How best to run a football club? With big spending? With youth development? Making it up as you go along? Unless you have hundreds of millions of pounds, you’ll never have the chance to put your ideas into practice. But with Football Manager becoming more realistic and more immersive every year, perhaps the game could be used as the framework for a theoretical experiment. We asked Alex Stewart to take over a club and guide it for five seasons with a strict adherence to the ideals of Moneyball. Then we were having so much fun, we asked him to do another five seasons too.
We did it again! We’re in the Champions League and, to be honest, we’re getting a bit blasé about it all now. The players’ bags now contain sun cream and Rosetta Stone tapes and they are no strangers to the duty free shop. But if we’re to push on, we need to spend and we need to do it wisely. Cultural awareness and language tapes isn’t enough, sadly.
My kitty stands at just over £61 million and I have £285K a week to spend on wages. In assessing the squad’s weaknesses, I can see that the highest proportion of goals are conceded from the left-wing and towards the end of the game; work rate is still the biggest area of squad weakness and we are bottom of the EPL table for that attribute. I consider how my tactics might affect this as much as my players do: I tend to make my substitutions around the 60 minute mark and it’s quite possible that a combination of fatigue for the 8 starters remaining on the pitch and a lack of effort as the game peters out are the two biggest contributing factors.
I therefore want to look at a few defenders, players with high work rate and athletic ability, and players with good concentration. I also think that, with Champions League football again a feature of the upcoming season and a 3rd place EPL finish to build on, I can for the first time look to make one or two signings (as long as they remain within the rules of Moneyball) which can elevate my team to the next level, players with real quality, consistent performers, marquee signings, if you will. Less Redknapp, more Mourinho. But, they have to be suitable under my rules; there will be no buying for buying’s sake, even this far down the line.
I snap up AZ Alkmar’s ‘wonderkid’ Camillo for his minimum fee release clause figure of £10.5 million and £55k per week. He has a career average of 7.25 and an Eredivisie average of 7.37. At 20 he is on the cusp of making it very big indeed and, as a Colombian, he can be considered undervalued, even with his sizeable fee. He has 18 international caps too, so he passes his WP application with flying colours and should slot neatly into midfield. I have been toying with the idea of playing Chalobah at centre-back anyway as he played there reasonably well towards the end of the previous season, or I could push Barkley into his more natural attacking midfield role and have Camillo alongside the athletic former Chelsea youth player: decisions, decisions.
We sign 24 year old Guido Vadala from Boca. FM players who scour the wonderkid lists will be familiar with Vadala as one of the great prospects at the beginning of FM15. Well, in my save he stayed at Boca and we get him for £5.5m all in, and £55k per week. He has averaged 7.44 over three top-flight seasons with Boca and is a steal at the price.
Claudio Grassi also joins from Boca. He is a 23 year old ‘towering centre-back’, rated at 4 stars already with the potential to improve, and again cheap at £4.7m and £40k per week in wages with a 7.65 average in his most recent season for the Argentine champions.
We sign 4.5 star French centre-back prospect Stephane Berger for £700k and £6.75k per week from PSG – he’s averaged 7.69 for their reserves and is content to mature and develop, as shown by his willingness to accept a Hot Prospect squad status.
Argentine goalkeeper Luciano Bacolla joins from Newell’s with a 7.69 average at 22 years of age, bringing a 5 star current ability rating, for a mere £10.5 million all in and £58k per week. He will be my first choice keeper after a drastic decline in Dave Parnaby’s opinion of Stoyanov and the less than awesome performances of both the young Bulgarian and Mattia Perin.
Lastly I sign Islam Abakarov, a Russian wonderkid right-back, for £23.5 million and £71k in wages. It’s a massive transfer, but he has averaged 7.10 playing for five seasons in the Russian Premier League, despite being only 20 years old, and is the answer to my right-back issues. He is the sort of signing that can really create a step-up in class in a team, along with Vadala, Bacolla, and Grassi. That’s me done, then.
