Red Sox Owners Exporting Epstein to Liverpool (Sort of)

There was an interesting read in the Wall Street Journal on Friday about how Red Sox owners John Henry and Tom Werner are attempting to bring a statistics based, Moneyball approach to their English Premier League soccer team, Liverpool FC. The writers, Matthew Futterman and Jonathan Clegg, compare Henry and Werner’s approach with the Sox to the new direction they’ve taken Liverpool in. They report that, just as Henry and Werner tasked Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein with exploiting data to find the most valuable baseball attributes, they’ve also tasked Liverpool’s director of football Damien Comolli with doing the same thing.

“There is no question that Damien Comolli is cut from the same cloth as Theo Epstein,” Werner told the Journal. Instead of on base percentage and slugging percentage, it seems that, for Comolli, the magic stat is chances created. Discussing some of Liverpool’s new acquisitions, the Journal writes:

Liverpool has gone on a mission to create more scoring opportunities — to get more runners on base — even if that has meant betting the house on a group of players who, other than Suárez, have little international or Champions League experience.

For instance, Downing, Adam and Henderson were all among the top-eight chance-creators in the Premier League last season, according to statistics provider Opta Sports. The average Premier League midfielder creates roughly 1.21 chances per game, but Adam created 2.06 chances per game last season on average, while Downing and Henderson made 2.24 and 2.22 chances per game respectively.

One interesting monkey wrench to note is that English Premier League teams rarely have a strong general manager, or director of football. Teams’ coaches, or managers, tend to run the show. You’ll recall that part of the reason the Sox unceremoniously fired Grady Little (aside from leaving Pedro in) was that he hadn’t totally bought into Epstein’s approach. Because complex statistical analysis drives the Moneyball approach, it typically calls for the GM to be calling more of the shots. The manager must be comfortable taking more data-driven marching orders than he might be used to. Clearly, Epstein and Terry Francona have made their relationship work. But it will be interesting to see how Comolli and Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish get along as the new EPL season unfolds.

When I was in Liverpool in January reporting a story for Boston magazine, I asked the team’s communications director Ian Cotton about this very thing. “Kenny will work closely with Damien,” he told me. “Damien’s made it quite clear,” he added, “that he’s not going to bring in any player that the manager doesn’t want because it’s utterly pointless.” A fair point, but what happens when Comolli sees statistical value in a player that, to the naked eye, might not impress Dalglish? I may only be a very casual soccer fan, but just as a follower of the Red Sox, Henry, and Werner, it will be fascinating to watch what happens in Liverpool.