Lean Football

What's the connection between a football club and a lean startup?

Rafa Benitez recently talked about being a data-driven football manager, which I found very interesting, because what Rafa was describing sounded a lot like the Build - Measure - Learn loop employed by lean startups.

In the business world, this process is popular with startups because they're attempting to make decisions in environments of considerable uncertainty. They don't know how good their product is, or even if anyone will buy it. So they need to test their assumptions, and they need to incorporate what they learn into the next version of their product.

The lean startup idea is about getting away from the 'Great Man' theory of leadership - that good decisions are informed, not opinionated, and driven by data rather than ego. This is scientific decision-making: you run experiments, you test your hypothesises, because nature can not be fooled. Remember, lean is not a synonym for quick and cheap, lean is a synonym for quick and experimentally proved.

Sport is a very different kind of experiment, a test where you get the examination first, and the lessons afterwards - as the baseball pitcher Vernon Law put it.

Though just like in the business world, in the football world is dominated by 'Great Men' - patriarchs with decades of success behind them - who reign autocratically over the biggest clubs. The natural order of things seems to be Great Men rule Great Clubs with Great Transfer Budgets funded by Great Plutocrats (or Great Debt). Which made me wonder whether the Reign of the Great Men was inevitable and eternal, or whether the football world might ever witness the the kind of disruption the technology world has seen.

So I began to think about where lean principles have been applied to football. Looking back, was Rafa attempting to implement a lean approach when he was in charge of Liverpool? At the time, I remember Rafa being mocked for his insistence on "facts" and "qualitee" - and derided as being a cold, passionless strategist. Then again, we'd expect an approach based on objectivity to be much better at answering "how do I get the best out of each of my players?" than answering "how do I win matches in the most eye-pleasingly way possible?"

One form of evidence-based decision-making that has definitely been applied to sport is sabermetrics, currently in vogue having been popularised by the book and film Moneyball. Originally conceived in baseball, it seeks to find under-valued players by using stats to quantify talent. Whilst this can work well in baseball, which is effectively a series of one-on-one set pieces, it is more challenging in football, which is a much more dynamic team game.

In baseball, batting is easy to score, the striker either hits it or doesn’t. In football, a striker might score lots of goals, but understanding why is more complicated. Perhaps they play with several creative players, perhaps their style of play exploits weaker defenders, perhaps the manager has made playing football fun, or he's tailored the team's approach to suit their star man.

This makes it difficult to identify a talented, but under-valued, footballer through stats alone - because much of what makes a player exceptional isn’t actually evident in stats. This is why scouts repeatedly go to watch players in person, and why understanding a player’s personality is so important. A great team can make an average player look exceptional. Scouts attempt to assess a player’s natural talent.

The problem is that the evidence used in moneyball decision-making has been collected from the player's past. A player that has proved his worth in one team will not necessarily transfer that success to his new team. The lean strategy would be to identify lots of cheap prospects, put them into your team, and test them. If they work, great! - if not, that's a shame, we move on.

The sorry tale of Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing provides a chastening lesson on basing your decisions on stats. In January 2011, Liverpool's then director of football, Damien Comolli, was tasked with quickly identifying a successor to the outgoing Fernando Torres. His eyes settled on Andy Carroll, a tall, strong Englishman then in great form for a resurgent Newcastle.

After an inauspicious start to his Liverpool career, it was clear Carroll wasn't getting the service that allowed him to thrive at Newcastle. So what about that Downing fella - he's a winger, and he's created more chances than any other player in the Premiership last season. Sign him, he creates chances, Carroll scores the goals, we win games. Too easy!

Now if your prospect is rated at £20 million pounds, and the stats say he’s one of the best in the country, the logic of moneyball is to say: no, don't do it - he’s too expensive. Forget the English Premium, we’ll look for someone similar here or abroad, after all there’s a lot of people playing football worldwide - as Arsene Wegner continues to demonstrate masterfully.

A £20m purchase also goes against the principles of the lean strategy, because you can’t afford the experiment to fail. As it happened, during the 2011-12 season, the experiment did fail: Carroll and Downing performed poorly, and there was no plan B. With our football having no direction, our Director of Football departed.

Yet one team that did use the moneyball approach shrewdly was Newcastle United, who quietly bought talented - but unheralded - players from the European leagues. Without a benevolent plutocrat to back them, Newcastle are forced to operate like any normal business, buy cheaply, add value, enjoy its advantages, and use profits on sales to fund growth.

In the coming years, as UEFA introduces its long-overdue Financial Fair Play regulations I hope the long-forgotten art of running a football club like a business will be revived. Just as in any business, once dominant giants are inevitably overtaken by upstarts. Historic clubs like Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal must now strive to compete against the expensively renovated plutocrat project clubs like Man City and Chelsea - and not forgetting Man Utd, who've dominated the last two decades through their commercial savvy and an exceptional ability to nurture talent.

New kit; means business
As we Liverpool fans look back on a season of considerable disappointment, with the league won by one billionaire-backed club, and the Champions League final being contested by another, what next?

When we sing "They say are days are numbered, we're not famous anymore" we celebrate that we went from being a laughing stock to the best team in Europe in the space of a few years. Like 1999 and 2004, we must rebuild again, and we are missing more than just a piece from the jigsaw.

It was very sad to see King Kenny go, but in attributing our dismal last league campaign to bad luck he revealed he didn't properly understand what was going wrong, or how to put it right. Read through this excellent discussion of our lack of on-field intelligence, for example, and then tell me if you still believe in the power of bad luck.

Clive Woodward's "Thanks, you just cost us the World Cup" approach sounds harsh, but it needs to be said. Just as in business, mistakes need to be called, in order to be understood. Players need to understand why they're making mistakes before they can hope to correct them. Zen temple. Battlefield. Football field. The path to mastery is the same.

King Kenny had natural talent and intelligence in abundance, together they made him our greatest ever player. But he was unable to teach his football intelligence to others, perhaps he expected his men to intuitively understand the game, like he did. Whereas Rafa Benitez believed in data, he would scour videos for hours, so he could tell Torres where he should be in the box.

Like a man in charge of an ailing family business, Kenny managed by instinct, by sentiment. I believe we need a different kind of manager, a data-driven manager, who believes in making his own luck. Someone with fresh ideas, who can coach our players into better individuals, and collectively fashion them into a superior team. A startup manager.

Liverpool must become an upstart club again. 
One that's young, agile, innovative and fearless.

For Liverpool fans, 2005 to 2009 now seems like a glorious age of over-achievement.
Like many startups, Rafa's Liverpool FC enjoyed a meteoric rise and sudden fall.

But as Beckett said:
"Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

Vive le sport.

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