Trying my best to divorce myself from the omnipresent shambles on and off the pitch in reality at least in part, I decided in anticipation of the next installment of the long-running Football Manager video game series to see if I could surpass the current very low bar set by Lee Clark and do a better job of guiding Bury to the ‘promised land’ of the Championship and to further glories down the road. Of course, the game doesn’t come out until early November but I already have a very specific idea of how to make it both more interesting than a standard story that has been around for at least 20 years and more crucially, is interactive in its creation.
Some of you will be familar with the ‘Moneyball’ concept, whether you have seen the film starring Brad Pitt, read the original text or ‘Soccernomics‘ by Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski. If you’re not au fait with it, the central premise on which it is based is that by using statistical analysis, smaller teams can compete with larger ones by buying/acquiring players that are undervalued by other teams and in turn, selling ones that are overvalued by their competitors. Or to put it another way, polishing rough diamonds previously overlooked for one reason or another and selling them at a higher price.
You could argue that many clubs already do this but few do it successfully and fewer still have it at the core of their infrastructure. The closest real-life example in the English pyramid are Brentford (although it must be pointed out that they reject the ‘Moneyball’ label). Like Bury, they are situated in a hot-bed of professional football and are surrounded by larger, world-famous neighbours. Unlike the Shakers, their calculated and clinical approach to recrutiment, by heavily investing in analytics, has reaped rewards and helps to keep the club afloat and competitive.
I want to take the ‘Moneyball’ concept and make it unique to the club I support in an entertaining way, hence the highly original term: ‘Buryball‘. The rules I will be guided by during my playthrough are as follows and are taken from passages in Soccernomics:
1. Net wage spend is more important than net transfer spend.
The first criterion is unlikely to be that much of a factor (in the first season at least). What it means in practice is that I could sign a player for a high fee as long as their salary was relatively low as that is what will affect the bottom line in the long run
2. Don’t needlessly splash out on new players or sell old ones when you take over a club – the ‘New Manager Syndrome’.
Suffice it to say that I won’t be falling into that particular trap, especially given the huge turnover of players at Bury in the last four years. Most fans agree that the talent in the squad is there in real life and given how accurate the stats in Football Manager are these days, it’s bound to be reflected on the game. Given that the aim will be to guide the Lancashire outfit to success, the notion of applying for another position is off the table.
3. Don’t buy players who impressed at international tournaments: they’re likely to be overvalued and past performance is no indication of future performance, especially when they’re playing with a different team – there are different incentives and a different tactical set-up at tournaments and it’s a super small sample size.
Again, this is unlikely to affect my management of Bury in the short to medium term but it is an important point to note. Long-term tracking of players decreases the need to scout tournaments, which are often a seller’s market.
4. Some nationalities are overrated, like Holland, Brazil and England.
I believe this comes from historic performances and styles of play of the national sides throughout the second half of the 20th century and the conflation of that archetype to any player representing that country on the game regardless of their ability level. There might now be a bit of a shift towards Belgium and France in contemporary terms. On the face of it, this won’t affect the recruitment of the Shakers but you might be surprised how many players in the lower leagues are from places with a reputation (current or otherwise) for playing eye-catching football. With English players, it’s hard to avoid them coming through the academy (more on that below) but is something to keep in mind where it doesn’t conflict with other criteria. Another factor that will play out early in proceedings is Brexit, which could affect the ability to recruit from the EU.
5. Sell your players at the right time: when they’re around 30 years old, goalkeepers aside.
This will be absolutely fundamental to making it a success. Bury will start the game in significant debt and need to make significant returns on the roster in lieu of having much in the way of generating income on non-matchdays. Of the 40 first-team players (defined as those with a squad number and/or on a professional contract), seven outfield members are 30 or over at the time of writing with a further seven between 25 and 29 who are contracted to the club. This means the bulk are not yet at their ‘peak’, so it will be something that I have to keep an eye on, particularly early on in the game.
6. Use the wisdom of crowds: ask all your scouts and a Director of Football if you have one about players.
This is where in real life it is alleged AFC Bournemouth, the ‘smallest’ club in the Premier League by some distance, are not making the best use of their analytics resources; most of the transfer sway still rests with Eddie Howe. Some collegiate approaches have been tried to varying degrees of success. The Shakers are not blessed with vast resources in terms of scouting, nor do they have a Director of Football. However, this is one of the first areas which I will address within the confines of geography and finances.
7. Buy players in their early twenties, which avoids the problems with not developing properly and means previous statistics have greater value.
Contingent to a certain extent either on having a productive academy or ‘sacrificing’ it to leverage more financial resources into recruiting players at an older age. It’s one of the easier points on this list to ‘buy’ into and in truth, it’s probably what Bury should be doing in real life even more as a proportion than has been the case recently.
8. Centre-forwards cost more than they should.
Typically, the most highly valued players are the ones primarily tasked with putting the ball into the net frequently. That goes almost without saying. However, if all the other pieces in the jigsaw are there, it should mean that goals are more evenly distributed throughout the team and for that reason, less emphasis is placed on spending every penny on a ‘guaranteed 20-goal striker’. It also means finding value in players where in the most difficult part of the market by picking up transfer-listed individuals or those who have been overlooked, which is central to this philosophy.
9. Sell any player if a club offers more than they are worth and try to replace them before they are sold.
This applies at any stage of their career and is what Lee Clark thought he had done with Nicky Ajose coming in on loan very shortly after the sale of James Vaughan to Sunderland. It hasn’t quite worked out that way thus far. It’s also contingent on a desperate competitor not snatching your want-away star player in the dying embers of the transfer window but there should be a degree of foresight in those cases. It can also be a hard sell to fans in the short-term but again, it’s one of the pillars of ‘Moneyball’.
10. Don’t buy players if you don’t need to: develop a youth network and try to develop your own players.
To expand on above, this also means putting much more resources and stock into coaching than a ‘quick fix’ transfer. Let’s say for example you’ve identified that the weakest area of the pitch is in defensive midfield but other than Rohan Ince (who will return to Brighton & Hove Albion at the end of 2017/2018 in any case), there isn’t anyone who immediately has that listed as one of their positions. In which case, there exists the option to retrain an existing player into that role, which might be the only option when finances are very tight.
11. 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.
The old adage about a chain only being as strong as its weakest link is certainly true in football; savvy opposing managers will instruct their charges to ruthlessly exploit weakness and uncertainty (see Ryan Cooney playing at right-sided centre-back against Rochdale on Tuesday night as a prime example – that’s not singling him out, it’s simply calling into question Lee Clark’s decision to put him there in the first place). With the ‘correct’ age demographics already mostly in place at the club, the existing group should improve on an individual and collective basis anyway. It’s then a case of gradually uplifting the slightly worse links.
All of the above are existing maxims in ‘Moneyball’ (and the latter two are from Soccernomics). The twist I want to put on it requires input from the readers of this blog: I wish to add three more principles as well as the two below by asking the simple question: when you think of a ‘perfect’ Bury player, what attributes do they have? It can be something about their personality, how ambitious they are in their footballing careers, if they should come from the local area where possible, anything. Your feedback is important in making this series a success, so please let me know!
These are both ‘traits’ I’ve generally found supporters say:
12. Bury fans value work rate in a player above all other attributes.
13. Bury fans value seeing players come through the youth academy system over other 16-20 year old signings, especially those who are on loan.
I will be collating your opinions and they directly affect my approach to the game and it should help to keep it interesting for you beyond the first few installments on this blog.