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.
Three months ago, we asked Alex Stewart to take over a club and guide it for five seasons with a strict adherence to the ideals of Moneyball. We had no idea that it would prove so popular. Because we were having so much fun, we asked him to do another five seasons too. But now the series must draw to a close, bowing out with applause ringing in its ears.
The Champions League! I still can’t get over it. Can I do a Cloughie (surely the role-model for every self-styled Moneyball gaffer) and win it twice in a row? The rebuilding begins in earnest, but before we start, there is a pause to celebrate the fact that Wellington wins the European Golden Shoe award for his sublime efforts. Unsurprisingly, he is also the Fans’ Player of the Year.
In other news, Dortmund rehire Klopp after two years as the German national coach and then two years at Arsenal; this seems plausible. Daniel Sturridge, who saw out his career at Southampton, retires from football aged 33. He’s no longer very good.
I have a budget of £53.6 million and an available wage budget of £898k per week. I sign 22 year old Matthias Zembrod, a 4 star potential right-back transfer-listed by Bayern, for £875k all in and £20k per week. He’s averaged only 6.88 over his career but was the cheapest available good option as cover for Abakarov; after a season with no back-up right-back, which necessitated playing Romagna there from time to time, I needed to take the plunge. This explains our biggest defensive weakness, goals conceded from passes on our right-wing, because for perhaps as much as a third of the season we had a right-back who was not a right-back.
I then sign 20 year old wonderkid Manuel Chavez, a Mexican centre-back with a 7.68 average, from Monterrey. He costs £9.25m all in and £42k per week in wages. I lastly sign Brian Fernandez, a 25 year old midfielder from Velez. He costs £9m and £70k per week in wages, but has great attributes and a 7.36 average in two seasons with the Argentine club. He can provide a challenge for Chalobah and Barkley as a central midfielder, and has the athleticism to play as a box-to-box and the vision and passing to be a playmaker.
We bid farewell to Tommy Kihlgren as his contract expires. He had become narked at a lack of first team opportunities and refused to negotiate. It’s a tough old world and dear Tommy didn’t cut the mustard, despite his potential. Alex Grimaldo joins Real Sociedad on loan but for 100% of his wages, so that’s a bonus. Andre Leonel leaves for Stuttgart for £8.5m rising to £10.5m. He was a free signing with a 6.85 average across 53 games in 3 seasons; in other words, he had the chance to establish himself but never quite made it, and the healthy profit is most welcome. Lenin Rengifo is sold to Juventus for an initial £12m rising to £16m: a career average of 6.90 and 19 goals in 50 games is reasonable, but he is very unhappy and Wellington is unbudgeable up front, so it seems like smart business. He only cost £325k as well – very Moneyball.
I also manage to sell Dominic French to Sheffield United for £1.2m which is something of a coup, given how rubbish he is. The sad fact is that his sale is a thorny reminder of how little we produce in the way of our own talent; despite significant and consistent investment in youth training and recruitment, not one Bristol City product has managed more than a handful of games (not counting those in the first team squad when I took over). It’s a real weakness, especially in terms of European competition quotas, but everything I have tried has failed. It’s the one area where I feel like we’ve made no forward strides, despite our extraordinary success in everything else.
Talking of success, Bristol City are the 6th ranked club in the world by reputation, behind only Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern, Real Madrid, and Manchester United. We also move up from 12th to 7th in the richest clubs’ rankings.
We open the season with the Community Shield against league winners Chelsea. I hand Chavez his debut and he is man-of-the-match in a 2-1 win, which delights me both for his performance and beating Chelsea. We then lose the European Super Cup 2-0 against Liverpool, but there is only a gap of 3 days between the fixtures and we are hardly match-fit. The Champions League group draw puts us with Roma, GNK Dinamo, and Benfica.
The season proper commences. We lose 5-3 at Manchester City to begin the campaign in less than convincing form, though Mitchell scores 2. Despite a 1-1 draw at Roma in the opening CL game, things do not start well otherwise. We have some bad results, including a 4-1 whipping away at Chelsea, but pull things together with a 6-1 victory over Fulham and 1-0 against Arsenal.
Tom Huddlestone becomes the manager of League 1 team Sheffield Wednesday, in what can only be described as a turn-up for the books. We beat Dinamo 4-1 at home in the Champions League. We then beat Spurs away 2-1 with a brace from Wellington. We crash out of the Capital One Cup 4-1 away at Fulham fielding a very weakened side as we have 4 fixtures in 10 days, which sucks.