Arsenal bid almost £15m for £9m rated Coric, but his agent scuppers the deal by asking for too much of a fee, which is most annoying: with a 6.83 average and Vadala on the books, I’d be delighted to ship him out for that much profit.
I do sell Sanogo to Blackburn for £2.5m and shift £35k in wages off the books (he needs me to pay £15k of his £50k per week until the end of his contract, a year away, but I don’t mind that as it’s still a hefty chunk off). A free signing, he scored 17 goals in 45 EPL appearances but has not been near the first team since then end of the 2018/19 season, so it’s quite a relief to be rid of him (in the nicest possible way).
I shift Salifu to West Ham for £3m and swipe £42.5k per week off the wage bill: he was immense in our second EPL season but, again, has not featured for two years and is now 28. He was bought for £825k and was a genuine Moneyball success. Pau Lopez, a cover signing who performed well when called upon, is sold for £2.3 million, just above his asking price, to Wolves, which also sheds £20k per week of wages.
Then comes classic Moneyball heartbreak. Mucino, who scored 21 goals in 33 EPL appearances and averaged 7.26 is torn from my grasp by Manchester United for £28 million (his minimum fee release clause). I only paid £10.5 million for him, so I can be very satisfied from a business perspective, but it is hard to see such a talented young player leave. It’s a new record for fees received, breaking the £25 million I got for James Wilson, and means that in just over two seasons I turned £12.5 million of fees into £53 million from two players alone.
It gets even worse when Ntcham is signed by Wolfsburg: I cannot turn down their £22m offer for a player I signed for just one tenth of that; I will, however, miss his 7.36 average last season. Of course, it being Moneyball, I have Boga there to play out wide instead.
Manchester United then offer £7.7m for Yedlin, which I happily take, now having Abakarov on my roster and given that he’s worth £6m. He departs leaving a defence that has improved enormously in the window.
A few high earners depart on free transfers as well: Lerin Duarte, who averaged just over 6.80 for us over 3 seasons; Nathan Ake, who was less of a success than I had hoped (a good lesson in not picking up a player who is strong in a position you don’t require, in this case a DM, and not giving him the time to adjust to another position; he played a decent number of games for us but there was always a specialist who could do what he could do, but better); and Christian Walton, picked up for nothing when we needed goalkeeping cover but who never played a game for us. This further reduces the club’s wage spending.
We move up 20 places in the European club rankings to 31st, which is quite astonishing when you think about it – bigger than Wolfsburg, A.C. Milan, and Feyenoord.
We open our league account with a 3-0 win away against Norwich, with Grassi outstanding. We follow that up with the same margin of victory at home over Newcastle, with Barkley scoring two. The Champions League groups are drawn and we get Juventus, Real Madrid, and Basel, which seems cruel even by European cup competition standards. We also get Manchester City away in the Capital One Cup third round; we seem to get City in every cup every year and, to be honest, it’s getting a bit bloody tedious.
Fulham sneak in with a £5.5m bid for Perin just as the window is about to close, which I happily accept as he has been irritable for about the last two seasons and I’m paying him £49k per week to warm the bench. Perin signs so rapidly we don’t see him for dust. We then go to Leicester and beat them 3-0, our third 3-0 victory in a row. We beat Basel 3-1 at home but finally lose in the Premier League, with Bacolla finally conceding, away at Southampton by a 1-0 score-line. That is followed by a 4-1 loss away at Man City in the Capital One Cup and a ridiculous 2-1 loss at home to Manchester United, where they receive an absurd penalty in the 93rd minute to win.
We then arrest the slide with a magnificent 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu, with Vadala scoring a sublime individual goal and conceding only via another penalty. We lose 2-0 away at Liverpool, though injuries to Coric, Vadala, and Boga have hampered our efforts enormously. We do manage to thump Fulham 6-2 at home to get the smiles going again.
