Boston, Massachusetts. That is where you will find the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the world’s best university for technology. It’s also the city of the Red Sox, the baseball team that Bill James, the inventor of sabermetrics, played for. Sabermetrics is the application of advanced statistics to sport, and which was used and made famous by Billy Beane, the central figure of Moneyball who was played by Brad Pitt in the film of the same name. This context is fundamental to understanding the background from which James Pallotta arrived. Bostonian, and president of Roma, the team that Walter Sabatini has just departed from. The former sporting director explained “I live on instinct, the football I see can’t be reported through statistics. Pallotta and his collaborators, on the other hand, adore statistics and are trying to find the winning algorithm.” Which is the mathematical formula for buying the right player.
Applied statistics in football is the Holy Grail that people have been looking for for years, following the example of baseball: in the early 2000s, Oakland Athletics, a team with a limited budget, challenged for the title together with the giants of the league thanks to the leadership of their general manager Billy Beane, who bought players cheaply, mostly observing them by studying statistics developed by Paul DePodesta and judging whether they were undervalued. What president of a football club wouldn’t like to have the magic formula of buy a player who has great value on the cheap? In the world of football, the trailblazer has been Matthew Benham, owner of Brentford (in the Championship) and famously Midtjylland, a club who were only founded in 1999 but were champions of Denmark in 2014/15.
Benham made his fortune by applying statistical models to betting, using the same principles that have been used in the financial world for years, and then used the same methods with his clubs: statistical analysis to identify players to buy, mathematical preparation for set pieces. Before Benham, there was Damien Comolli, sporting director of Tottenham and Liverpool among others: he followed the Moneyball system, but his reputation was shattered when he spent €42m on Andy Carroll, who wasn’t exactly a star for the Reds (but in the same transfer window, Comolli also bought Luis Suarez, and at Tottenham he brought in Bale).
Pallotta is now convinced that he’s found the Grail. It’s called tag.bio and is a piece of software developed by a Californian start-up business and which has been financed by the Roma president, among others, who paid $250,000 on the insistence of his son Chris, who is a great believer in the project. So much so that it played a part in the departure of Sabatini. It seems as though the point of no return came for him when the analysists proposed signing Magnanelli for the midfield as statistically he made fewer mistakes than Strootman. Anthropologically speaking, Sabatini is very similar to Billy Beane. But methodologically, he is the exact opposite, the personification not of the Grail hunter but of the old faith in the eye of an expert. Which is still the dominant doctrine in Italy.
Statistics is a constantly evolving field in order to supply ever more in-depth figures. The ‘classic’ passes completed and other statistics that you read in newspapers are just the tip of the iceberg: experts are identifying figures that are incomprehensible to us mortals. The ‘analyst’ is a figure that practically every top level club has added to their backroom staff. We are however talking about people who dissect team performances (both their own and the opposition), while Pallotta’s intention is a revolution. That is because in real, true scouting, Italians still put their faith in judging things with their eyes. If I can’t see it, I don’t believe it. Because, fundamentally, football – unlike nearly all American sports – is situational, not completely codifiable.
“The speed of the game, which is if someone plays the ball with one or two touches, doesn’t exist in statistics, for instance. And dribbling? You can’t establish whether there is a lot of space on the pitch or not,” says a scout of one of Serie A’s clubs. He adds, “Statistical data is what matters least in evaluating a footballer.” There isn’t an analyst in the world, to stay on topic, who would be able to quantify the greatness of the 40 year old Totti. Even so, Benham – who isn’t a follower of Sabatini’s ways – also said, “A player could have a high number of tackles made, but maybe he’s making them because he’s badly positioned. The context always needs to be considered.” The human eye isn’t infallible – think about “poor Piris”, cited by Sabatini – but nor are statistics. Not yet, at least.
The scouting departments of clubs, whether big or small, are giving consideration to the numbers, sometimes to speed up research: there is a lot of software that can give you a preliminary statistical overview. But none of them have the same effect as observing a possible signing: first by watching videos, then by watching them live. But if you have a valid mathematical model, then bring it forward: presidents are just waiting for you.
This article is a translation – the original was written by Alex Frosio for La Gazzetta dello Sport.