Football Manager meets Moneyball – a new challenge

What is the Football Manager/Moneyball challenge? Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski formulated (and, crucially, sustained and argued with examples and data) the basis for a set of rules in in their section on making sense of the transfer market. In a footballing world where FFP and the financial health of a club are increasingly important, gaming the transfer market in the way suggested by these two numerical éminences grises could turn around the fortunes of a struggling club.

As anyone who follows the superb site The Set Pieces knows, I took the rules and won the Champions League with Bristol City within ten seasons, narrowly missing out a Premier League title as well. But there was a (very gratifying) clamour to continue the series, which I felt had run its course due to the increasing prevalence of ‘regens’ among my transfer targets, or to start a new one. And so, here you go…

So what are the rules? There is a full list of Kuper and Szymanski’s rules on page 51 of the edition of Soccernomics I own, including a few, such as sight-bias and personal issues, which are not really relevant to Football Manager and are thus excluded from my rules. The ones I am using (again, page references in brackets if you’re curious; and if you’ve not read the book, you really ought to), are as follows:

  1. Net wage spend is more important than net transfer spend (pp. 14-21)
  2. Don’t needlessly splash out on new players or sell old ones when you take over a club – the New Manager Syndrome (pp. 21-22)
  3. Don’t buy players who looked Gucci at international tournaments: they’re likely over-valued and past performance is no indication of future performance, especially when they’re playing with a different team (pp. 22-24) – there are different incentives and a different tactical set-up at tournaments, and it’s a super small sample size
  4. Some nationalities are overrated, like Holland, Brazil, and England (pp. 24-25)
  5. Sell your players at the right time: when they’re around 30 years old, goalkeepers aside (p. 29)
  6. Use the wisdom of crowds: ask all your scouts and a Director of Football if you have one (pp. 43-44)
  7. Buy players in their early twenties, which avoids the problems with not developing properly, and means previous statistics have greater value (pp. 45-47)
  8. Centre-forwards cost more than they should (p. 47)
  9. Sell any player if a club offers more than they are worth and try to replace them before they are sold (pp. 48-49)
  10. Don’t buy players if you don’t need to: develop a youth network and try to develop your own players (pp. 49-51)

I’ve also taken a couple of ideas from another excellent football and data book, by Chris Anderson and David Sally. This gave me one rule that became a tenet underpinning everything else I did: the theory that the best way to improve a team is by identifying and replacing the weakest links, rather than by splashing out on making the best links even better (pp. 197-222). The other idea that I liked and ‘borrowed’ is that a clean sheet is worth just over two goals scored in terms of points across the course of a season (pp. 130-131). It applies to the strategy behind purchasing players too: if defence is more important, it stands to reason that strikers are over-valued and so rule 8 above makes more sense. Yes, when we take over a club in Football Manager that has big bucks to spend, it’s exciting to scour the globe for strikers who will fire in the goals and drive the team to success, but there’s a reason that Juventus paid so much for Gigi Buffon, or that Manchester United are so keen to hang onto David De Gea.

I created a game with England, France, Italy, Germany, and Sweden (always good for undervalued players), with a large database. And then I cracked my knuckles and got ready.

But which club should I manage? I’ve always enjoyed Italian football, remembering the Channel 4 Football Italia show as perhaps my first exposure to the game (this largely due to the fact that my parents didn’t want me to stay up late to watch MOTD and I had nothing of import to do on a Sunday lunchtime). Italy also has the benefit for a practitioner of Football Manager Moneyball of being fairly broke and having a massive loan system, which adds a layer of interest not really found elsewhere in the game.

So I looked for an Italian club, Serie B or below, that would suit my temperament, be a good challenge for the rules, and would normally be considered to struggle. And I found Livorno.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 19.29.26Livorno are possibly unfairly cast as a hipster club, due to their left-wing affiliations and the fact that Vice has written about them (to be fair, it’s a very good article). They are strongly left wing, and from a port city, which reminds me happily of my own team Southampton; the idea of applying a system of recruitment that seeks to find value and is as far from flash Harry-ism as possible also seems to dovetail well with my choice of club.