We then lose 3-1 at home to Bournemouth, which is a terrible result. A 4-0 away win at Benfica guarantees second round qualification from the Champions League group with 2 games in hand, which is marvellous. A hat-trick from Wellington then gives us a superb 4-0 away win against Liverpool, but we seem stuck in 5thplace, 7 points off the top. We beat Roma 3-0 at home and Dinamo 3-1 away to confirm top spot in the group. We also beat Leicester 2-1 at home.
Sadly we then have to compete in the World Club Championship. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about. We beat Al-Ahli 3-0 with, you guessed it, a Wellington hat-trick and this sets up a Final meeting against Boca. Paciello scores 2 as we win 3-0 and are crowned World Club champions! We finish the first half of the season and the year 2023 with a 4-1 home win over Manchester United, which leaves us 4th in the table, seven points behind leaders Chelsea but with a game in hand due to the CWC.
Wellington is named Golden Ball Winner, which basically means he’s the best footballer on the planet. I watch his speech; he thanks me a lot. I am offered a new contract, until 2028, for £22k per week. I think that makes me a cheap date.
In the transfer window, I buy a few players, the first one being 20 year old Argentine ‘keeper Matias Moreno, from Boca. He costs £6.75m and £50k per week, is a 4.5 star prospect and averaged 7.08 for Boca. Having received a £21m offer for Camillo from Juventus, which is stupidly high, I shop around for a replacement, and sign 24 year old Italian Graziano Zausa for £13.75m and £100k per week from Lazio. He has a 7.58 average in Serie A and could oust Barkley from central midfield immediately. Camillo then turns the Italian giants down, but I am happy with Zausa’s signing anyway as it adds depth to the squad with the further stages of the Champions League on the horizon.
We beat Chelsea at home 2-1 with a dramatic late winner from Mitchell. We falter against Hull though, 1-1, and Derby, a 3-2 loss away, and Arsenal away 0-0. We beat Swansea 4-3 in the FA Cup 5th round, but things are looking a little shaky and for no reason that I can particularly discern. We then get a creditable 2-2 draw at the Bernabeu in the first knock-out round of the Champions League.
Domestic form remains up-and-down: a 3-2 win against Blackburn is followed by a 0-0 away at Derby and 2-1 defeat at home to Liverpool. We arrest the slide with a great 3-2 win away at Arsenal in the FA Cup 6th round, despite going down to 10 men after 20 mins. We draw 2-2 with Real at home and eventually go out on penalties. It’s gutting, but defending the Champions League is an almost impossible ask and we are unlucky to go out the way we do.
A 2-0 win at home to West Ham guarantees more Champions League football with 4 games to go, but we are ravaged with injury: Wellington, Wembangomo, Boga, and Zausa are all out. We draw 0-0 away at Southampton before the FA Cup Semi Final with Chelsea. I feel like the season is spiralling away from me. We lose 3-1 and Barkley is injured as well. Fuck Chelsea, and not for the first time.
And with a 1-0 loss at home to Hull, via a ridiculous penalty, I basically give up. Sometimes this game is a real kick in the nuts. We lose 2-0 away at Stoke, but then wrap up the season with a 2-0 win at Manchester United. We finish the season, bloodied and actually a bit bowed, in 4th place on goal difference, equal on points but 13 goals behind United in 3rd. Liverpool are 2nd one point ahead on 81, and Chelsea (who else?) win the league with 88 points.
Paciello wins the Young Players’ Player of the Year award for a season in which he scores 14, creates 15, and averages 7.32 in 38 Premier League games. Chavez and Abakarov both get into the Team of the Year as well. I win the Manager of the Year but it feels a bit hollow. Manchester United deny Chelsea the double by lifting the FA Cup, which is some consolation. Bayern beat Zenit in the Champions League final and, at long last, the season is at an end.
And, of course, not just the season. For this is the end of my series. Sad? Yes.
