Liverpool’s Top 10 Best Central Defenders of All Time

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images
On Saturday September 21, 2013, Liverpool hosted Southampton with a notable curiosity in their starting XI: Out of the four defenders in red at Anfield, all four of them were center-backs.

Kolo Toure was deployed on the right flank over Andre Wisdom in the absence of Glen Johnson, while Mamadou Sakho, also a specialist central defender, was asked to play on the right given that Jose Enrique had picked up a slight injury.

So with Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, Toure, Sakho, Wisdom, Martin Kelly, Tiago Ilori and Sebastian Coates—eight senior central defenders—currently on Liverpool’s books, let’s look back at the great central defenders in the Reds’ illustrious history.

Here are Liverpool’s top 10 best central defenders of all time. Enjoy, and let us know your picks in the comments below.

 

10. Alex Raisbeck

The first name on our list is probably a name that even the most ardent Liverpool fan might not recognize.

That’s because Alex Raisbeck made his debut for the Reds in September 1898 and was considered the club’s first star player. Signed for a hefty £350 from Stoke City, he led his new side to their first League Championship while also winning successive Second and First Division titles in 1905 and 1906.

He was noted for his speed and skill in the center of defence, and after returning to Scotland following his spell at Anfield, he returned to Liverpool as a scout.

 

9. Gary Gillespie

After arriving from Coventry City for £325,000, Gary Gillespie initially took his time to bed into the squad, given the outstanding form of the Mark Lawrenson-Alan Hansen partnership.

Eventually, though, after three years, he became a mainstay in the Reds first team and became the first-choice partner for Hansen.

A winner of many trophies during his time at Anfield, Gillespie also scored a notable hat trick in a home match against Birmingham City in 1986.

 

8. Mark Lawrenson

Gillespie’s predecessor in the heart of the Liverpool defence was Mark Lawrenson, a Republic of Ireland international who was the strength to Alan Hansen’s beauty.

Starting out as a left-back, Lawrenson was known for his tackling, strength and speed, making him a very versatile defensive player in a title-winning Liverpool squad.

Lawrenson ended his Reds career with five league titles, and is now more recognizable as a football pundit on the BBC.

 

7. Phil Thompson

And Mark Lawrenson’s own predecessor, alongside Alan Hansen (more on him to come) was Red, Phil Thompson, who joined the club as a youngster and made his debut aged 18 in 1972.

Thompson delivered the league title, European Cup, UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup during his time at Liverpool, and was the natural heir to the captain’s armband after then-skipper, Emlyn Hughes, left for the Wolverhampton Wanderers.

After retiring as a player, Thompson returned to Anfield as a coach in Kenny Dalglish’s backroom staff, and also later served as assistant manager and caretaker coach during Gerard Houllier’s reign.

 

6. Emlyn Hughes

Emlyn “Crazy Horse” Hughes, Phil Thompson’s central defensive partner when the latter came into the team, happened to be the captain who lifted Liverpool’s first two European Cups.

Hughes was an integral part of the successful Liverpool teams in the 1970s, brought to the club by Bill Shankly and becoming an inspirational and popular captain under Bob Paisley.

Besides his strength and tackling, Hughes was also known for his skill and technique, and Shankly duly changed Liverpool’s playing style with Hughes and Thompson marshaling the defence: They would now build from the back, which would remain the Reds’ blueprint to this very day.

 

5. Jamie Carragher

When it comes to records, Jamie Carragher is second only to Ian Callaghan, having made 737 appearances in a Red shirt over the years and serving as vice-captain at Anfield for 10 years.

Carragher, a boyhood Everton supporter, made his debut in 1996 and was initially known as a versatile defensive utility man before Rafael Benitez saw his potential as a center-back and moved him inside with great success.

After winning a multitude of trophies, including two FA Cups, a Champions League and a UEFA Cup, Carragher retired in the summer of 2013, legendary status intact, to become a respected television pundit.

 

4. Tommy Smith

“Tommy Smith wasn’t born; he was quarried.” So said Bill Shankly of the Anfield Iron, who was every bit the hard man his name suggested he was.

Smith was a survivor of the first Shankly team, and soon resumed his role as one-half of a formidable defensive partnership with Emlyn Hughes to form a backline in an all-conquering team featuring the likes of Steve Heighway, John Toshack and Kevin Keegan.

He lost the Liverpool captaincy to Emlyn Hughes, with whom he had a difficult relationship despite being such a successful partnership, and in his later years scored the second goal in the 1977 European Cup final, bringing home the Reds’ second triumph in the competition.

 

3. Ron Yeats

Such was the impact and importance of Ron Yeats that legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly later referred to the big Scot as the turning point of the club’s fortunes and the “beginning of Liverpool.”

Arriving from Dundee United, Yeats joined a club that was still in the Second Division. But at the end of his first season, he had led the team back into the First Division and on to greater successes both in England and in Europe.

Known for his formidable size, Yeats was the perfect complement to Tommy Smith in the heart of the Liverpool defence, an inspirational captain and according to Reds goal-scoring legend Roger Hunt, “the best center-half I have ever seen.” Some tribute for some defender.

 

2. Sami Hyypia

Think of the finest ever Premier League center-backs and foreign arrivals, and the finest ever Liverpool defenders, and you’d be hard pressed not to include Sami Hyypia, who wore his No. 4 shirt and served as captain with distinction.

In 10 seasons at Anfield, Hyypia, who cost a bargain-basement £2.6 million, proved an inspirational signing and leader of men, sharing the stand-in captaincy with Robbie Fowler as he delivered the 2001 treble under Gerard Houllier.

While he eventually passed the captain’s armband to a certain Steven Gerrard, Hyypia’s no-nonsense, yet graceful style of play, and the uncanny timing of his headers led to many a memorable moment for the big Finn, who is now making his name as a bright young manager at German club, Bayer Leverkusen.

 

1. Alan Hansen

Eight league titles and three European Cups across three decades as a mainstay in the Liverpool defence, under Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish. Thus stands the record of legendary defender, Alan Hansen.

Cool, calm and collected, Hansen was an important presence in the Reds defence, and his longevity at Anfield was testament to his impressive ability to read the game and shackle an opposition attack. But we’ll let Paisley have the final word on the greatest central defender to ever play for Liverpool:

“Alan Hansen is the defender with the pedigree of an international striker. He is quite simply the most skillful center-half I have ever seen in the British game…I can’t think more than a couple of players who could beat him over 100 meters. He has both the ability and the patience to launch attacks from deep positions.” Bob Paisley on Alan Hansen

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

English Football Weekly: Arsenal – Set Piece Kings, The Rainbow Laces Movement, and More

EPL Week 5 Recap: Set-Piece Arsenal, Self-Destructing Newcastle, Slick City

Imagine a 3-1 Arsenal v. Stoke City game at the Emirates where the victor has scored all three from set pieces and the loser from a slick passing move. In any other era, this would’ve been another loss for the Gunners against their rugby-playing bogey nemesis. But things have gotten weird since Mesut Özil signed for Arsenal. They’ve taken on a new identity: increased confidence, better results, and—curiously—stronger set pieces. Imagine Aaron Ramsey, Per Mertesacker and Bacary Sagna all scoring—and a £42.5m Özil providing all three. Strange times in north London.

After a 1-4 opening-day capitulation against Manchester City, Newcastle United looked to be in trouble for the campaign ahead, not least because of their lack of signings (Joe Kinnear excepted). After two wins and a draw, and Yohan Cabaye returning to the fold, things seemed better. So the last thing anyone expected in a home game against newly-promoted Hull City was for another disastrous capitulation, but that was exactly what the 2-3 loss, surrendered from a winning 2-1 scoreline, on Saturday was. Steve Bruce, on the other hand, has notched the same number of points (7) as Alan Pardew, and the Tigers have been wonderful underdogs this season.

Not that Newcastle were the only ones to turn in horror shows this weekend, mind. Liverpool’s 0-1 reverse at Southampton showed all the things that could go wrong at Anfield if their opponents have the right setup to take advantage. The Saints have fast become the Reds’ bogey team in recent years; after all, the last league game Brendan Rodgers lost came earlier in the year at St. Mary’s. Speaking of losing away and things going wrong (Liverpool are, after all, only two points off table-topping Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur), Sunderland turned in an abysmal performance again on Saturday—and lost their manager afterwards. More on that later.

