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?
In Part Four, Bristol City did more than just consolidate. The Robins finished seventh and qualified for the Europa League. It’s all going a little too well. Surely this can’t continue?
Thursday nights on BT Sport! Or some sort of dodgy stream if you don’t have them! Bristol City have arrived in the bit beyond the Promised Land. The Promised Land is the EPL, but behind it, there’s this even lovelier bit where you get to go to Zagreb and Bratislava and Tromso, called the Europa League. I’m made up, honestly. To be serious for a moment, this could be a big deal financially but, as managers up and down the country called Roberto will tell you, it can place extraordinary demands on a squad, especially one like mine that has very few home-grown players who are not totally awful.
With that absence of decent youth product in mind, I begin Season 5 with a back-room shake-up. I hire new youth coaches as, with the completion of improvements to the facilities, I can now add a few: Mario Yepes, the bearded Colombian warrior, comes in for £1.9k per week, Ian Bennett, an excellent GK coach, for £48k in compensation to Huddersfield and £1.9k per week, Andrea Anselmi from Chievo for £43k and £2.4k in wages and Ethan Hawes for £800 per week.
I also ask for and receive a better youth recruitment network. And we can afford it. The finances show that profits amounted to £20 million and so we owe the tax man £4.3 million; this profit is almost exclusively from the increase in TV rights and competition prize money, which totals £92.79 million for the season. A small aside, because it only raised £1.4 million, but merchandise sales benefitted from my signing policy too, as four of the five top selling shirts were players I brought into the club. 10% of our merchandise revenue was generated abroad; I assume there is a little hipster enclave of Robins fans in New York or something.
Bristol City rose from 40th to 37th in the rich list. It’s worth thinking about that – growing the club from almost nothing to Premier League status with no debt at all means I am now richer than teams like Marseille, Zenit, and Feyenoord. The key is to avoid debt and keep spending low while achieving consistent performance and improvement: Moneyball, in other words.
Stoke offer me their manager’s job again. This is the second, possibly even third time I have said no.
The transfer window opens. I tell the board I can achieve a mid-table finish this season, and they entrust me with £10.4 million as a war-chest and inflate the wage budget to the point where I have a whopping £200k per week to spend in wages too.
It’s time to buy. My weaknesses: Again, it’s out wide, this time down the left wing (37% of goals conceded). We have the 5th best squad in the Premier League for pace, which is excellent, but the second to worst for height, which is worth considering when working out how much emphasis to place on set-pieces and wing play. Encouragingly, the average age of the squad is 25: pure Moneyball.
The answer to my left-wing prayers is answered when Barcelona list Alex Grimaldo, a 22 year old wing-back with 4.5 star potential who averaged 7.71 for Barca’s B team, and I pick him up for £925k and £14k per week in wages. I find that star prospect Nathan, out of favour at PSG but who averaged 7.18 for their reserves, is listed for peanuts given his potential. I secure the former Atletico Paranaense man for £2.6 million and £15k per week. He is my replacement for Luke Freeman, should anyone come in for him, a gifted playmaker to build a team around.
To add creativity deeper in the midfield and provide more competition for Duarte, I sign 23 year old Mario Pasalic, listed by Chelsea, for £3.5 million and £18.75k per week. He is an ideal remaining playmaker and averaged 6.97 on loan at Rijeka. I also sign left-sided centre-back Gaston Silva for £3.5 million; he is listed by Torino, despite his 4 star ability, and costs £20k per week in wages.
Again, free transfers form the bulk of my activity. Nathan Ake, who can play at centre-back or as a defensive midfielder, is snaffled from Chelsea as an out of contract signing on £20k per week. He averaged 6.65 at Barnsley but I can make him better. Out of contract defender George Fowler, 20 years old and with a 5 star potential, is signed for £2.5k per week.. Lewis Cook, a superb ex-Leeds midfielder, is signed from Southampton for a £1.4 million compensation fee and £30k per week in wages. At 21, he is one for the future but is also easily good enough to make an impact this season, as his 6.86 for Saints in the EPL shows.