Qualification from our Champions League group is achieved, remarkably, with a game in hand, as we beat Juventus 2-0 at home and Basel 3-1 away. We then beat Real Madrid 5-3 at the Gate, with Rengifo scoring a hat-trick. Mucino who? A run of poor domestic form ends with a 4-1 win against Arsenal at home and a 2-0 victory over Norwich. As the transfer window opens, we sit in 4th place, 7 points behind 3rd place Man City, but with a phenomenal group stage in the Champions League behind us.
January can be a waste of time and money, or it can be a chance to plug gaps in the team and find players who’ve slipped out of favour and thus become undervalued. We sign 24 year old defender Filippo Romagna from Juventus for a whopping £20 million and £85k per week, though there is plenty of room in the budget. Romagna has been averaging 7.36 in Serie A and is valued at £18.5 million when we approach Juve for him (so we are not overpaying by enough to make it an issue; part of the fee includes his signing on fee, not part of Juve’s valuation of the player), though he is Champions League cup-tied, which is annoying.
We also sign Djamel Mahsas, a 21 year old French attacking midfielder who has averaged 7.17 in Ligue 1 for Sochaux; he costs £3 million and £58k per week in wages, but is rated a 4.5 star prospect. We sell Coric for £8.5 million, ridding us of £79k per week in wages as well, to Juventus. Coric was bought for £2.9 million but only averaged 6.71 and isn’t in the side due to the great form of Vadala. We also get rid of Magnusson and his £36k per week for £2.8 million to Wolves. He’s sixth choice centre-back, but again was a classic Moneyball signing, snapped up from Avellino for £1.8 million on the back of a 7.07 season in Serie B who then averaged 6.92 for us over 117 games in the Premier League. It’s worth noting that my transfer comings and goings have shaved over £400k off the weekly wage bill, which makes the board smile broadly.
My FA Cup third round tussle with Brentford is my 400th game in management and ends in a 2-0 win away. My win ration is 56%, so put that in your pipe, Timothy.
Arsenal sack Klopp and we lose to Newcastle 2-1 away; it’s a bad week for hipsters everywhere. Arsenal, naturally, offer me an interview, but I decline. We go out of the 5th round of the FA Cup away at Chelsea 2-1, but our European adventure continues. We get a superb 1-1 draw away at Atleti and then draw 1-1 at home too, before finally going through against a more fancied opposition via a penalty shoot-out; Stoyanov saves two, all the more remarkably because he is only playing due to a long-term injury to Bacolla. In between those two games, we beat Fulham 2-0 away, Spurs 3-0 at home, and draw with Palace 0-0 away to keep us in 4th place.
Our reward for winning a place in the Champions Quarters is a frightening match-up with Bayern Munich. But guess what? We win. A 2-2 draw in Germany gives us a sizeable advantage and we manage to beat the German champions and favourites 1-0 at the fortress that is Ashton Gate. We are through to the Semi Finals of the Champions League!
We beat Brentford and Stoke in the Premier League and find that our Semi Final opponents will be Arsenal, arguably a better draw than Barcelona and Roma. We then beat Hull 1-0 at home, Mahsas scoring his second of the season. We beat Arsenal 2-0 in the first leg of the Semi Final at Ashton Gate. Man City are beaten 2-1 at home and then we go to the Emirates for the second leg of the Semis. In a bonkers game, we win 5-4, Kihlgren scoring 2. We are in the Final of the Champions fucking League!
Sorry for the swears, but seriously.
On the way to the final, Bristol City have beaten Real Madrid, Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Arsenal! That’s Bristol City. It’s incredible. Claudio Grassi has the second most interceptions in the Champions League, showing what a great signing he has been for us. I win the Premier League manager of the month, Mahsas wins player of the month and Abakarov wins his third young player of the month award. Things are very sunny in the south-west.
With a 3-1 win away at Goodison Park we secure 4th place in the Premier League, guaranteeing Champions League football for a third successive season. Arsene would be envious, if he were still in the game.
