Less than 24 hours after City announced their first addition of the summer, Luke Butcher joins us with a look at our recruitment model under Stuart Webber.
When Stuart Webber came in he asked fans to judge him after four transfer windows, and once February 2019 rolled around, with the club challenging for promotion, there was no doubt he had achieved what he wanted.
Now we are about to enter a fifth transfer window with a whole different challenge ahead, it’s worth a look back at how Webber has used a moneyball approach to transfers and added youth to redefine the Championship mould that he broke with both Huddersfield and Norwich.
For those who have yet to read the book or see the film with Brad Pitt cast as the world’s only good-looking sporting executive, the moneyball approach stems from a statistics revolution in baseball that was pioneered by Bill James and began in the 1970’s. The strategy hit the big stage in the early 2000’s thanks to Billy Beane, the General Manager of the financially challenged Oakland Athletics, who switched things up in the scouting department by basing his recruitment on statistics and looking for hidden value in overlooked players. The principle is basically; sell players when they are overvalued, buy players when they are undervalued.
When buying a player, there are basically two groups a moneyball proponent will look to invest in.
The first is players who are undervalued because they have a peculiar trait or defect that makes scouts immediately rule them out. The second group is players who are undervalued because they have had a previous failure or play in an unfashionable team or country. Patrick Roberts anyone?
Underpinning this all is a belief in using statistics to identify players that are in these groups. In Billy Beane’s case he began to use statistics that the baseball world had yet to embrace or did not view as important, allowing him to find value others could not. He often picked up players on free agency that met these statistical standards and looked to be falling out of the sport entirely, moulding them into a team. Beginning to sound familiar?
Obviously, the transfer of this statistics-based approach to in English football has hardly been smooth. While baseball suits a more statistical approach thanks to the ease of putting numbers to one-on-one battles between a hitter and a pitcher, the fluidity and team element of football means it is far more difficult to find a good statistical measure to quantify chaos.
But increasingly clubs brought in more and more statistical elements to recruiting and performance, and now almost every club in the top two-tiers of English football uses an immense amount of data in one form or another.
Some of the early adopters using holistic approaches are starting to reap the benefits. Matthew Benham, the owner of Smartodds and a firm believer in statistics in sport, took full control of Brentford in 2012 and began using now infamous stats like xG to analyse games. They have risen from League One to the Championship top half under various managers, consistently outperforming their budget.
Benham also took over FC Midtjylland, leading them to their first Danish title ever in 2015, and they have stuck around at the top end of the table since. Billy Beane himself is also involved in a consortium that controls Barnsley, and despite a difficult start they now will return to the Championship next season with a rebuilt squad and renewed sense of direction.
The unique element at Norwich is that Stuart Webber has not been afraid to also supplement this approach with faith in young players. The whole club now pulls in the same direction, with patience given to both new signings that no one has heard of and to young players that come through the academy.
When the plan began, Webber worked to remove players that he felt were overvalued. They fell into three main boxes. Seasoned pros who Webber felt did not quite fit the system and the club had to cash in on before they could no longer be sold for much value, with Howson, Dorrans and Jerome gone within the first year. The second group was those paid wages beyond their value to the team, Naismith the poster boy for this group.
Finally, players who could be sold at a high price considering their current value were sold, and this is where the faith in young players became such a massive addition to moneyball. The Murphys and Maddison fit in this box, with all three being sold for serious money considering they each had just one good Championship season under their belts. Farke was given time to develop youth, who then performed well for the club and were sold for huge profit to help rebuilding.
This has given the backroom team at Norwich the financial space they needed to bring in the players that suited Farke’s tactics and has given young players the chance to be promoted from within. Everyone has been given an equal chance to impress, whether they are the established pro, the new signing or the academy product.
Players who have been massively undervalued on the market have joined the club. Krul’s injuries, Pukki’s troubles at Celtic and Trybull’s period in the wilderness were examples of cases where the player was considered to have missed their chance.
Webber has also constantly returned to the unfashionable lower end of the German market, allowing players such as Zimmermann and Vrancic to come in at low cost. And when it comes to players that scouts would rule out because of peculiar traits, Hernandez and Stiepermann pretty much define the category. The latter’s lanky frame and slightly wonky running style makes him look more like a window cleaner than a footballer and Hernandez’s bullish dribbling and perceived lack of end product has meant that other clubs have not been willing to take a risk.
What is interesting is the mixture of data, scouting and manager input to pick those players. Buendia for example was identified after the Colney boffins noticed his good key data points and he was signed after approval of the scouting department. Some players came in based on Farke’s own recommendation and some at Webber’s. The key has been making sure the recruitment has used every available source of knowledge to ensure the chance of error has been reduced.
And alongside this recruitment has come a trust in young players pushing through the academy, providing the energy, verve and fearless nature to the squad. The likes of Aarons, Godfrey and Lewis are what make this Webber version of moneyball more sustainable, ensuring the club has become a desired destination for young players to showcase their talents, push the club forward and then be sold to a high bidder with the funds being used to take the club up another level. The plan from now has to be to keep this train of young players going.
So, what will be coming up for fans this summer? The answer is nothing will change. There will be no big names or huge egos entering the club, only players that fit exactly the philosophy that has got Norwich to the top tier.
Some critics will be disappointed to see the direction football has moved in, with players being talked about like stocks and shares, fan favourites like Maddison being sold for accounting reasons and the club acting like a stepping stone. But ultimately this is way the tidal flow is moving, and we can all be pleased than rather than denying the reality and swimming against it, Norwich have hired a man and taken an approach that will ride those waves to the Premier League and hopefully beyond.
It looks like Brad Pitt will have to brush up on his English accent for the Moneyball sequel.