Moneyball in Football Manager 2019: I

moneyball logo

Right, it’s time for a new save on the blog, and it’s time for a save concept that I’ve been wanting to do for several editions of Football Manager now, Moneyball. Moneyball as a concept has been done several times on editions of FM by other content creators – most notably by the excellent Alex Stewart in his brilliant Bristol City series on The Set Pieces – but with all due respect to those content creators, I somewhat disagree with their interpretations of the Moneyball model and how it’s been utilised in their saves. My beliefs around what Moneyball is, and how it can be implemented come largely from the utterly brilliant Michael Lewis book ‘Moneyball’ which I’ve studied in depth. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend that you do. The film of the same name is also well worth a watch for pure entertainment value.

The book covers the 2002 season of the Major League Baseball team, the Oakland Athletics. The book centres around the Athletics’ – or A’s – GM Billy Beane, and his use of data driven analytics to create a team that could compete for the World Series despite a far lower wage budget than the New York Yankees. I’ve also read plenty of articles around the topic, and there are aspects that I’ll use from other writing focused on footballing economics, such as Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, and The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally – hence why a couple of my guidelines below are similar to Alex Stewart’s, because I agreed with a large amount of them. From the books and other articles I’ve read about Moneyball, here are the key concepts I’ll be working around in this save:

  1. Players are undervalued for a range of biased reasons such as age, personality, appearance. None of these matter. All that matters is production on the field, which can be analysed through statistics.
  2. Several countries are overvalued in the market, such as England, Holland and Brazil and there is better value for money off the beaten track.
  3. Wage spend correlates to success far more than transfer expense.
  4. Prioritise identifying and improving your weak spots in transfer windows. This is the best way to improve your team.
  5. Strikers cost more than they should and can be poor value for money.
  6. Ensure that all potential signings are thoroughly scouted – the wisdom of crowds – before their statistics can be analysed. 
  7. Don’t buy players who performed well solely at international competitions. These are a perfect example of ‘small sample size’, where stats have no true value to them as they can’t be trusted to be replicated. 
  8. Long term, producing your own players and developing through the academy is more cost effective. 
  9. Football is won by scoring more goals than the opposition – like baseball is won by scoring more runs – and therefore attacking stats must be a main focus.
  10. Some of the best value can be found in identifying players who are no longer wanted by their clubs, and are likely to vastly undervalue them.

All of these concepts can be applied to Football Manager, and I’ll be referring to these as I make signings throughout this save, outlining how I’ve fit within these parameters. Before I move on, I do want to address one of the main differences between my concept – and I believe Billy Bean’s – of Moneyball and those used by other content creators. Moneyball is not designed to make profit. First and foremost, it is designed to produce a winning team, whilst avoiding the inconsistencies and inaccuracies of the transfer market. It is about finding value where others see none. This is done because in some way the team utilising the concept is limited in terms of finances, and can’t operate in the same way as a team with lots of money can. So my focus will be purely on generating success on the field through these methods. Profit will be a natural benefit of this model as I sign lesser known – or undervalued – players and hopefully sell for profit, but I must make clear that it isn’t the intent to make money. The vast majority of us who play FM buy low and sell high with young players, but this isn’t Moneyball. A perfect example would be if I was to sign a mid 30’s player who still had value to me, but didn’t to the rest of the market because of his age. I’d likely lose money on this player should I later sell him, release him, or he retire, but his value to us would be what he produced on the pitch.

Screen Shot 2019-02-08 at 19.57.00But who is us going to be? Well, I wanted to go with a team that has been limited financially in order to give them a reason to utilise the concept of Moneyball. I initially thought the Premier League would be interesting, because it’s the money bags league, but at the same time even being a poor team in the Premier League puts you basically in the top 10% of the market as a whole and I didn’t want that. In the end, I decided to go with a team that’s been in financial turmoil over the last ten years and has experienced a considerable about of trouble, Rangers.