The infamous 1-6 home loss in the Manchester derby remains a harrowing nightmare for many a Manchester United fan, but at least that was under the tenure of Sir Alex Ferguson. So for his successor to begin life as a United manager by losing first to Liverpool and then to Manchester City—1-4 no less—surely even fewer encouragements. Yet it was the manner of the loss—that only Wayne Rooney, who scored a brilliant consolatory free kick—that was worrying. It was a limp display yet again, epitomized by the anonymous Ashley Young. Why David Moyes persists with the unconvincing and increasingly infuriating Young every week, only he knows.

On the home side, this was Manuel Pellegrini’s finest result since taking the reins at the Etihad Stadium this summer, and a scary proposition of what City could look like when they’re firing on all cylinders. We saw Sergio Aguero back to his best alongside Alvaro Negredo, who has surely usurped Edin Dzeko in the pecking order now, and Jesus Navas was equally rampant on the wing. Let’s reserve the biggest praise for Samir Nasri, who was castigated by Roberto Mancini for his part in Robin van Persie’s free-kick winner at the death last season. A complete turnaround—and this sets Pellegrini well on his way.

 

Arrivederci, Paolo Di Canio

13 games after his appointment on March 31, 2013, Paolo Di Canio has returned to the unemployment circle. He lasted less than six months at the Stadium of Light, and by the end, it was just a matter of time before chairman Ellis Short made the decision to let him go.

This was a guy who had a larger-than-life ego and a larger-than-life character, whose passion meant equally the provocation of his own fanbase and the spiting and crossing of opponents. For the last few weeks of last season, this could be tolerated, justified and even celebrated, as his 3-0 win in the Tyne-Wear derby and ultimately his rescue act earned himself a productive summer transfer window.

But in the end, Di Canio was just about talking the talk and not walking the walk. He talked a good game, especially when he first signed for Sunderland, criticizing predecessor Martin O’Neill and lambasting his players for their fitness levels. Just a week ago, there was his public shaming of new summer signing Cabral, and his confrontation of the angry away section after the dismal 0-3 defeat at West Bromwich Albion.

Such controversial antics could be tolerated if the results were delivered along with them, but given that it all seemed to just be empty rhetoric, it became all the more inevitable that those fans would’ve given him abuse that they temporarily shelved following his salvation of Sunderland’s Premier League status. (Lest we forget, his political views and allegiances have courted far more controversy than necessary.) And it wasn’t just the fans: The final nail in the coffin was the players’ decision to complain about Di Canio’s actions. If your staff go beyond their means to get rid of you, your position is well and truly untenable.

What will last long in the memory and in his reputation, though, is the fact that he won’t change his style. If you’re to continue your career as a manager, Paolo, you’re going to have to work on that.

 

Rainbow laces aren’t enough

There’s been excellent work done around the globe in eradicating racism from football over the past decade, and barring some high-profile incidents resurfacing nowadays, most football fans proclaim that the beautiful game has come a long way, and long may it continue. Such organizations as Kick It Out have become part and parcel of the English game, and so it was just a matter of time before the winds of social change blew football’s way again, this time with homophobia as the focus.

This weekend, we saw the start of the Rainbow Laces Movement, if we can call it that, with high-profile players like Joey Barton, Phil Jagielka, John Arne Riise and Peter Odemwingie about to adopt the laces, while BBC Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker will also don a pair. Their attempts to publicize the plight and difficulties faced by gay footballers are admirable, as is the attempt to make #RBGF (Right Behind Gay Footballers) a trend on Twitter.

As ever, though, we have to consider both sides of the coin, and what the impact and legacy of this “movement” may be. It’s all well and good to don a pair of rainbow-colored shoelaces—which doesn’t require much of an effort at all—but the headlines and PR that this could and should attract on national TV run the risk of those involved becoming complacent in their actions. Ensuring a social movement is sustainable and productive isn’t just about the flag-bearers; it’s about what the follow-up actions are and how the lessons are taken on board.

And it’s also about how the movement is conducted. The gay-rights group behind the Rainbow Laces Movement, Stonewall, has seen considerable criticism with its PR approach, choosing to partner with a controversial commercial partner, Paddy Power, and not providing adequate communication in advance of its decision to send the laces directly to football clubs. This arrangement has allowed top clubs to, rightly or wrongly, boycott the campaign, either due to sponsorship interests or the lack of preparation time to decide whether or not to join up.

Either way, these shoelaces mark only the start of what will be a long, hard fight against homophobia in a testosterone-laden sport—if racism has taken this long to deal with and still remains a problem (albeit among just small sections of football fans), homophobia will surely take at least just as long. But a more sensibly run campaign could do wonders, and a more legitimately established organization like Kick It Out could see the right kinds of PR and activities involved. The FA, for one, have a toolkit that highlights several case studies involving football clubs, including Liverpool.

One thing’s for sure, though: It’ll take a lot more active involvement and inventiveness for any progress to be made. But this is a fascinating new movement in football, and we should pay attention to how the game is affected as a result.
This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

The Proliferation of Data-Driven Analysis in Football (Part Two: The Coaches)

Big data.

It’s the flavor of the moment, whether it’s used in conjunction with politics, business or sports, and given the growing ease with which organizations and people can collect data, it looks as if big data is here to stay.

And when the BBC Technology section runs an article on how data analytics is influencing football, you know it’s a hot, hot topic.

In part one of this series looking at data-driven analysis in football, we discussed the growing popularity and importance of statistics to football scouts, which extends to how football clubs run themselves as organizations and businesses.

A key player in the stats arena that we looked at was Manchester City, so it’s no surprise that the BBC article just cited starts with City as a club to look at: They, after all, employ 10 full-time data analysts just for the first team (and this was the picture, at the time of writing, almost six months ago), and club captain Vincent Kompany has realized the value of in-depth analysis, such that he’s reportedly started meeting with his fellow defenders and the data analysts to discuss their findings.

We started off our last piece looking at the role that pre-match preparation played in Simon Mignolet’s exciting penalty save from Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters on the goalkeeper’s debut for Liverpool—the importance of data analysis and the simple of collection of statistics did the job there, and will continue to do this job.

We will now discuss the coach’s role and use of statistics in part two of our four-part series on Business of Soccer, in which we’ll look at how big data and related technologies and trends have influenced and augmented the beautiful game. Parts three and four will look at the sports scientists and, finally, the fans.

 

Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.

Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.

Club Information

Let’s start with a fascinating Sports Illustrated article from Jen Chang, who talks about the use of performance analytics by Premier League club Everton and how it influenced ex-manager David Moyes’ preparation work.

And there are major repercussions on the tactics side of the game. Steve Brown, Everton’s First Team Performance Analyst, performs this exact role, where he analyzes information provided by Prozone (more on the data providers later) to develop game plans. Where are opposing full-backs usually positioned? What positional traits do opposing wingers exhibit? How can Everton prepare their team shape to take advantage of any habitual practices of next week’s opponent? As Brown says in the article, American forward Landon Donovan was often eager to solicit more information from Everton’s analysts during his time on loan at Goodison Park.

We can thus see the importance of opposition scouting in terms of tactical approach and how teams can prepare their own players to negate formations and systems, as well as take advantage of any possible habitual holes that are magnified. Add this tactical and positional information provided by data analytics onto detailed observations and reports prepared by specialist opposition scouts (such as this quite brilliant analysis done by former Chelsea scout Andre Villas-Boas via the Telegraph), and it could make for a comprehensive picture and extensive preparation.

The implications of this method quite naturally also extend and have applications beyond opposition scouting. By studying a club’s own players, managers can get a feel for how they can better train and mold them into all-rounded stars with fewer glaring holes in their games—and this not only means they can do tactical and positional work, but also fitness work.

We’ll look more in depth at the science of sports fitness in part three of this series (particularly a high-profile example at Liverpool), but we’ll also refer to one of many interesting applications of GPS technology: to track player movement, position and fitness.

Arsenal, with their aesthetically pleasing attacking movement, self-sufficient financial structure and new world-class stadium, are known for their modern approach to the game, and their use of GPS to monitor their own players won’t come as a surprise, and in the case of midfield starlet Jack Wilshere, according to a Guardian report, it was this technology that persuaded him to miss the 2011 Euro U21 tournament.

 

Independent Information

So all is well and good with regards to data analytics and statistical analysis employed by football clubs, but where does all of this information come from?

Well, there are a number of big players in the sports analytics scene, and Prozone and Opta are the two biggest names around, mostly because their scope and coverage extend far beyond just a single team.

