as those players were more than familiar with the English game and given the number of players that have come in who have struggled to adapt but they were the ‘sexy’ signing -well, the train wreck is for all to see.