Obviously, everyone knows the trouble that Rangers went through, being demoted to the 3rd tier of Scottish football as a result of huge amounts of debt owned to lenders, made worse as a result of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis that exposed Rangers’ shaky financial dealings – and the EBT’s, which were just dodgy at best – but Rangers current financial footing is hardly stable. As the fantastic Tifo Football outlined in their video on Rangers’ Fall and Rise, Rangers have begun to operate financially through using debt again, and owe money again, though not to the same financial companies as in the mid 2000’s – largely because those companies won’t touch Rangers with a barge pole. In October of last year, Rangers posted an annual financial loss of £14m, and in terms of turnover and overall balance, Rangers are so far behind Celtic, it would be a challenge for them to compete with Celtic on a normal footing – as in real life they currently sit 6 points behind Celtic in 2nd. Rangers also have some similarities to the A’s in that they’re a once great team now struggling financially and playing catch up. Therefore, Moneyball is perfect to take Glasgow Rangers back to the top of Scottish football, using a different model.

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Taking over, Rangers had around £10m in the bank, with a transfer kitty of £1.8m provided to me. Now in the past on normal saves, I’d likely have spent all of that, but remember rule 4:

Prioritise identifying and improving your weak spots in transfer windows. This is the best way to improve your team.

As a result, I was very cautious, and only made moves that were absolutely necessary. Furthermore, with Rangers’ financial situation, not saving money would be an idiotic thing to do. I think exploiting the transfer market is my greatest strength on Football Manager and I’ve done it edition after edition, but I can’t in the normal sense that I would. Tactically, I want to use a 4-2-3-1 formation, a formation that apart from 4-4-2 – which I do think is slightly overpowered this year with the right instructions – is probably my favourite formation this year. I know those that have read this blog for years will be surprised by that, as I’ve always espoused that I’m terrified of 4-2-3-1 because it can be exposed in the centre. When we consider our approach, I’m going to ensure that the system fits the players I have, and then improve on that moving forward. In theory, this should mean that tactically, I’m pretty consistent throughout this save, because I’m replacing players and plugging them into an existing system, save a few tweaks here and there. So, ready to make my first moves, I made significant changes to the staffing at the club – signings several new scouts to improve our quality of reports and our network, and sent them out to scout key regions where I know we can find undervalued players – Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, North America, Oceania and Central Europe.

Therefore, I plugged the 4-2-3-1 system in, and began to analyse what was needed. On the whole there are some clear strengths in the team, particularly Alfredo Morelos, Ryan Jack, James Tavernier and young Ross McCrorie. However, the team also has several players on loan, and whilst these are nice additions for this season, I know for a fact I can’t build around them, and some are simply overvalued because they’re from Liverpool in Ovie Ejaria and Ryan Kent. Rule Number 2. We also have a few players out on loan, who I’ll be analysing through the season to decide whether they have enough value to keep around. Irritatingly, a couple of them would likely have proved to be good squad depth had Mr. Gerrard not loaned them out. After going through the squad it was clear that for now I can’t make any clear judgements about who to add into the first team, because I have no stats with which to analyse the first team, so any transfers were simply going to be about plugging gaps. A quick analysis of the playing squad showed me that we had two clear weak spots – purely depth related – at Attacking Midfielder and on the Right Wing, and following rule Number 4, I ensured these were the only moves I made – there is no need to make signings that aren’t essential, you’re just wasting money.

Following Rule 6, I ensured that all options for these signings were thoroughly scouted prior to signing, and all scout reports can back with unanimous agreement that both players were excellent signings, and both are perfect examples of Moneyball signings.

Screen Shot 2019-02-05 at 22.12.24Firstly, in comes Andreas Skov Olsen from Danish club Nordsjaelland for £400k, a fee that is below his current value of £525k. Remembering rule 1, age is not a factor in making signings, and at 18, Olsen is already good enough for Scottish Premiership football. Olsen should come in and be our first choice right winger in the Inside Forward role, cutting inside and combining with the AMC and the CF. With this transfer I’ve followed rules 1, 2, 4, 6 and 9 so it more than checks the Moneyball boxes, and we’ve got a promising player for relative peanuts, who’s ready to play now and will likely make us a tidy profit after a couple of years at least. This is very small sample size so we can’t make any judgements whatsoever based on this, but early signs are promising with Olsen having an 7.96 average rating in his early games for the club. Olsen also has a potential rating of 4.5 stars too, so there’s room for him to develop too.