To that end, Prozone has struck up a number of high-profile partnerships with the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Stoke City, Fulham and Wigan Athletic, and this self-styled performance analysis firm provides the information that helps the team preparation process of many other clubs around the world.

In the US, where as we covered last time Major League Soccer have been pioneers in the technological and analytical front, both DC United and Chicago Fire have struck up agreements with Prozone to provide technical and tactical analysis, while the US Soccer Federation itself also employs such data to aid its national team and referees association. Their work also helps the German Football Association, who does a similar thing for the German national football team.

Opta, whose succinct Tweets from a variety of accounts looking at different leagues complement a viewer watching football on TV, are probably as famous among fans for their one-word conclusions as they are among clubs with their information, but it is interesting that they seem to be more of a statistical analysis firm as opposed to “performance” per se.

What do we mean by this? This OptaPro blog will shine more light onto what exactly Opta does with its data. Opta is much more of an independent data provider, in that its information is gathered and supplied in a more third-party role, looking at league-wide trends and analysis, as the blog entry does for Premier League goal-scorers.

Opta is, as well, the official media partner of the Premier League, the Football League and the Scottish Premier and Football Leagues, and its focus is much more on the fan engagement level—official Premier League partners such as Barclays and EA Sports will be able to access use live Opta data, while other popular sites like EPLIndex.com and Squawka are built entirely on data provided by Opta.

But it is another kind of analytics project that Opta has done recently that really captures the imagination and the potential of such analysis.

Opta’s project with adidas on “The Engine,” in which a mathematical equation-based algorithm has searched out specific types of box-to-box, stamina-heavy players and will continue to do so over the course of the season. This collaboration looks on the surface to be an ambitious feature aimed at fans interested in player analysis and comparison, but in reality there could be big implications on the world of football scouting and coaching.

Will there be a day that third-party data analysts—not in-house analysts at clubs—take over all the information analysis functions of football clubs, much like generic call-centers and hardware manufacturers support different companies in the same facility?

Could Prozone come up with a standard set of coaching manuals and training regimes, based on their vast databases of performance-related data, that they could then sell onto clubs, academies and leagues as best practices as a “performance consultancy”?

Could Opta unearth players using specially designed algorithms to recommend to clubs as players they should be looking at?

How would clubs be able to turn down such offerings if both fans and they themselves knew that they are the organizations that have access to the widest range of data and as such should be the most reliable in their recommendations?

 

League-Wide Information

As we ponder the future roles of data providers like Prozone and Opta, we should also keep an eye on the present, where sports firms like adidas are expanding quickly and aggressively into the coaching analytics field.

We discussed above adidas’ “The Engine” project; in 2013, its miCoach Elite system will be implemented across MLS to provide real-time data available to both coaches and fans, who will be able to track performance levels to the minutest detail (if they wish) while the match is going on.

In part two of this four-part series on the proliferation of data-driven analysis in football, we’ve looked at the role data is now playing in the coaching arena. Most of the analysis is done pre- and post-match to prepare and debrief players and managers on what to do next, but when real-time data becomes widely available, everyone comes under heavier attention, and the pressure to perform becomes higher than ever.

As we look ahead to part three on sports scientists, there is already plenty of food for thought related to how all this information—and all the players in this field—can have ramifications for the beautiful game in the future.

Stay tuned.

This piece first appeared on BusinessofSoccer.com, where I cover business and marketing strategy, globalization and technology in football.

English Football Weekly: Week 4 Recap; Arsenal’s Resurgence; The Loan Market

EPL Week 4 Recap: Opposing Fortunes on Tyne-Wear, Villa Stumble, Shelvey Show

As the top six confirmed their status as the Premier League’s elite group with another series of predictable results this weekend (barring Chelsea’s 0-1 reverse at Goodison Park), let’s look at the so-called “mid-table” clubs, where the action is really getting interesting.

Starting with Tyneside and Wearside. Newcastle United were tipped for a chaotic season, especially after their controversial appointment of Joe Kinnear as their Director of Football, but barring an opening-day drubbing at the hands of Manchester City, they’ve actually been on the rise. Loic Remy looks like he’ll be a fine addition, while Yohan Cabaye’s return to the first team will be significant in the Magpies’ return to form. Hatem Ben Arfa stands out in what actually is a very decent squad on paper. And with seven points thus far, Newcastle stand proud.

Not so much over at the Stadium of Light though, which has surely seen many a fiery outburst from Paolo Di Canio in the Sunderland dressing room. Can you blame him? A solitary point in four games has condemned the Black Cats to the bottom of the table, but it is the manner of their defeats that should really be concerning. Di Canio’s latest public criticism of midfielder Cabral won’t help much, and their next five fixtures? West Brom, Liverpool, Manchester United, Swansea City, and the Tyne-Wear derby. It’ll be a long month and a half.

Not that Aston Villa have been faring too much better. After an impressive opening-day win at the Emirates Stadium, Paul Lambert’s side have lost their last three fixtures, albeit against tough opposition. Apart from a penalty scored by Antonio Luna on his debut against Arsenal, Christian Benteke has been their only scorer thus far, which means that for the team to climb up the table, the likes of Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor need to start delivering the goods sharpish. A few challenging weeks ahead for Villa will test their mettle.

This wouldn’t be a very good weekly Premier League wrap if we didn’t mention Jonjo Shelvey and his impact on the Monday clash between Swansea City and Liverpool. If Man of the Match awards were really given to players who have an overall impact on a game, there wouldn’t be a finer candidate all weekend—or perhaps even all season—than Shelvey. After all, with a good goal and an exquisite assist, and two horrific passes, Shelvey was solely responsible for all four goals at the Liberty Stadium in an “excellent advert for the Premier League.”

Might Arsene Actually Know?

Four games, nine points, second place in the league. If it weren’t for Liverpool holding out for a point in south Wales on Monday, Arsenal would go into Week 5 as the league leaders, in what has been a quite remarkable turnaround of form and atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium.

We all remember the foul mood at the Emirates after their opening-day capitulation to Aston Villa and Christian Benteke, and Arsene Wenger will have found out that, for all of the technology and investment in a world-class stadium, it can be quite a nasty place to be. But three wins since, all accomplished in a quite comfortable manner—yes, even that one-goal win in the north London derby—and Arsenal are looking pretty good now.

Sure, Mesut Ozil will have been a key factor in turning around the Gunners’ attitudes, but even though he’ll no doubt inspire and win many points for his new club this term, he’s only been around for one of those wins. There are other reasons for Arsenal’s resurgence: the return to form of Aaron Ramsey, the maturing performances of Olivier Giroud, and an overall sense of immaculate teamwork and camaraderie in the dressing room.

Amidst all the hype and frenzy around Ozil—understandably and deservedly so, for he is one of the world’s best players—a quiet achievement by Wenger and his team is that they go to Marseille in the Champions League looking for a tenth straight win, which would be a club record. Confidence is brewing at the Emirates, and as ever, Arsenal just can’t be ruled out as a top-four team, even though they continue to be every season. And who knows? With further strengthening in January, they could become title contenders.

The Proliferation of the Domestic Loan Market

Cameron Jerome, Jason Puncheon, Kevin Phillips, Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore, Victor Moses, Aly Cissokho, Loic Remy, Johan Elmander, Stephen Ireland, Oussamma Assaidi, Fabio Borini, Ki Sung-Yueng, Morgan Amalfitano, Scott Sinclair, Matej Vydra.

Thus goes the list of first-team loan signings arriving in the Premier League this summer. That’s almost an average of one player on loan in each first-team squad in the top flight, where we know the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea haven’t participated in such a system except in the “loan out” category, and that’s not counting those loanees who might not walk straight into the starting XI.

That the loan system is attractive, as a means for top clubs to farm out talent who need top-level experience and consistent playing time and for lower-ranking clubs to improve their results on the cheap, is well-known. The likes of Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere, now established Premier League stars, honed their talent on loan at Bolton Wanderers. Out of the 19 names in the above list, only four are from foreign clubs, and even then, two of them (Elmander and Vydra) have had experience in English football (with Bolton and Watford respectively).

But even bigger clubs are playing these days. Liverpool and Everton both have two names each, in the most high-profile representation of the benefits of the loan market to the Premier League as a whole. There have been suggestions that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are so far ahead from the pack that they can now afford to loan players to the Merseysiders (Moses, Lukaku and Barry), but equally it shows that in an age of relative financial austerity, the loan market can reap its benefits.

