Moneyball is the term that is often used to describe a sports team using in-depth statistical data for their recruitment strategy. This has led to the diminished requirement for the scouting “eye-test”, however, that is still a tool that is utilised.
In the summer of 2016, Bolton Wanderers signed 11 players. 4 of the 11 were 26 or under, only 1 was under the age of 23. Bolton gained promotion and, if we are to be generous, the signings were made with the aim of guaranteed short-term success.
There was little risk involved. They were well-known with solid careers and “enough” ability to complete the objectives of the 2016-17 season.
4 years later, Bolton Wanderers are now in League Two following back-to-back relegations, a 12-point deduction and administration. The club began the month of July with 11 professionally contracted footballers. A combined total of 80 league appearances for the club.
Now, of course, there were lots of reasons for this demise. However, it is fair to say that on-field planning and recruitment was never structured to be profitable, both on and off the pitch, in the medium to long term. The £6,000,000 sale of Gary Madine in January 2017 had not been forecasted by data analysts when he joined the club in 2015.
A manager telling an owner “I think this 30 year-old right winger recently released by a mid-table Championship club would do a job for me on a 1 or 2-year deal” should not be how a club operates.
The policy of signing well-known and “good enough” journeymen raises your floor but lowers your ceiling.
A balance can be struck.
To carry on this metaphor, you can sign a 32-year old striker who scored 28 goals in the division you’re playing in last season. This raises your floor. Bolton have all but guaranteed the avoidance of relegation or a lower-half finish with the signings of Eoin Doyle and Antoni Sarcevic. However, if there were 11 of these signings on 2 or 3-year deals, your ceiling next season and the season after would be limited.
There is undoubted risk. The signing of a 24-year old Guyanese centre-back from the Norwegian third tier is nothing but a risk. However, the use of modern scouting software and structured analysis of numbers as well as a trial period, that eye-test tool, means you are minimising those risks involved.
We do not know the “floor” of Reiss Greenidge. Unlike the signing of Mark Beevers in 2016, we don’t now know whether Greenidge will be cut out for the level we are playing at. However, we knew Beevers hadn’t been and probably wouldn’t be good enough in the Championship. Greenidge, on the other hand, could be valued at upwards of £1.5 or £2 million in 12 months time.
The risk and association with a gamble is reasonable when you look at the backgrounds of the most successful implementations of this philosophy in England. Matthew Benham at Brentford, a professional gambler and founder of Matchbook and Smartodds. Tony Bloom at Brighton, a professional poker player.
In contrast to 2016, Bolton have now made 10 signings this summer. 7 are under the age of 26 and 3 are under the age of 23.
Of course, it is a gamble as we do not know where that “floor” may drop to but Wanderers have also placed some money on the Doyle & Sarcevic insurance bet, just to be safe. For what it is worth, I trust the process and I think we might hit the jackpot.