Mindful of only having two ‘keepers, I sign Christian Walton on a free after he is released by Brighton; he is a measly £3.9k per week and a 4 star potential player. I poach Franco Lujan, an Argentine regen midfielder who is 21 and has a 5 star potential, from Ajax, though I loan him out to ADO Den Haag as I cannot secure a work permit for him. They pay his £13k per week wages too. Brazilian u-20 international Andre Leonel, a robust regista-type of player, is signed on a free and £7.5k per week; he gets a work permit due to his international status and can provide competition for Salifu as well as being, at 20 years of age, one for the future. His value immediately shoots up to £2 million.
I sell Joe Bryan to Middlesborough for £202k. He is simply not up to scratch for the EPL. In a surprise move, both Arsenal and Chelsea bid £700k for £525k- valued ‘keeper Frank Fielding: he is also on a £15.25k per week contract for another two years and so I bite their hands off, especially as he won’t get a game unless Perin suffers an injury and he’s beginning to get grumpy about that. He chooses Chelsea and we wave him farewell. That’s Chelsea, with £33 million Thibaut Courtois in goal for them: I guess bench warming for an extra £2k a week must be worth it.
I do now need a reserve ‘keeper though, and so I cast my net wide, looking especially at transfer-listed players and those whose contract is due to expire. Stade Rennais make a peak unMoneyball bid of £6 million for 30 year old striker Nolan Roux, disobeying almost every rule going, but he doesn’t accept their wage offer. Stoke also bid £5 million for Sallahi, but he too turns them down. The thing to note is that if these players did move, I have ready-made replacements for them both.
In order to get a better handle on my squad, I decide to offer a mutual termination to my assistant manager John Pemberton, whose ratings for judging player ability and potential are 13 and 13; there seems to be quite a lot of variation in what he thinks and he’s not the best guide to who is operating at the right level. I prise Dave Parnaby away from Middlesbrough for nothing as he has a higher league club clause, and £4k per week in wages, £2.5k less than I paid Pemberton; Parnaby is also a superb defensive coach, which is an added benefit.
The squad is also pruned a bit. Marlon Pack, Derrick Williams, Mateusz Taudal, Simone Corazza, and some other chaps you won’t have heard of are all released at the end their contracts, having done nothing to merit renewal. Let us not forget, though, the importance of Corazza in the Championship promotion season: 28 goals in 42 games for a £400k transfer fee. Still, this is not a sentimental business and he has not cut the mustard since that season.
I draw Granada in the Europa League playoffs, first leg at home. We open our Premier League with an unusually positive start, walloping Fulham 4-0 at home, Pasalic turning in an 8.90 game and Wilson scoring two in a MoM performance. Granada turn us over 2-1 at home, with injuries to Nathan and Nathan Ake disrupting an otherwise dominant performance; once again, woeful finishing is our problem. We beat Southampton 2-0 away, but succumb to Granada 1-0 in Spain for a 3-1 aggregate loss. So much for Thursday nights, though it’s not a surprise given how strong Granada are and, as the saying goes, it allows us to focus our energies elsewhere.
The English transfer window closes, but Cagliari swoop in for out-of-favour Nadir Minotti and buy him for £2.1 million and AlbinoLeffe buy last season’s goal of the season winner Andrea Romano for £550k; these transfers will go through in January. Ignoring wages, I make £350k profit from the two sales too, which is nice.
New signing Nalepa wins young player of the month for September, scoring 2 in 5 as we go on six match unbeaten run, climbing to third in the table. That run is extended with a superb 2-1 victory at home over Manchester United. We finally lose our unbeaten run away at Liverpool after Sanogo misses a penalty and Balotelli scores a blistering thunderbastard. We bounce back with a 4-2 victory over Spurs and their under-pressure manager Mauricio Pochettino. We continue to do well at home, but lose away at Arsenal 2-1 and Manchester City 3- 0. Nonetheless, at the halfway point, the mighty Bristol City sit in 4th place!