We’ll take the coming months to gauge the impact of the loan signings this summer—and as they perform well, more details of their loan arrangements (e.g. whether there is an option to buy, etc.) will come to light—and that could make for an interesting analysis in itself, but as the transfer window slammed shut, the proliferation of the loan market manifested. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

Swansea City 2-2 Liverpool: 8 Positives and Negatives

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Stu Forster/Getty Images
Jonjo Shelvey stole the headlines in the aftermath of thrilling 2-2 draw between Swansea City and Liverpool at the Liberty Stadium on Monday, such was his contribution to the game itself.

And rightly so, given that he scored one and assisted one for the hosts—giving away two costly errors for the visitors to capitalize and score from.

If the Man of the Match awards were really given based on impact on the overall game, there wouldn’t be a better candidate than the Swans No. 8.

But besides Shelvey opening the scoring after a fine run and shot, there was Daniel Sturridge being opportunistic and seizing on an errant back pass. And Victor Moses making an impression and scoring a goal on his debut. And Michu finishing expertly from Shelvey’s exquisite lay-off header.

All in all, it made for a fine end-to-end game of football for two sides who like to play quickly and expansively—as the commentators will no doubt say, “a great advert for the English Premier League.”

Here are eight positives and negatives for Liverpool from the 2-2 draw, which ends the Reds’ winning start to the season but extends their unbeaten run. Let us know your take in the comments below.

 

This Is What an Unfit Daniel Sturridge Can Do…

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Stu Forster/Getty Images
In his post-match interview with Sky Sports, Daniel Sturridge said that he didn’t feel fit for the Swansea game, according to ESPNFC.

Small wonder, then, that he had to fight to make the trip to south Wales after having to miss out on England’s World Cup qualifiers last week, and exhibited a general lack of movement and mobility towards the end of the 90 minutes at the Liberty Stadium.

Lacking match fitness, Sturridge scored all the same, to continue his four-game scoring run in the Premier League, with a 12th goal in his last 10 games.

His piece of opportunism to score Liverpool’s opening goal—and to peg the Swans back almost immediately—will be understated given Jonjo Shelvey’s part in it and the latter’s history as a Liverpool player.

Sturridge had the presence of mind to anticipate Shelvey’s back-pass, and the timing of his run—including a slight adjustment of the run-up to meet the errant pass—was as impressive as his confident finish past the stranded Michel Vorm.

The Reds No. 15 hasn’t been 100 percent match-fit for most of the season yet, but he’s already scored in all five of Liverpool’s games this season. Imagine him firing on all cylinders.

 

…But Glen Johnson’s Absence Will Be Huge for the Reds

When Glen Johnson was forced off with an ankle injury against Manchester United, he was first mooted for a 10-week absence from the team, and was rightly considered a major blow for Brendan Rodgers.

The good news is that, according to Goal.com, Rodgers has said that Johnson may end up missing only four Premier League games, which will be a significant boost to the defence.

In Johnson’s absence, young Andre Wisdom, who first came into the team at the beginning of last season, has deputized at right-back, but unfortunately the No. 47 hasn’t been able to replicate his composed, confident form as yet.

His unsteady showing on Monday against Wayne Routledge and Ben Davies meant that the majority of the Swansea attacks came from the hosts’ left-hand side, where Wisdom was obviously uncomfortable dealing with the pace and acceleration on his flank.

It seemed inevitable that he would be replaced in the second half, and sure enough, Kolo Toure was sent on to offer his experience in a bid to shore up the defence, who by then was on the back foot against an increasingly confident home side.

But in the continued absence of Martin Kelly, while Liverpool have a host of options available to play in the right-back slot, none of them will offer the assurance and the complete package that Glen Johnson offers.

The sooner the Liverpool and England No. 2 returns, the better.

 

Victor Moses Will Be a Key Addition to the Attack…

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Stu Forster/Getty Images
Out of the three deadline day signings by Brendan Rodgers—despite Mamadou Sakho’s precocious reputation at Paris Saint-Germain and considerable international experience with France—it was Victor Moses who would have been the most familiar to Reds fans.

Moses was the former Crystal Palace prodigy who joined Wigan Athletic in 2010, and when he was up for grabs last summer from the Latics, Liverpool were linked with him, as reported by the Daily Mail.

After a season at Chelsea where he gained prominence and a regular first-team place under former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, Moses endured a difficult start to the season with Jose Mourinho at the helm, and was snapped up by Mourinho protégé Brendan Rodgers on loan for the season.

Initially, it was a signing met with mixed reactions from Liverpool supporters. They ranged from laments about Liverpool’s status compared to Chelsea’s (having to resort to loaning a player from their rivals) to the quality of Moses himself and whether he would bring anything to Anfield.

And the new No. 12 quickly allayed any fears and doubts of the Reds faithful with an exciting debut on Monday, where he troubled defenders with his pace and dribbling, and knocked in a nonchalant goal from outside the box following a fine run.

He departed on 80 minutes with Raheem Sterling coming on as his replacement, having shown on his first appearance exactly why Rodgers chose to give him this opportunity.

 

…But Iago Aspas Continues to Underwhelm

While Andre Wisdom came into the team due to Glen Johnson’s injury, and Mamadou Sakho due to Daniel Agger’s, there was one other change to the Liverpool starting lineup that spoke volumes about two summer arrivals at Anfield.

Iago Aspas had put in tidy shifts on his first three league appearances for Liverpool—and indeed was Liverpool’s top scorer over preseason—but straight into the starting lineup came new signing Victor Moses and his power, pace, physicality and goal threat.

When Aspas did come on in the second half for the injured Philippe Coutinho, he showed exactly why Moses was favored for the occasion over the new No. 9.

Simply put, Aspas didn’t show enough of the “terrier-like” mentality and aggressive technical forward play he was known for at previous club Celta Vigo.

So what now for the £7.7 million summer signing?

It’s way too early to write off the Spanish forward, especially taking into account the varying time spans in which foreign players settle into the Premier League. But with Moses making an eye-catching debut, Jordan Henderson continuing to impress and Luis Suarez waiting to return to the fold, it looks a tall order for Aspas to reclaim his position in the starting XI.

Time to get his head down and work on his physique to impose himself in the league.

For a player mooted as this season’s version of Swansea bargain find Michu, Aspas has too much talent not to come back with a vengeance.

 

First-Half Dominance Is Now Customary for Liverpool…

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
It is a curious reversal that Liverpool have now dominated possession and the passages of play in all their first halves in the league this season, while it was a regular case of second-half resurgences in the 2012/13 campaign.

And there are positives and negatives to this.

Looking positively, there was the much-derided lack of composure and mental strength that saw the team particularly vulnerable after scoring a goal themselves. In itself, this was a curious phenomenon last season.

Failing to start a game well and get a firm hold on the tie cost Liverpool many a point and many a result especially in the first half of last season, and it meant that the Reds often had to step up their game in the second 45 minutes.

Incredibly, they’ve now turned it around.

The impressive starts to their first few games deserve to be lauded, during which the exquisite short passing and exciting movement all over the pitch have caused untold problems for opposing midfields and defences.

It is especially telling that, barring the extra-time goals in the Capital One Cup tie against Notts County, all seven goals Liverpool have scored this season have come in the first half.

So, Rodgers has thus far successfully gotten his team to step up their performances and maintain a stranglehold on possession and the game as a whole in the first 45 minutes.

And, in truth, the results are encouraging.

 

…Now It’s a Matter of Finishing the Game Strongly

But there are always areas for improvement, and in Liverpool’s case, it’s now about finishing the game just as strongly as they start it.

Or, in other words, it’s about maintaining that consistency in performance levels, stamina and composure over the course of the 90 minutes.

What they’ve proved in their opening fixtures is that the mental resilience and collective mindset now exist in abundance across the team; you don’t hold onto one-goal leads and turn them into three points having to defend in the second half unless you have this kind of toughness.

As is always mentioned, real top teams have it in them to churn out results and points even when they’re not playing particularly well, and this has certainly been the case for Liverpool’s second-half performances thus far this 2013/14 campaign.

It is unrealistic and probably even unfair to expect the players to dominate an entire game.

The likes of Barcelona and FC Bayern Munich are regarded as special clubs precisely because it is that difficult to do so. The drop in performance levels after the break have been a common feature in all four league games this season and will surely be a point to note for Rodgers and his backroom team.

They have rightly commended their on-field charges for their ability to hold it together and preserve a lead—something that they might not have been able to do just 12 months ago—but now it is time to up their game to a whole different level.

