Football Manager Meets Moneyball (Pt 4)

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.

In Part One, Alex took over impoverished Bristol City and promptly set about laying waste to League One. A combination of shrewd backroom appointments and a devastatingly effective 5-3-2 formation saw the Robins cruise to the title and secure promotion to the Championship.

In Part Two, Bristol City were promoted again, albeit after a far tougher battle for supremacy. The Premier League awaits. But surely he can’t be so successful again? It’s Moneyball. It’s not magic. Right?

In Part Three, Bristol City overcame relegation fears with a second half of the season resurgence, thanks to club record January signing Nolan Roux. With vital experience in the top flight gained, will they be able to push on for next season? 

Now it’s time for Part Four:

We survived! Of course, if you’ve read the first three pieces of this series you’ll both know that and know how I have achieved it. And survival is crucial, because Premier League survival guarantees money. TV rights alone amount to just shy of £60 million and so, once again, the financial health of the club is as rosy as a little red robin’s breast. This bonanza allows Bristol City to climb from 80th to 42nd in the world’s richest clubs list, which is topped by PSG. In a slip that shows the cost of relegation, Swansea fall from 30th to 72nd.

But time waits for no man, and so I start scrabbling around, preparing for the forthcoming campaign. Once again, the board feels that my best hope is to avoid relegation and I accept that, as do the players; better to play without pressure, and the additional money from raised expectations isn’t really necessary for the way I’m approaching this game.

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Once again, as I thumb through the grubby pocket-book in which I keep my notes to find the players I need, I assess my weaknesses. In my first season in the Premier League, it was again the right-hand side of defence. Almost 40% of goals conceded came down Marco Sangalli’s flank. In terms of the squad’s statistical make-up, work-rate is, oddly, a weakness, which is something to bear in mind too.

My focus must again be defence, midfield, and in attack. Yes, that was a little joke, but the point is clear. It was only really the end-of-season surge that kept the mighty Bristol City in the promised land, and so while I need first and foremost to strengthen my right wing-back slot, I also need to find players capable of stepping up to EPL level without costing the earth and while keeping to my rules, as enumerated in Part 1 of this masochistic enterprise.

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Pre-season begins with job offers from Stoke and West Brom. Thanks, but no thanks. I go on a signing splurge, all players scouted and either listed for transfer or available as a free signing. I am given £7.88 million and £570k per week wages, leaving some £70k spare for new players. To keep it short, here’s a list:

Pablo Insua for £4.2 million and £33.5k per week – averaged 7.44 for Castilla; a 23 year old centre-back, who is transfer listed. DeAndre Yedlin for £1.4 million and £28k per week – averaged 7.53 for the Seattle Sounders and only played 3 games for Spurs before being listed; 23 year old wing-back. Harrison Reed for £190k and £18k per week – a 22 year old attacking midfielder and 4 star prospect, transfer listed by Southampton. Darwin Machis for £130k and £10.25k per week – a 7.24 averaging striker for Granada B, rated at 4.5 stars, listed.

Yaya Sanogo on a free, for £26.5k per week – 24 years old and a 4.5 star prospect, released by Arsenal. Lerin Duarte on a free for £34k per week – 26 year old playmaker, released by Ajax after averaging 7.22 for them. Lasse Vigen on a free for £13.5k per week – averaged 6.92 for Fulham before being released and a 22 year old playmaker rated as a 4 star prospect. I also add to my backroom staff, signing scouts Jordi Gonzalez Punetes for £18.4k and £1k per week, Claus Lundekvam for £20.9k and £1.1k per week, and David Hamilton for £22.4k and £1.2k per week.

I finally get to sell some players, as well! Though Mateusz Taudul, subject to £60k bids from Burnley and Bournemouth, rejects both offers, Wolves steam in to buy Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, who is on £23.5k per week. He is subject to a £7.9 million bid and, because he’s valued at £6.75 million, I grudgingly (because of the rule stating that players must be sold if bids exceed their value) accept it. Marco Sangalli, who I bought for £235k, is also sold to Getafe for £1.2 million, a healthy profit and no loss due to his part in the area of weakness for my side and his replacement by DeAndre Yedlin.