In the January window, I sign 20 year old Swedish regen Tommy Kihlgren, a big strong Yaya Sanogo type, for £2.7 million and £14k per week. He has averaged 7.49 for IFK Goteburg and has Champions League experience. I also sign 22 year old right midfielder Olivier Ntcham for £2.6 million and a rather exorbitant£38.5k per week (though remember, wages equate more to success than transfer spending). He averaged 7.09 in a loan spell in Ligue 1 and is a 4 star prospect who can provide cover for Yedlin, who has been playing right midfield. Walton picks up a long term injury and so I sign Pau Lopez from Espanyol for £2.4million and £20k per week in wages. He’s the most cost effective keeper I can get at short notice, which irks me. He’s 24 and averaged 6.91 in La Liga, so it’s ok. Oh and I sell Coulthirst, who never did quite turn out to be the new Michael Owen, to Sheffield United for £325k.
Our league form stutters but a 5-2 aggregate win over Everton sees us reach a Capital One Cup final against Liverpool. We beat them 6-1 at home in the league before inexplicably losing the final 3-2 in the very next game: gutting. Injuries to key players Wilson and Perin have a negative impact on our form, though with a 4-4-2 at home, we still notch up a good number of wins.
Spurs finally lose patience with Mauricio and I get offered the job. I’m a popular guy, clearly. The season ebbs towards its nervy finale and Bristol oscillate between 6th and 4th. Wins against Hull at home (2-0), Newcastle away (4-2), Manchester City at home (3-1) and, lastly, Arsenal at home (3-1) secure 4th spot; a 5-2 drubbing away at Everton between the last two victories is not enough to throw us off course.
Let’s just take a moment for that: Bristol City have qualified for the Champions League. The final standings have us on 69 points with a goal difference of 32, 6 points behind 3rd place Manchester United and a slender 2 points ahead of 5th place Liverpool. Chelsea win at a canter with 96 points; Manchester City trail in 2nd with 77 points. We earn £19 million for our finishing place.
How have the new signings done? Mostly very well, in fact: Ntcham averages 7.38, scoring 9 in 19; Pasalic averages 7.05, getting 8 assists and increases in value to £10.25 million, with Real Madrid interested; Nalepa averages 7.01 and scores 13 in 32. Cook gets 6.96, but has to play both as a ball-winning midfielder, a roaming playmaker, and as a sub, so I am happy with his development.
Grimaldo manages 6.94 but only starts playing regularly towards the end of the season. Ake gets 6.92 but barely plays, and neither does Gaston Silva, who spends much of the season injured. The only disappointment is Nathan, who only scores 6.72 though, in his defence, Freeman is in such good form it is impossible to give the young Brazilian a run of games. Last season’s signings also impress: Wilson scores 18 in 32 and averages 7.41, my best player; Insua averages 7.12; Yedlin gets 7.10; and Perin rates an 6.96 average with 7 clean sheets and 2 MoM awards. Every single one of those players, aside from Perin, was transfer-listed or a free signing. So my signings have proven their worth and, financially, though the club makes a loss for the first time, largely due to a whopping £80 million a year wage budget, the club’s balance is still £18 million at the end of the season.
My net spend this season is £10.1 million, which is comparatively excellent, again.
In fact, here’s a table of net spending this season for the top 8:
Chelsea – £58 million
Manchester City – £90 million
Manchester United – £71.5 million
Bristol City – £10.1 million
Liverpool – £34.75
Newcastle – £1.9 million
Arsenal – £14 million
Southampton – £18.6 million
Newcastle deserve high praise and it could be argued are doing a sort of Moneyball thing themselves, with high turn-over of player numbers and lots of young signings and the off-loading of older players. Clearly, Bristol City have also over-achieved enormously, both in terms of spending and squad capability. Remember, at the beginning of the season, a decent mid-table finish was the highest thing expected of me.
Moneyball, once again, has proved its worth. From League One to the Champions League in five years, with a tiny club which is now very strong financially and packed with excellent players. Luke Freeman is still with me, as is Luke Ayling, but otherwise the squad has been totally revamped for minimal net cost and charged up the leagues. I’m linked with vacant managerial positions at Arsenal and Manchester City but, you know what? I think I’m happy here.
You can follow Alex Stewart on Twitter (@AFHStewart)
Is that it? Is this where the story ends? Well, that’s really down to you. Tweet the article, link it to messageboards, slap it on Facebook underneath all those incoherent rants about Jeremy Clarkson. If we get enough reads, you get more chapters. Everyone’s a winner!