 

Another Week at the Top of the Premier League at Anfield…

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Heading into the Monday fixture against Swansea City, Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for having to blink their eyes twice at the league table.

Three games in, a game in hand due to their late kickoff in this fourth round of Premier League fixtures, and they have the same number of points as table-topping Arsenal?

Drawing the game would send them top again, and losing it would still place them on level footing with the league leaders?

Sure enough, while all hopes were on Liverpool continuing their winning start to the season and going three points clear at the top of the table, this was a new feeling at Anfield, a first in many seasons: They were actually worried about dropping points because they didn’t want to lose their top spot in the league.

A point was duly secured, in the process extending their unbeaten run and continuing their fine form since the turn of the year.

And Liverpool host the visit of Southampton this Saturday as league leaders.

Match Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur’s results this weekend, and Liverpool will go into another round of fixtures in first place.

Not bad at all.

 

…And Liverpool Fans Should Enjoy This While It Lasts

The beauty of the current league table right now is that this was not even supposed to be part of Liverpool’s season.

Yes, last season was a disappointing one, which ultimately ended without having secured European football for the season and culminated in the Reds finishing below their Merseyside rivals, Everton, in seventh place.

But even with their encouraging transfer business this summer, considering the strengthening done at rival clubs, it was always going to be a long shot even just to make the Champions League places, especially given the prevailing new expectations of steady progress at Anfield.

If, prior to the start of the season, Liverpool fans would be offered a point away to Swansea and 10 after their first four fixtures, the majority of them would have gladly taken it—as would, surely, the players and the manager.

In the context of the game itself, Liverpool should be disappointed that they didn’t make their first-half dominance count more by finishing with the win and extending their lead at the top of the table, but the bigger picture shows that they find themselves where they were never expected or supposed to be in the first place.

It is all well and good to expect, and even demand, a consistent run of good results to keep this league position as long and lofty as possible, but when the dropping of points inevitably come, Liverpool fans would do well to remember their underlying context, that a Champions League finish would already be a huge achievement for the season.

Holding that perspective would help them make all the right noises while supporting their team in their quest of glory.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

The Football Business Column: The Money that Goes to Agents, Technology and Stadiums

football agents

The Money that goes to Agents

We can’t go anywhere in football without hearing about the money side of the game, such is the prevalence of commerce, sponsorships and brand partnerships, and the importance of financial might and ambition. So when it was announced this summer that the Premier League spent a record £630 million in the transfer window, no one really batted an eye.

It couldn’t have come as a big surprise though, given the enormous TV deals that were secured by the Premier League with broadcasters Sky and BT Sport. After all, the number of big signings and the amount of big money being flown around this summer—not least that mind-boggling world record deal for Gareth Bale—showed that money has become less and less of an object to Premier League clubs. (Crystal Palace paid £8.5 million for a League One player, Dwight Gayle from Peterborough.) It turns out, though, that it’s not just the Premier League, and it’s not just the signing fees.

As we saw from the Neymar megadeal to Barcelona, there are (too) many parties involved in a transfer deal. There are “investors”, “stakeholders”, agreements to play friendlies, first-option commitments and, of course, agents. And when your dad happens to be your agent and you happen to be Neymar, your family can suddenly become €40 million richer.

But it’s not just in conjunction with the biggest names in football that agent fees are considerable. The Football League released a report last week on agent fees at the Championship, League One and League Two levels, and the results were quite staggering. In the 2012/13 Championship season, 23 clubs (Blackpool excepted) paid a total of over £18.5 million in agent fees for 431 agent-involved deals, meaning that, on average, each club spent over £800,000 in payments to agents and each deal cost £43,000.

And that’s just at the Championship level. We await (dread) the official numbers affiliated with the Premier League for more discussion (depression). We haven’t even asked the all-important question yet: Are agents even worth it? (Blackburn Rovers spent over £3.5 million in agent fees—which is more than enough for a quality Championship-level player—and ended the season closer to relegation.)

The Money that goes to Technology

When we talk about money in the Premier League, the topic inevitably focuses on the lack of it spent on youth development and as such the promotion of homegrown talent, which adversely affects the performance of the English national team. And we all know the history of underachievement of said English national team in international tournaments, specifically in penalty shootouts, quite unlike their Premier League counterparts.

Fear not: Money can also be a solution there! Need to provide players with a simulated match environment? With a realistic atmosphere like a World Cup Finals penalty shootout? No problem. Engineering company BAE Systems are currently working with UK Sport, “the UK’s high performance sports agency,” to produce virtual reality simulators for Olympians and Paralympians to better prepare them for real-life tournament scenarios, and according to this Guardian report, this technology could be on its way to football as well.

And why not? Given the amount of money devoted to the mental and physical side of football these days—there’s also the sports science side, which has led to the spawning of many a sports science department at major football clubs, as well as the data analysis side—it’s only natural to see money being thrown at technology that can give teams and players that slight extra chance of success.

But is it really that smooth-sailing? Will virtual reality be able to compare to a real-world penalty shootout environment where everything is at stake? Unless BAE add a feature that projects a virtual reality of burning effigies in the penalty takers’ minds, it might not be enough…

The Money that goes to Stadiums

As ever, England isn’t the only country with huge financial burdens in football. Let’s cross the Atlantic for a moment and look at Major League Soccer, where DC United’s proposed new stadium has attracted criticism for its fee.

$300 million is the sum in question for the Buzzard Point, Washington DC location, and while there are obvious benefits to fans of the club and league, the mooted amount has been met with significant criticism from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, who will have had the current economic climate in mind.

It’s not only in the US where public spending on stadiums have attracted scorn. The 2013 Confederations Cup this summer was marred by public rioting and protesting in Brazil throughout the tournament, against the Brazilian government’s extravagant expenditure on stadiums for next summer’s World Cup and 2016’s Olympics. A total of almost $17 billion is estimated to be spent in conjunction with these two events, and well, there could be a variety of things that this money could be used on otherwise.

But even that is a drop in the ocean compared to Qatar (or should that be a grain of sand in the desert?), who will be spending a whopping £134 billion on their controversial 2022 World Cup tournament, the Middle East’s first ever. How’s that for stadium spending?

 

This piece was part of my new biweekly column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.

Glen Johnson Injured for 10 Weeks: Liverpool’s 7 Other Options at Right-Back

During the international break, Liverpool fans could be forgiven for looking out for the interests of their beloved club, and in that sense, Daniel Sturridge’s failure to recover in time for England’s World Cup qualifier against Ukraine on Tuesday, per the Guardian, will have been good news.

Unfortunately, however, Reds fans will also be cursing their luck as Glen Johnson, who limped off in their home win against Manchester United last Saturday, has been ruled out from first team action for up to 10 weeks due to an ankle injury, according to the Liverpool Echo.

Johnson, who was an impressive performer in all three of Liverpool’s opening Premier League games, will be a big miss for Brendan Rodgers, who will be disappointed that he won’t be able to name a consistent starting XI against Swansea City on Monday, even if Sturridge is passed fit by then.

So who else at Anfield can fill in at right-back? Let’s take a look at the seven options that Rodgers has at his disposal to use as a potential replacement for Johnson.

Enjoy, and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Andre Wisdom

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Michael Steele/Getty Images
As Glen Johnson’s replacement off the bench against Manchester United last Saturday, Andre Wisdom is naturally the most obvious choice as Brendan Rodgers’ stand-in for the Liverpool No. 2.

Thrown into first-team action last season with a series of mature and composed performances as right-back, Wisdom has been tipped for big things in football—and his recent nomination to the England U21 captaincy, as confirmed by the Daily Mail, provides ample evidence.

Strong in the tackle, mature in his reading of the game, and composed under pressure, Wisdom will likely get another run of games in light of Johnson’s injury, but he will have to improve on his unsteady showings this preseason if he is to hold off the challenges of several pretenders.

 

Jon Flanagan

It’s been a while since Jon Flanagan burst onto the scene—it was in the tail end of the 2010/11 Premier League season that he impressed in his first-team debut against Manchester City in April 2011, under the tutelage of Kenny Dalglish.

He made several strong performances for the rest of the season, but his form dipped dramatically come August 2011, and he hasn’t featured much for the Reds first team ever since.

Suffice it to say that his development has plateaued for the time being.