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I then get more job offers, this time from Spain, Holland, and, less glamorously, Switzerland. And even less glamorously than that, Aston Villa. Who says success doesn’t bring you recognition? Of course, my focus is on Bristol City and as the season begins, it really does need to be. The first four games bring a solitary win, at home to Wolves, but losses away at Spurs (3-2), Chelsea (4-0), and West Ham (3-1). Things do improve, as we notch up impressive wins at home to Nottingham Forest, West Brom, and Aston Villa. Away from home, though, we are a disaster, on the end of proper shellackings at Arsenal (6-2), Manchester United (5-0), and even bloody Reading (3-0). At home, I start playing 4-4-2 more regularly to try to score more goals.

We manage to beat Leicester 6-1 at home, but there are too many low-scoring draws as well, so we finish the first half of the season in a boring and vaguely twitch-inducing 15th; the whole league is very, very close. I get a bit of a cash injection for the January window of £4 million and make what I think is my most important signing so far: Mattia Perin (4.5 star rated goalkeeper who is still only 25 and averaged 6.92 in the first half of the season for Genoa, which is good for a keeper) for £3.1 million and £25k per week. He is a real star and can be the base upon which I build the future Bristol City.

I also pick up Konrad Nalepa (scored 13 in 28 for Elfsborg and rated as a potential 5 star player) for £600k and £13.25k per week, and, wonderfully, transfer-listed Manchester United striker James Wilson (5 star rated striker average of 6.87 in his only full season) for £2.9 million and £36k per week (which is high in wages, but due to the fact that Aston Villa are also bidding for him). He is less a signing predicated on stats showing achievement, than on the fact that his attributes are very high and he has the potential to be a leading EPL striker; to find him available so cheaply is not an opportunity to pass up in good conscience.

While strikers are considered over-valued in my rules, that doesn’t mean you should never sign them; you just have to be very, very savvy. And I have been: along with the signing of Sanogo, I now have four strikers currently valued by the game at a total of just under £29 million, purchased or signed for just over £6 million (including Henriquez, who is on loan requiring a work permit). With Perin in the (onion) bag, I accept a bid for ‘keeper Frederik Ronnow of £1.8 million from Everton. He is valued at £1.2 million and his rating has declined to two and half stars. I also sell Aden Flint to Sheffield Wednesday for £100k and offload Karleigh Osborne for £160k. Neither is of sufficient quality for the Premier League, and Flint basically hates me for never playing him anyway.

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The second half of the season begins auspiciously. We beat Chelsea 1-0 at home and then, after losing 4-0 away at Norwich, we go on a five game unbeaten run, including a great win against the eventual champions: after a ridiculous red card for Duarte (rescinded on appeal) after 25 mins, we beat Manchester United 2-1, with a goal from Freeman and an absolute peach from Sanogo. There’s nothing quite like sending Van Gaal scuttling back north with his tail between his legs.

February brings the offer of the West Ham job after Carlos Queiroz is dumped for a poor set of results. United pay us back with a 5-0 loss away, again showing that on the road, there is something of the Q.P.R. about us, but momentum builds again and, in the last thirteen games of the season, we lose only twice, away at Liverpool (4-1) and Stoke (3-1). Bloody Chelsea also finally knock us out of the FA Cup in the semi finals, 2-1 after extra time.

We finish the season with a run of three wonderful wins, beating Leicester, who are one place below us 2-1 away, whipping Manchester City 5-0 at home, and hammering the final nail into Everton manager Ronny Delia’s metaphorical coffin with a 3-1 away win; he is sacked the next day.

We end our second season in the Premier League in 7th place with 59 points, only 4 points shy of European qualification. Luke Freeman is named in the EPL Players’ Team of the Season and, rather randomly, Andrea Romano wins Premier League Goal of the Season for a long-range effort against Leicester at home in December; it’s so good, I genuinely cannot remember it.

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Staggeringly, as Chelsea win the FA Cup as well as finishing in the top four, and Manchester United are runners-up and win the Premier League, Bristol City QUALIFY FOR EUROPE! Our seventh place finish is enough to bag a Europa League place. We have done it: from League 1 to Europa League in four seaons! I am giddy with joy. So that’s what happened, but did Moneyball contribute to it? Well, my signings can be divided into three groups: the unqualified successes; the fair-to- middlings; and the why-did-we-bothers? Yaya Sanogo is superb, signed on a free and now worth £9.25 million. He scores 13 goals in 30 games, averaging 6.98, which is not bad at all given that he cost nothing and ameliorated an area of genuine weakness: goal scoring.