Screen Shot 2019-02-08 at 18.17.04For the Number 10 position, I decided to sign Lucas Piazón, available from Chelsea on the transfer list for a measly £375k. Now being Brazilian, Piazón does bring rule Number 2 into question, but he’s actually more than undervalued despite his Brazilian nationality, being valued at £1.3m, and signed for £375k. This is a perfect example of rule 10, where Chelsea have massively undervalued Piazón’s ability. This is an excellent signing, and one which should give us a Number 10 for the next couple of years, and hopefully we’ll make a nice profit off the sale of Piazón down the line. I’ve had to give him a fairly large wage with £19k per week, but remembering rule 3, wage expenditure correlates far more to success than transfer expenditure does, and therefore I’m well within my guidelines to make this transfer. I made sure to use the wisdom of crowds with this transfer, and my scouts absolutely loved Piazón and urged me to sign him. Much like Olsen, early signs are very good despite the very small sample size, with Piazón having a 7.6 average rating, and making his first assist for the club in our first league game of the season.

The only other decision I made was to sell Daniel Candeias to Guincamp for what will amount to £1.4m with instalments – which I included on purpose to ensure that money continues to trickle in as the seasons go on rather than in one large amount. The game values him at £1.5m so I’ve slightly undersold him there, but considering he’s 30, and his attributes and PPM’s really didn’t fit with what I wanted from the Inside Forward role, he was never going to play this season, so in the end I’m quite happy with this transfer, even if I’ve slightly undervalued him. Plus, he was signed by Rangers for £700k, so I’ve made profit here. So transfer wise, all in all I’ve spent £775k and recouped £1.4m, meaning we have a clear overall profit. With the money I’ve brought into the club over the transfer window the balance of the club has gone up to £18m as well, so things are beginning to look healthy enough, although we’re projected to go down a fair bit as the season progresses.

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So far, we’ve only played one league game, away to Aberdeen – who we’re competing with this season for 2nd – at Pittodrie, and we comfortably defeated them 4-1. Again, early signs are good, but remember – small sample size. For this season, I’m really looking to finish 2nd to Celtic whilst beginning to analyse the weaknesses in the squad, and building for the future, moving out those weak parts and replacing them with signings just like Olsen and Piazón. I’m loving this save so far, and I’m loving how the concept is forcing me to play in a different way, as I can’t just rush ahead and go and build a wonder team for Rangers. As a result, this is far more fun and has more longevity for me.

So, that brings us to the end of the first update of our Moneyball in FM19 save. Until next time, thank you very much for reading, and as always, should you have any questions to ask regarding this save, the concept behind it, or FM19 in general, please feel free to ask in the comments section of this blog, or contact me via Twitter (@JLAspey). Thank you again, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the first update of this save. I’ll be back as soon as I can with a post-transfer window update to see how we’re getting on with Rangers, with analysis of our weak spots and the transfer window. Thank you again for reading.

9 comments

  1. As a lifelong baseball fan, I am already looking forward to your next update. Glad you understood Moneyball was more about exploiting market inefficiencies than it was about making a profit, although that is always a nice byproduct!

    Great work so far!

  2. Where is your team ranked on wage expenditure in SPL? You want to base this on a comparison with Oakland A’s who have one of the lowest salary budgets in MLB yet are still competitive every year.
    You’ve put a lot of emphasis on wage expenditure being more valued than transfer expenditure but this is not how Oakland work.
    They spend less than all their competitors yet still compete.
    I haven’t looked but I’m guessing Rangers already have the 2nd highest wage bill in Scotland so 2nd position is a minimum expectation.

    1. This is a fair point, but footballing economics are slightly different to MLB since it isn’t a closed league. Even if I pick a really poor team, eventually they won’t be. I picked Rangers because of their financial difficulties and their history, and in relative terms, they aren’t wealthy compared to the rest of Europe for example.

  3. Are the only statistics you are going to use , the average match rating? If players are undervalued they may not be getting any games.

    1. This is a very good point, it’s not the only ones I’ll use, for specific positions I’ll use certain stats to help me find players. Remember though that it’s not always players that are undervalued by the club that I mean, sometimes it’s that the entire market undervalues them.

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