As a match-fit option with first-team experience as a right-back, Flanagan will be hoping that his decent displays over preseason will warrant him a chance in the first team, but with Manchester United as Liverpool’s opponents in the third round of the Capital One Cup, it looks unlikely that Flanagan will even be given an opportunity in the cups just yet.

 

Martin Kelly

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Clint Hughes/Getty Images
The other senior right-back in the squad, and arguably the most impressive and talented of the trio, is Martin Kelly, who has bulked up considerably over the course of the summer.

Injuries are his death toll for now, however, as he battles his way back to full fitness: The injury he suffered to his cruciate knee ligament in September 2012’s match against Manchester United ruled him out of action until this preseason, when he returned in a friendly against Preston North End.

When fit, however, Kelly is the best option available for Rodgers.

However, according to this ESPN report, it could be at least late September or early October until he becomes a realistic choice to stand in for Glen Johnson.

 

Ryan McLaughlin

Among the halls of Anfield, one name from the Reds Academy rings loud and clear whenever the right-back slot is discussed: Ryan McLaughlin.

His mature performances, particularly against AS Roma legend Francesco Totti, in Liverpool’s preseason tour of North America in the summer of 2012 will only have served to enhance his reputation in the eyes of the Liverpool faithful.

Of course, it is telling that he has yet to make his competitive debut for Brendan Rodgers.

Would Glen Johnson’s injury mean a first chance for McLaughlin to step up and justify his reputation? His commitment to the Liverpool cause—he turned down a call-up to the Northern Ireland squad over the summer, as reported by BBC Sport—is endearing, but it seems likely, with so much at stake, that Rodgers will opt for more experienced options.

 

Martin Skrtel

Moving away from specialist right-backs, a senior player on the Liverpool books with experience at right-back is Martin Skrtel, who put in a dominant display against the Red Devils and Robin van Persie last Saturday.

His nightmare on the right against a rampant Tottenham Hotspur in the calamitous 0-4 capitulation at White Hart Lane in September 2011 stands out as a strong reason to not field Skrtel as a right-back, but experience could be what Rodgers needs on the flanks for now.

If Kolo Toure fails to recover from his groin injury—sustained in Liverpool’s extra-time win over Notts County in the Capital One Cup—and new signing Mamadou Sakho is deemed unready to partner Daniel Agger in the center of defence, then Skrtel will be needed in the middle.

 

Tiago Ilori

Tiago Ilori was one of two defenders, and one of three players, to be confirmed as a deadline-day summer arrival at Anfield, as he signed in a reported £7 million deal, according to BBC Sport.

Like Martin Skrtel, Ilori is a center-back by trade and by practice, but has been known to play on the right side of the defence in the past, during his days at Sporting Lisbon.

His pace will be a tremendous asset to a Brendan Rodgers defence looking to play a high defensive line, but his lack of first-team experience in the Premier League and as a right-back for Liverpool will see him as a long shot in the running here.

 

…Jordan Henderson?

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images
And now for our customary left-field candidate.

Why Jordan Henderson, you may ask.

Of course, this question, taken in the context of three outstanding performances for the first team in an advanced midfield role so far this season, is entirely understandable.

Such has Henderson’s professionalism and improvement been, that he has transformed from an unwanted outcast to a near undroppable first-team player in the space of 12 months, and that alone deserves credit.

But the additions of Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Toure hint at a possible change to Brendan Rodgers’ 4-2-3-1 system to a 3-5-2 with two wing-backs, and Henderson’s pace, energy and commitment might make him a suitable choice out there on the right, where he could make use of his incredible stamina.

Add in his previous cameos at right-back…

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

The Proliferation of Data-Driven Analysis in Football (Part One: The Scouts)

It’s Saturday, August 17, 2013. The first English Premier League game of the 2013/14 season, Liverpool vs. Stoke City, is televised and about to come on TV at 12:45pm British time, the standard lunchtime kickoff.

As you sit there on your couch looking at the meticulous passing game implemented by Brendan Rodgers, you may well call up the Squawka second screen app on your iPad to look at the individual passing stats of Philippe Coutinho, or check out Daniel Sturridge’s shot accuracy on the FourFourTwo Stats Zone app on your iPhone.

In the second half, after Daniel Agger’s handball in Liverpool’s penalty area leads to a Stoke penalty in the dying minutes of the game, and as Jonathan Walters steps up to take the spot kick, an infographic is shown briefly on screen, reflecting Walters’ last five penalty kick attempts, hits and misses—a first such offering on televised Premier League games, courtesy of BT Sport.

At first glance, what can be considered as elementary, basic, interesting statistics for us fans seems to augment the experience and inject a little more color into discussions during and after the match, but there’s much more to that than meets the eye.

Take, for example, the admission from both Simon Mignolet—he saved Walters’ penalty, by the way, and won the three points for Liverpool—and Brendan Rodgers in their post-match interviews: Yes, there was an element of luck in the penalty save, but it was the pre-match preparation work that Mignolet did with his goalkeeping coaches that helped prepare him for the big moment. Or, in other words, they did their homework.

Take also the analysis that has been written about Mignolet, comparing him with the departed Pepe Reina in terms of goalkeeping stats—saves, punches et al, and we see the reasoning behind letting go of a want-away goalkeeper who hadn’t been in his best form. Reina’s wages will no doubt have been a factor in Rodgers’ decision in letting him go, but make no mistake: There will have been statistical backing to the outcome, and the choice of successor in Mignolet.

Beyond this particular game and instance, there’s an undoubted proliferation in data-driven analysis in football, so much so that even the Economist has run a feature story on it. In this four-part series on Business of Soccer, we’ll take a look at just how the boom in big data and related technologies and trends have influenced and augmented the beautiful game, and how they will continue to do so. Let’s look first at the scouts. Parts two to four will look at the coaches, the scientists and finally, the fans.

Scouting Performance

Every big sports fan will have heard of Moneyball—the concept that stats can show a side to players that perhaps the conventional wisdom of looking at performances on the field might not. It was this idea, of course, that led the Oakland Athletics to assemble an impressive team using under priced players with good performance statistics. At the heart of this was their general manager, Billy Beane, who advocated statistics-based analysis as part of his transfer strategy.

The most high-profile application of Moneyball in English football is Liverpool, whose current owners, John W. Henry and his Fenway Sports Group organization, just happen to be the owners of the Major League Baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, whose adoption of sabermetrics in sports was featured in the 2011 Moneyball film.

Of course, Liverpool fans will in all likelihood recoil in horror when they hear of Moneyball. It brings back unpleasant memories of the Damien Comolli and Kenny Dalglish era, where the term was associated with big-money flops like Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam. But underlying it is a statistical approach that more and more football clubs have taken on board.

Let’s start with Manchester City, whose use of data and statistics and whose Performance Analysis group have increased and expanded as quickly as their global reach and rise as a footballing superpower. The Performance Analysis team is headed by Gavin Fleig, who has extensive experience in coaching, sports analytics and performance analysis, and has enjoyed stints with Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United in similar roles.

As it turns out, that old-fashioned manager who plays old-fashioned, route-one football (or so he is constantly labeled), Sam Allardyce, was actually a pioneer in the use of data and analysis in English football, and it was during his reign at both Bolton and Newcastle that saw Fleig get heavily involved in his expert areas at both clubs.

In a quite brilliant and comprehensive interview conducted by Zach Slaton for Forbes, Fleig discusses his background in a Premier League environment that still hadn’t fully embraced statistics, working with a like-minded team under Allardyce with an aligned vision with statistics at its core, and the transition that he encountered upon moving to an ambitious and forward-thinking organization at Manchester City.

The nuts and bolts of the interview are contained in the link above, but what catches the eye is the extent to which the data and analytics are used at almost every level at the club. Even more impressively—and we will mention football statistics resources like Opta and Prozone in the coming parts of this series—City develops their own data for analysis.

In other words, they capture their own information to share across the club and to use across all levels of players, starting from the academy, and it is with that information that the coaches at City determine which players are best used in which positions, and what key areas of their games have to be improved. Player development thus lies at the core of statistical analysis in football.

In Slaton’s article, Fleig also mentions his take on Moneyball in a City context. Particularly interesting is the fact that not only is data used to find better players, but “how much value they will bring into our business as well.” He goes on: “Our focus in the last three years therefore has not necessarily been finding undervalued talent…but in order for us to get the club from where they were to where they are now in four years it required a certain level of investment in the top players around Europe.”

Sabermetrics in football, then, serves more than just the football side: It’s about the football club as a business as well.