Livorno also present some serious challenges, both as a club and in terms of the squad. Only 11 first team players of a 26 man first team squad are actually contracted to the club; everyone else is on loan from somewhere else. The club has no first team goalkeeper on the books and of the 14 players rated a 3.5 stars of above, only six are contracted to Livorno and one, Emerson, is 34 years old and out for six or seven months with a broken ankle.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 19.40.22Financially, the club is £6 million in debt and while worth £10 million, has an overall balance of only £2 million. The transfer budget is around £500k and there is nothing to spend on wages without an adjustment. All in all, in terms of status, ethos, and general rubbishness, Livorno are made for Moneyball.


What do you do when you first take over a club? Obviously, we all have to suffer the slight tedium of a meeting with the board and the assistant manager, but what then? I always do several things. The first thing is to assess the squad. Clearly, the assistant manager has a hand in this, giving an immediate impression of roles, and this helps with the tactical set-up. But I look into the best players’ profiles, work out who to keep an eye on, research the youth squads, perhaps promote a couple of youth prospects to try out in friendly games. Tactically, I find that in this version of the game, creating tactics that suit the roles preferred by your players is a good way to start. Sadly, my assistant manager, Nicola Tarroni, is not very good, and so I offer him mutual termination of his contract and look to recruit someone with better statistics, especially in player judgement. I also ask, nay beg the board to allow me to recruit some extra coaches for the First Team, which they graciously allow, increasing the number from four to six. I look for coaches who are adept at defence and fitness, as these will be the cornerstones of my approach. Then I turn my eye to the squad.

As I said above, only 11 first team players of a 26 man first team squad are contracted to the club and of these, only Federico Ceccherini, a centre-back, Andrea Gasbarro, another centre-back, and right wingers Enej Jelenic and Marco Moscati actually look any good. Unfortunately, other clubs already want Ceccherini. I try offering him a bigger contract, but he isn’t interested so he may well be heading out of the club soon. Lorenzo Gonnelli, currently listed for loan, has 3.5 star potential though, so he might be able to step up; he, too, is contracted to the club.

My average squad age, excitingly, is just 23 years old, which bodes well, especially as some of the younger players are Livorno rather than loan signings. I want to privilege actual Livorno players in my starting XI, even at the expense of quality loan players, because I am wary of developing or relying on players who will leave the club at the end of the season. As it progresses, of course, I will check on any loan players who fit my rules and are performing well in case they have a contract clause that means I might be able to snaffle them up but, for the time being, my focus is on my own players.

I set Livorno up in a basic 4-4-2 to start with, privileging quite a slow, patient style. This means that I can work on the defence, keeping the ball, and trying to use my good wingers to create chances at the far end of the pitch. In one variant, I use a shorter style of passing, while in my more defensive style, to be used away from home, I allow for more directness to try to get quicker transitions vertically while staying solid at the back. The friendly games will give me a good indication whether it is worth persevering with these tactics, or whether I need to tweak them.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 20.28.11Alessandro Doga, my Head of Youth Development, has his contract up for renewal at the end of the season and because he’s not very good (working with youngsters 16; judging player potential 7) I take the opportunity to get rid of him cheaply and offer a contract to Cristiano Sala instead (working with youngsters 20; judging player potential 15). Sala is also asking for £1.5k per week, where Doga was asking for £2.2k per week – cheaper upgrades are so Moneyball. I recruit Michele Viapiana as a fitness coach on £450 per week and Paolo Tomasoni, an excellent and experienced defensive coach, on £1.5k per week, joins him. I’m also delighted to recruit a new assistant manager, Fabrizio Piccareta, though I can see from his previous jobs that he has worked with Paulo Di Canio, so I won’t be telling my staunchly Communist fan-base that.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 20.28.20Pre-season games go OK, I suppose. We lose 3-0 away at Serie A side Frosinone, then beat minnows Lupa Roma 4-0 away. Serie B Pescara hold us to a 0-0 draw away, which is a good result, and then we lose 1-0 away to Serie A Empoli, but it’s narrow. The formation and tactics seem to be working reasonably well, although I have concerns about the numbers of chances we are creating with a trequartista and defensive forward up front; I therefore change my wingers to attacking mode with the hope that I can generate more chances. Technically, the season begins with an Italian Cup game against Arezzo, so this is where we will leave the first instalment. Let the Moneyball games begin…


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