We end the season with a 2-1 win at home over Chelsea, finishing on 74 points with a goal difference of 30; that’s 10 points below Manchester City in 3rd, but 12 points above 5th placed Liverpool. Manchester United win the title and Eden Hazard is the Premier League Player of the Year. Bacolla, my £7.5 million signing now valued at £13.75m, wins the Golden Glove award. As the season simmers towards its end, I am linked with a plethora of clubs, including the vacant Juventus, PSG, and Atleti jobs.
The Champions League Final is in Paris. We take the game to Barcelona, but go behind to a goal from Bartra, before Mitchell equalises. We take the game to extra time before Luis Suarez steers in a free-kick. We keep fighting and throw everything at Barca, but lose 2-1. It’s gutting, but to be Champions League finalists is an astonishing achievement and we can be justly proud of our run and accepting of the result.
Our Premier League position carries an £18.59m purse as well, taking our prize money for the season to £45m, which includes £25m for the Champions League run. The club are once again in a very healthy position. Overall, we make a profit of £144 million.
Net transfer spend is MINUS £11 million: that’s a Champions League final, a 3rd consecutive year of qualification, and all done recouping more money than we spent. Further to that, it means that my net spend over 8 whole seasons is actually minus £17.5 million. How is this achieved? Moneyball.
Three strikers are a perfect example: James Wilson, Luis Miguel Mucino, and Lenin Rengifo were bought for a combined £12.83 million; Wilson and Mucino were sold for a combined £53 million having played 75 Premier League games and scored 45 PL goals between them; and Rengifo remains, having scored 21 PL goals in 53 games, with his value increasing to £6 million. Two were secured young having performed well, sold at hugely increased value having given at least one solid season to Bristol City, and replaced by a player who then performed at a similar level; one is still at the club and improving. That, in essence, is Moneyball.
It’s worth noting that the Bristol City Premier League era, such as it is, began in the 2016/17 season. From that season to this, 6 seasons later, Manchester United and Chelsea have shared the title, winning it three times each. Man United’s net spend for this series of triumphs in that time period is a staggering £338.65 million. Chelsea’s net spend is £221.4 million. Mine, in the same period? Minus £15.1 million.
Now no, I haven’t won the title. But I have finished (after 12th in my first season) in European qualifying places for the subsequent five seasons, winning the Europa League, the European Super Cup, and reaching the Champions League final, having spent (net) £353.75 million less than Manchester United. If that’s not a serious endorsement of Moneyball, I’m not sure what is.
My signings did well, too. January marquee signing Romagna averaged 7.29. The other January signing, Mahsas, averaged 7.22, scoring 6 goals. Grassi averaged 7.11, Abakarov 7.10, and Bacolla 6.94. Vadala was a slight disappointment, averaging 6.88, but missed games due to injury and, towards the end of the season, the superb form of Mahsas. Camillo only averaged 6.70, but at 20, he is growing into the team and had some issues settling in England as well. Jeremie Boga, a free signing in 2019/20 and now a capped French international worth £13 million, averaged 7.28, scoring 15 goals. Demetri Mitchell, another free signing from the same season and now a capped England international worth £16.25 million, averaged 7.26, scoring 22 goals from the left-wing. The value of finding under-valued players who are thoroughly scouted is shown quite clearly, and the business model of Moneyball similarly vindicated.
This season, I decided a certain change, looking at players beyond my usual free transfer and transfer-listed groups, feeling that in order to push us to the next level, I needed to compete more. That didn’t require a compromise of Moneyball values, and I don’t feel that I overpaid for anyone, not least because every player I bought has increased in value. It shows that Moneyball can evolve to match changing ambitions.
So what now? I want to win the title or the Champions League. It’s possible. It’s beyond our reach right now, but the window is opening soon, my notebook is full of names and stats, and I’m getting twitchy. Bristol City are aiming high, but with our feet firmly on the ground.
Find out how Season Nine went here.
You can follow Alex Stewart on Twitter (@AFHStewart)