Scouting Business

But we can’t really be shocked about that emphasis on business, can we? After all, with the growing amount of investment in the Premier League (the 20 clubs in the league spent a record £630 million in this summer’s transfer window), the (apparent) advent of Financial Fair Play and the increasing focus on Germany’s Bundesliga as a model for a financially sound yet fan-friendly league, money is an integral part of the game. Just take a look at the outrage that Gareth Bale’s world-record transfer generated taken in the context of the current economic climate.

So when relatively-unknown Michu signed for Swansea City last summer and went on to exceed all expectations in an exciting Michael Laudrup team, all the talk was around how exactly he managed to pull off such a coup for such a low price (Michu cost £2 million from Rayo Vallecano).

Correction: Michu was a pleasant surprise, but only for those who didn’t bother to do the background check. The pundits and scouts who did look at Michu, an unfashionable name playing at an unfashionable club in Spain, came to the conclusion that he would be worth a punt given his performances and statistics, and lo and behold: He became one of the best Premier League finds in many a season.

When it comes to finding value for money—taken a leaf right out of the Billy Beane book—there are many data provision services that work with professional football clubs to supply analytics and numbers that influence their transfer strategies and purchasing decisions.

Prozone is a well-known name in the professional circles—we’ll have much more on them in part two on coaches—but football fans who get their statistical fill from OptaJoe’s cleverly worded Tweets during matches may not know that Opta actually have an OptaPro division that partners with football clubs and provides exclusive data. As John Coulson, the head of professional football services at OptaPro, puts it, “The biggest area we’re involved with now is player recruitment. No team will sign a player based on data alone, but it’s increasingly a shortcut to a shortlist.”

A simple but effective analogy was offered by Blake Wooster, Prozone’s business development director in the previous quoted article: “It’s like when Amazon tells you other books you might like after a purchase. A coach might not have heard of a player in the Polish second division—but he might have similar attributes to the guy he’s looking at in League One. We are just increasing the due diligence process.”

Essentially? It’s about finding those players who have the potential to become stars, not buying stars outright. It’s about finding quality in proportion to price. That’s the chief mandate for scouts these days, and they are accomplishing it with the aid of extensive statistical analysis.

But it’s not just Premier League clubs that are part of this next big analytical wave in football. Far from it. In fact, it’s been most used in the country that Moneyball as a concept first proliferated.

In Major League Soccer in the US, which is known for its innovative use of technology—more on that, again, in part two—sports analytics have migrated from the traditional American sports to the beautiful game, and the New England Revolution (also based in Boston) have been one of the pioneers of analytics in the American scene.

This NESN article, while not quite as comprehensive as Slaton’s interview with City’s Fleig, nonetheless describes in detail what the Revs are trying to do with their own data analytics program, and their objective is not unlike City’s. There is a focus on scouting and bringing in players that suit their system, but also an eye on the academy in terms of player development and training.

There is certainly life after Steve Nicol, who was famous for his eye for talent during his time as the head coach of the Revolution.

Scouting the Future

So that’s what football analytics are up to when it comes to the scouting side of the game. Statistics have come a long way, and the rising popularity that it enjoys (along with easy access for scouts, coaches and fans alike) reflects a growing trend in its actual employment.

But where next for analytics? Will companies like Prozone and Opta still dominate all the scene, or will more clubs follow the Manchester City practice and collect their own data by themselves?

We don’t know yet, but a tantalizing new app has been developed none other than that tactical master, Rafa Benitez. His Globall Coach app, which started as a tool to store his own notes and formations on his iPad, has been enhanced to include a Scout Tool that allows scouts to create animations, line-ups and notes on players, teams and matches.

The target audience is still professional clubs—even though they do offer different versions for different levels—but the key is that scouts can add data themselves.

Looks like the trend for scouting-related analytics is the creation and sharing of customized data by the scouts themselves, for information that best suits their purpose.

In part two in this series on big data trends and uses in football, we will take a look at how data and analytics are used by coaches. Stay tuned.

This piece was my first for BusinessofSoccer.com, where I’ll be covering business and marketing strategy, globalization and technology in football.

EPL Transfers: 10 Best Value-for-Money Signings This Summer

Just like that, an entire summer of transfer sagas (Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney), big-money bids (Manchester City) and outrage over the lack of signings (Newcastle United, Manchester United)—culminating in a wonderfully exciting transfer deadline day on September 2—has ended.

In case we forgot, English Premier League football actually started in August, but now that the transfer window drama is all over it’s onto the football for real.

In the past few days, huge transfer sums have dominated the headlines, with Bale’s record-breaking move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid and the sensational deadline-day signing of Mesut Ozil at Arsenal.

But this is the Premier League, which has been awash with cash for most of recent history. Just look at Chelsea’s stacking of their midfield this summer and Manchester City’s spree following Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment—not to mention Tottenham’s stockpiling of attacking players in the wake of Bale’s big-money departure.

In a market with premium price tags and bloated wages, there is actually value for money out there. So at the end of all this, let’s take a moment to recognize the less heralded work being done around the Premier League.

Here are the 10 best value-for-money signings in the EPL this summer. Enjoy and let us know your picks in the comments below.

 

Honorable Mentions

 

As with any top 10 list, there are bound to be close calls that ultimately don’t make it in the final selection. The following three players were great pickups for their clubs and deserve an honorable mention.

 

Tom Huddlestone (Hull City, £5m)

When Hull City were promoted at the end of last season, critics and fans could’ve been forgiven for taking a look at their squad and expecting of an immediate relegation dogfight.

10 summer signings later, they don’t look so bad. In fact, even though their opening three games have just yielded three league points, their performances have belied the results, and at the heart of those performances is the new midfield duo from Tottenham Hotspur, Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore.

Steve Bruce has strengthened well this summer, and in Huddlestone he has added a midfield schemer with class, quality and plenty of top-level experience for just £5m, as reported by BBC Sport.

 

Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City, £2m)

For a reported £2m, according to the Daily Mail, Stoke City and Mark Hughes have landed an Austrian international with experience all across the continent at Werder Bremen and Internazionale.

On the surface, Marko Arnautovic seems like the perfect bargain buy for Stoke—not to mention, his considerable physique and height suit the Potters to the hilt—but underneath the low transfer fee is a history of controversy and trouble.

If Hughes manages to get his new forward to get rid of his attitude problems, he may well have pulled off one of the signings of the summer.

 

Maarten Stekelenburg (Fulham, £3m)

Ajax, Italy, Fulham. Dutch. Goalkeeper. Sound familiar?

No, not Manchester United great, Edwin van der Sar, but if all goes well, you wouldn’t bet against Maarten Stekelenburg taking the same path (though David de Gea will have something to say about that).

For now, Stekelenburg will be focused on doing his job for Martin Jol, who brought him to Craven Cottage for just £3m this summer, according to the Daily Mail. If his performances at his previous teams and for the Netherlands international squad are anything to go by, Fulham have pulled off a brilliant signing.

 

10. Loic Remy (Newcastle United, Loan)

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Paul Thomas/Getty Images

In January, Loic Remy joined Queens Park Rangers, then in a relegation battle but flush with Tony Fernandes’ cash, in a reported £8m, £70,000 a week deal, beating out competition from Newcastle United, according to BBC Sport.

Fast forward seven months, and QPR are mired in the Championship after a dismal Premier League campaign and need to reduce their wage bill, so they have offloaded a number of players on eye-bulging wage packages, including Remy.

Remy has now taken up the No. 14 shirt at the club he turned down in January, having arrived at St. James’ Park on loan for the season, as reported by BBC Sport. Alan Pardew obtained a player who scored six Premier League goals in just four months, who has been rated as Marseille’s star forward in the past, and who has international experience for France.

Given Newcastle’s underwhelming transfer window this summer, Remy is the sole shining light among the club’s summer arrivals, and will become a key member of a team desperately short in attacking quality.

For a loan deal, however, and with the prospect of the World Cup looming next summer, Remy could be the striker to save Newcastle from relegation.

 

9. Victor Moses (Liverpool, Loan)

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Clive Rose/Getty Images

Victor Moses completed a triple haul for Liverpool in a deadline day that also saw defenders Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori arrive at Anfield, but the on-loan Chelsea man will surely represent one of the best deals of the summer.

Scoring for the Blues in all competitions last season—the Capital One Cup, FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Premier League—Moses played an integral role in Rafael Benitez’s squad, but with the influx of attacking midfielders under Jose Mourinho, has now been deemed surplus.