James Wilson scores 7 and gets 5 assists in 18 games, averaging 6.94; his value increases from the £2 million I paid for him to £6 million. Ajax-released Lerin Duarte, signed on a free, averages 6.99 in 29 games, providing 5 assists in a Roaming Playmaker role. He is now valued at £5.75 million. Pablo Insua is now worth £4.7 million, so more or less the same, and averages 6.89 in 33 games. He has been a rock at the back, along with Magnusson. Mattia Perin keeps 6 clean sheets in the second half of the season, almost doubling in value from the £2.5 million I paid for him, replacing Ronnow and averaging 6.87, which for a keeper is, again, pretty good.

In the so-so column, DeAndre Yedlin, who suffered some injury problems, still notches up 6.83 as an average, scoring 2 and getting 4 assists, in 26 games and doubling in value. Lasse Vigen plays 27 games, assisting 4 times and averages 6.82, which is tolerable. Lastly, the less said about Machis and Reed the better, though Reed does get some important goals in the FA Cup run. He is prospect though, so I am not too worried, and Machis cost chicken feed. Konrad Nelapa is injured for most of the season and is now grouching about how little he played, but he too is a 5 star prospect, so I will keep him on-side and he should come good in the future.

Importantly, last season’s big signings all play superbly. Amidu Salifu is exceptional, averaging 7.19 and picking up 4 man-of-the-match awards in 34 games; he would have played more but he kept picking up suspensions for yellow cards! Roux scores 10 in 36, getting 7 assists and averaging 7.01. Magnusson doubles in value and his average rating improves from 6.80 last season to 6.86; he is now my captain as well. Ylli Sallahi also improves, from 6.86 to 6.91, increasing from the £575k I paid to £3.8 million.

Luke Freeman is, once again, my best player, by the way: he averages 7.23 in 32 EPL games, scoring 8 and getting 11 assists, despite playing both as an attacking midfielder and a left midfielder, depending on formation. The comparative picture looks rosy as well. My net spend this season is £2 million, taking my net spend over four years to £13.6 million. The relegated teams have the following net spends: West Brom’s is £5.25 million and West Ham’s £7.8 million; though it should be noted that Aston Villa’s is an impressive £0 million.

Manchester City, who finish in the place above me, have a net spend this season of £78.25 million (and an overall net spend of £212.7 million over the four seasons of this save!), almost 40 times what I spent and recouped over the course of the season. Norwich, who finish in 8th place (one below me) have a net spend over four seasons of £33.04 million and of £9.65 million this season alone.

It is therefore undeniably the case that I am getting enormous value for money in terms of my transfer spend by picking up players who are listed for transfer or available on a free. This is the essence of Moneyball: the ‘market’, that is to say other clubs, have not valued these players, which is why the are available as listed or having been released; I pick them up for less than they are actually worth and do something awesome with them, rather than buying over-priced players. The only player I have bought who was not transfer listed is the unfortunately named Nadir Minotti, and he has held his £2 million valuation, despite not playing a great deal.

My performance shows very clearly that by taking my approach, you can achieve comparable results with clubs who spend as much as 40 times more than I have. Put bluntly, I am getting more bang for my buck, my signings generally show a year-on-year improvement, and the importance I place on back room staff and training has developed players who were already at the club to the point where I can either sell them, as they cease to be good enough for the team or, in the case of Freeman and Ayling, carry them with me up the leagues.

And so we begin the fifth season of this experiment in the Premier League once more. Can we smash the glass ceiling of European competition? Above us, Manchester United, Tottenham. Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester City await, the power-houses of English football, the cash-flush teams with big name signings and big bulge wallets. Can lowly Bristol City break into their serried ranks? Let’s find out…

And you can find out, simply by clicking here.

And part six is over here, and here are parts seven and eight.

You can follow Alex Stewart on Twitter (@AFHStewart)

Have you ever enjoyed this sort of success on Football Manager? Or are you more of a Jet Set Willy sort of person? Let us know. Write to us at [email protected]. We’ll print pretty much anything.


Football Manager Meets Moneyball (Pt 4)
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