Tired? Pretty much. How did we do? Firstly, I think it’s worth looking at the rules again:
1. Net wage spend is more important than net transfer spend (pp. 14-21)
2. Don’t needlessly splash out on new players or sell old ones when you take over a club – the New Manager Syndrome (pp. 21-22)
3. Don’t buy players who looked Gucci at international tournaments: they’re likely over-valued and past performance is no indication of future performance, especially when they’re playing with a different team (pp.22-24) – there are different incentives and a different tactical set-up at tournaments, and it’s a super small sample size
4. Some nationalities are overrated, like Holland, Brazil, and England (pp.24-25)
5. Sell your players at the right time: when they’re around 30 years old, goalkeepers aside (p. 29)
6. Use the wisdom of crowds: ask all your scouts and a Director of Football if you have one (pp. 43-44)
7. Buy players in their early twenties, which avoids the problems with not developing properly, and means previous statistics have greater value (pp. 45-47)
8. Centre-forwards cost more than they should (p. 47)
9. Sell any player if a club offers more than they are worth and try to replace them before they are sold (pp. 48-49)
10. Don’t buy players if you don’t need to: develop a youth network and try to develop your own players (pp. 49-51)
Add to this the idea of identifying weaknesses and shoring up the defence over trying to score lots of goals, and you’ve got the basic template for my last ten years at Bristol City.
Firstly, was the decade a success? Well, obviously. The first two seasons yielded back to back promotions, and from season 3 onwards, there was a steady climb in the Premier League with the only backward step coming in the last season, from 2nd to 4th.
We went from a tiny club to the 6th best globally by reputation and 7th by wealth. As well as winning both League 1 and the Championship, I have won the Europa League, the European Super Cup, the Community Shield, the Capital One Cup, the Club World Championship and, the crowning glory, the Champions League. It’s an astonishing array of success and only the FA Cup and the Premier League have evaded me.
Want to know what my net spend for the decade is? £1.07 million. In ten whole years of escalating success, my net spend is a fraction over one million pounds. This has been achieved by following the rules. In the same period the most dominant team in England has been Chelsea. Their net spend over the decade is £463.45 million. I spent 0.2% of Chelsea’s net spend.
Manchester United had an even higher net spend, £541.16 million. In fact, it’s fair to say that no team consistently in the Premier League had a net spend anywhere near mine, and yet I was vastly more successful than most.
But did I keep to the rules? Well, yes. Perhaps the only overt naughtiness was the purchase of Wellington, both Brazilian AND a striker, and yet he handsomely rewarded us and was undervalued, even with those caveats, as shown by his current worth: £47m, over double what I paid for him.
Otherwise, all players were sold when large offers came in, which kept the squad fresh and allowed for purchases without going in deficit. Only Luke Freeman existed past his 30th birthday at the club after the first few years, meaning that players were generally bought young and sold at or just after peak. Most players declined after leaving Bristol City, as shown in the last post, and even those that didn’t generally made us a profit.
Certain players, like Wellington, Paciello, Barkley, Mucino, were expensive, but do not mistake expensive for over-valued. The key point is that those players all performed well, increased in value when bought, and held that or increased further. The only one of that quartet who was sold, Mucino, was also sold for a significant profit. Following a simple model of buying young, developing, lining up replacements early, and selling high (without holding onto players) is a clear and demonstrable winner. The buying of players after 20 meant that I missed out on one or two gems, but generally meant that few of my signings totally bombed. Indeed, most of the time when a signing didn’t work out, it was simply a reflection of the fact that they couldn’t dislodge a player already in the starting XI.
The two areas of real weakness were youth development and squad harmony. The problem with lining up replacement players is that there is an increased likelihood of some of those players being annoyed if they are not played, and that was something I had to battle constantly. Team meetings helped, but sometimes the rot set in and there was very little I could do.
Youth development was also a disappointment. Despite pouring money into it and getting excellent coaches in, Bristol City’s only decent youth product was Dominic French, who made a handful of first team appearances and was sold to a lower league side. I couldn’t have done a great deal more and I suppose it may be just issues with catchment areas or something, but it did mean that rule 10 was hard to keep to, or rather that despite trying to keep to it, there was no real yield. In other words, the rules are sensible and provably work.
Some squad irritation aside, at no point was my job ever threatened either. My approval from the board, even during the takeover, remained secure. All in all, by every significant measure, managing by Moneyball rules was an unqualified success.
Before I bid you farewell, I’d just add how much fun it’s been. Well, not wholly fun: at times it’s been gripping, infuriating, addictive, all-consuming, miserable, and Chelsea. Moneyball has given me a structure and a challenge, which assisted when the fury or frustration started to build to volcanic levels.
And now, alongside the team I support (Southampton), Bristol City will always have a place in my heart. So much so, I may sneakily continue this anyway…onwards to season 11!
Alex will be our book reviewer this summer (if someone would like to send us some books, this would help), but he will return for more Football Manager writing upon the release of Football Manager 2016