In stepped Liverpool, who, in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, have an outstanding recent record in rehabilitating hot young prospects whose stars have fallen slightly.

Prior to Moses’ move to Chelsea, he made waves across the Championship with his dazzling displays on the wing for Crystal Palace, and was considered one of the finest young players in all of England.

Will he find his form again in a red shirt? If so, his reputation will be restored, and even if there isn’t an option to buy at the end of his season-long loan deal, he could provide just that spark to take Liverpool to an elusive Champions League spot.

 

8. Darren Bent (Fulham, Loan)

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Darren Bent’s place at Aston Villa might have been taken by rising force Christian Benteke, but he still possesses the prized asset that Premier League clubs value and need: the art of goal-scoring.

And Bent knows how to score goals. To quote Martin Laurence’s ESPNFC column, “despite starting just 29 of a possible 76 league games in the last two campaigns, Bent remains one of only six Premier League players to have netted more than 50 goals in the last four seasons (53).”

So when mid-table clubs were looking for a proven striker this summer, Bent stood out as a player to take a chance on, even though his lack of involvement in build-up play impeded his career at Villa Park.

Martin Jol took a chance. Bringing Bent on loan and pairing him with the mercurial Dimitar Berbatov may well turn out to be a masterstroke. He’s already scored on his debut as a substitute against Arsenal. More of the same then.

 

7. Kolo Toure (Liverpool, Free)

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Title-winning experience, pace, heading, physical ability and dressing room presence.

That’s what Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool got for free when they brought in the out-of-contract Kolo Toure from Manchester City, as reported by BBC Sport.

Taking over the No. 4 shirt (whose previous bearers include a certain Sami Hyypia), Toure instantly imposed himself on the dressing room and on the pitch. Brought in to replace the experience of the retired Jamie Carragher, Toure featured prominently in the Reds’ preseason matches and started their first two league games.

His pace allowed Rodgers to maintain a high defensive line when Liverpool were on the attack, and his power and heading kept the Reds at bay while defending against a pacy and strong Aston Villa forward line.

His all-action display and enthusiastic interviews have already seen him elevated to cult hero status at Anfield. Those same fans who wrote off his signing will have been the ones cursing the injury he sustained in the Capital One Cup tie against Notts County.

 

6. Peter Odemwingie (Cardiff City, £2.25m)

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Hands up if you still remember Peter Odemwingie’s shenanigans on deadline day last January (Independent).

Any wonder, then, that the Nigerian international has finally left West Bromwich Albion?

Cardiff City have added the likes of Gary Medel and Steven Caulker to their squad this summer, but for a paltry £2.25m, as reported by BBC Sport, their deadline day signing may prove to be Malky Mackay’s most important.

After all, Odemwingie was once West Brom’s top single-season goalscorer ever in the Premier League, and held the Premier League Player of the Month three times in his career at the Hawthorns. So his ability to put the ball in the back of the net will not be questioned.

Now he takes his talents to Wales, where he will be an important member of the first-team squad. Spearheading the Cardiff attack alongside Frazier Campbell or Andreas Cornelius, Odemwingie has every chance to resurrect his Premier League career at age 32.

 

5. Ki Sung-Yueng (Sunderland, Loan)

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When South Korea international Ki Sung-Yueng signed for Swansea City, for what was a then club-record fee of £5.5m (per The Guardian), it was widely believed that Michael Laudrup had pulled off a coup, given Ki’s reputation as a hot midfield prospect.

He had, after all, become one of Europe’s top young midfielders during his time at Celtic, where he scored nine league goals in 66 appearances and impressed with his vision and creativity.

At the Liberty Stadium, Ki displayed time and again his excellent passing skills and composure on the ball, and even filled in in a central defensive role in the Capital One Cup final in February in a show of versatility. But he was made available by the Swans this summer.

Now on loan at Sunderland, under the tutelage of Paolo Di Canio and in a side that desperately needs composure and passing quality in the midfield, Ki has the perfect platform to restore his reputation.

His undoubted ability will be needed in what looks to be a tough campaign ahead for the Black Cats.

 

4. Allan McGregor (Hull City,  £1.5m)

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After 205 appearances for Scottish club Rangers where he established himself as a Scotland regular, Allan McGregor has arrived, via a year in the Turkish Super League with Besiktas, in the Premier League with Hull City for £1.5m, as confirmed by BBC Sport.

Judging by his opening-day clanger against Chelsea, where he conceded a penalty five minutes into his Premier League debut, and subsequent conceding of a long-range Frank Lampard free kick, McGregor looked as if he might face a challenging first year in England’s top flight.

Not quite.

His stop from Lampard’s penalty was every bit as exciting as his double save towards the end of the first half, and from then on he has gone from strength to strength.

In subsequent league games against Norwich City and Manchester City, McGregor has been a reliable goalkeeper for Steve Bruce, manning the sticks with confidence and pulling off spectacular stops.

For just £1.5m, Bruce has acquired an established goalkeeper who will be instrumental to his sides’ hopes of Premier League survival at the first time of asking.

 

3. Leroy Fer (Norwich City, £4.5m)

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Out of all Premier League clubs, and certainly out of all mid-table clubs, Norwich City’s transfer business stands out in terms of both quality and value for money.

Chris Hughton has brought in a plethora of players who will slot right into his starting XI—including international-class players like Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Johan Elmander, as well as promising stars like Gary Hooper and Nathan Redmond, all of whom could arguably feature on this list.

Most impressive of all, however, is the £4.5m capture of Netherlands international Leroy Fer, whose arrival at Carrow Road was confirmed in mid-July, according to the Telegraph.

A central midfielder with imposing physical strength and pace, tidy passing skills and an eye for goal—he scored 12 Eredivisie goals in just 47 appearances at previous club FC Twente—Fer adds energy, dynamism and goals to the Norwich midfield, as well as a “Dutch connection” that may be crucial in his partnership with van Wolfswinkel.

Fer has had no trouble settling into the Premier League and threatened to open his account on Saturday against Southampton, playing in the center of the park alongside Bradley Johnson. If he keeps it up, he could lead Norwich to a top-half finish this campaign.

 

2. Stewart Downing (West Ham United, £5m)

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Sam Allardyce caught Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers at the perfect time: For the price of a Liverpool-era Stewart Downing (a very much eye-opening £20m), West Ham United have signed both Downing and Andy Carroll.

Andy Carroll was the vastly more expensive one at £15m, and while he will look to repeat his barnstorming performances for the Hammers last season, Downing—who, according to BBC Sport, cost just £5m—may prove to be not just West Ham’s most astute signing, but one of the best of them all.

Here is an England international who has impressed at Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, with both assists and goals from either flank, and who has shown his versatility at Liverpool by playing on both wings and even at left-back.

A player who buckled down amidst reports that he would be let go by Rodgers last season and earned his place back in the starting XI with a series of hardworking and impressive performances.

A winger whose crossing will be a perfect fit for Allardyce’s wing-heavy play, a perfect complement to Matt Jarvis on the opposite flank, and a constant source of chances for Andy Carroll.

Sure, he cost way too much when Kenny Dalglish signed him—but for £5m, West Ham have acquired one of the signings of the summer.

 

1. Romelu Lukaku (Everton, Loan)

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When the new season started with Jose Mourinho back at Stamford Bridge, the main striking position at Chelsea was up for grabs. Lukaku, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba were all candidates, until that infamous 4-6-0 formation against Manchester United—and until Samuel Eto’o signed on a free transfer (BBC Sport).

And so on deadline day, Everton swooped in for Lukaku, and now the Belgian international will spend the campaign on loan at Goodison Park.

The move was an astute one by new manager Roberto Martinez, who has already noticeably stamped his authority on Everton’s playing style and is in need of a striker who can deliver the goods.

New signing Arouna Kone hasn’t settled at his new club yet, while Gerard Deulofeu will provide more of a creative thrust rather than out-and-out goal-scoring—Nikica Jelavic has yet to rediscover his barnstorming form of a season and a half ago—which means that Lukaku has a chance to establish himself as the main striker at Everton.

17 league goals in 35 appearances for West Bromwich Albion last season. Thus stands Romelu Lukaku’s Premier League record and pedigree.

Lukaku turned out to be one of the signings of the 2012/13 campaign for Steve Clarke. He could be the one to lead another challenge for the European places for the Toffees.

On, and by the way, both Lukaku and Downing featured on our list of the Premier League’s 10 worst signings of the 2011/12 season.

Football, bloody hell.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.