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Is Liverpool's Search for Sabermetrics a Futile One?

28/02/2013 17:45 GMT | Updated 30/04/2013 10:12 BST

For Liverpool, the 2010 takeover of John Henry's Fenway Sports Group (FSG) represented the light at the end of a dark tunnel. Not only did it rid the club of a pair of parasitic owners, but it represented a unique, exciting prospect in the form of baseball's Boston Red Sox, FSG's other sporting franchise. The parallels between the two sides - Boston ended their 86-year World Series hoodoo under Henry, Liverpool have gone 23 years without a league title - provided the Anfield faithful with much cause for optimism, particularly as amidst the madness of the Red Sox's 2004 success, there was a very definite method.

Henry is an ardent believer in sabermetrics, the use of statistical analysis to quantify success in baseball and, crucially, gain an edge in the transfer market by identifying undervalued players with a "stats over scouts" mantra. After coming to prominence through Billy Beane's use of the system to consistently produce successful Oakland Athletics sides despite having one of the lowest wage bills in baseball, Henry and the Red Sox appropriated the style and have seen a return of two world championships.

LFC fan forums contain countless discussions that purport to hold the key to applying sabermetrics to their ailing side, some displaying a staggering amount of time and effort poured into finding a foothold for the theories. But it isn't just the fans; this article in Business Week claims "[Liverpool chairman Tom] Werner is confident he, using the methodologies perfected at Fenway, can restore Liverpool's fortunes". There's little doubting that the Reds' fans and management alike saw a match made in heaven.

However, the notion that Liverpool were to become the beacon of sabermetrics in the football world has been all but extinguished in the intervening three years. The chief dampener came in the form of several high-profile signings by the club which have flown in the face of the system's principles, such as Andy Carroll. Liverpool became the Premier League posterboys for over-valued, under-performing transfers, no small feat considering the vast riches being bandied about by the likes of Manchester City.

In reality, the idea that "moneyball" could become a general sporting ethos rather than one specific to baseball was doomed from the beginning; sabermetrics are about as useful to football as bats and base plates. The key facet of sabermetrics in its early-2000s form was through the utilisation of on-base percentage (OBP), which had previously been ignored in favour of other performance indicators. This was the A's be-all and end-all for several annual drafts; it didn't matter if a player would have to be shoehorned into a position he had no experience in, so long as he got on base. Times have changed, new statistics have been dreamt up, but the idea remains the same, and it's one entirely inapplicable to football.

The common theme across these features of baseball and OBP is that none of them can be equivalised to football. Unlike the batter vs pitcher duel, football is a team game, and thus it immediately becomes very difficult to utilise individual player statistics in any sort of meaningful way. It would be unfair to compare a striker who scores thirty goals a season but is his team's attacking spearhead with one who scores five but whose role is setting his teammates up. Unlike the largely static act of batting, football is filled with numerous, massive variables - the systems and formations employed by a player's team and the opposition they're facing etc. - all of which serve to further diminish the meaningful information that can be gleaned from statistics. Finally, almost everything in football is subjective. The microscopically thin line between a great tackle and a foul, what exactly constitutes a "goal scoring opportunity", and even that most ubiquitous of football stats, goals, are not always clear cut. OBP is completely objective - either a player gets on base, or he doesn't. There's no grey area.

The notion of using stats as the primary scouting technique in football is a complete non-starter. Whilst certain general rules - such as selling a player as soon as his ability begins to wane so as to maximise profit - are applicable, these tend to be examples of common sense rather than explicit directives. In truth, the fabled system of sabermetrics only fits the football transfer market if diluted to the point where it essentially becomes "find good players for cheap", an idiom which ranks alongside "score goals" and "don't concede" in terms of obviousness.

There's no doubting that FSG's ownership represents a huge step forward for Liverpool, but for it to be a successful relationship, it's vital that Henry and co view these first years as a learning process for themselves about football, rather than an education for the club about sabermetrics.