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Soccernomics: What They Got Wrong And How It Was Right In Front of Their Face

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I know I'm late to the party but I wanted to talk a little bit about Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski's book, Soccernomics.  It is often compared to Moneyball, the famous book about the Oakland Athletics' General Manager Billy Beane and his success in Major League Baseball.  One of the most Moneyballesque chapters revolves around a list 'Secrets to the Transfer Markets'.  Here is the list that if followed Kuper and Szymanski promise the promised land will follow you:

  1. A new manager wastes money on transfers; don't let him.
  2. Use the wisdom of crowds.
  3. Stars of recent World Cups or European championships are overvalued; ignore them.
  4. Certain nationalities are overvalued.
  5. Older players are overvalued.
  6. Center forwards are overvalued; goalkeepers are undervalued.
  7. Gentlemen prefer blonds; identify and abandon "sight-based prejudices".
  8. The best time to buy a player is when he is in his early twenties.
  9. Sell any player when another club offers more than he is worth.
  10. Replace your best players even before you sell them.
  11. Buy players with personal problems, and then help them deal with their problems.
  12. Help your players relocate.

These are simple ideas if you think about them (some of them might even look familiar to Fire fans).  The authors provide anecdotes and data to back up their list.  They go to great lengths to draw comparisons between Billy Beane's success and the success of soccer teams like Olympique Lyonnais.  Beane and the Oakland A's are a shining example of shrewd transactions as they complied a record of 825-632 between 1998-2006 (.566 winning percentage) while spending much less than the competition.  Any team regardless of resources would be delighted to have that kind of record.  There's just one little problem about the A's that I expected Kuper and Szymanski to address but I was left waiting, waiting, and waiting without any hammer dropping on the nail sticking out of an otherwise fine lumber project.

More after the jump

They pumped the success of Beane but failed to mention that Beane's A's went 226-259 between 2007-2009.  Even if the book was all wrapped up in 2009, they still could have at least addressed Beane's 151-172 record between 2007-2008.  What happened was once his secrets were published in Moneyball in 2003 and other teams saw how successful you could be with his tips, smart teams immediately copied his basic principles and Beane was no longer able to take advantage of the same market inefficiencies he exploited in the early 2000's.  It took all of four years for baseball to do things like overvalue young players while undervaluing older players. 

35+ year old guys who are having great 2010 seasons like Johnny Damon and Vladimir Guerrero could only get one year of guaranteed money this off-season while the Cleveland Indians have to be kicking themselves for signing current DL darlings Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore to long-term contracts when both players were entering their primes.  The overall philosophy of sign young guys to low contracts and avoid signing older players to big money works out in many cases (young guy/low money: Evan Longoria, old guy/lots of money: Jeff Suppan) but there is no guarantee.  And I'm not so sure Billy Beane's and Soccernomics tottally mesh, I mean sign guys with personal problems and help them deal with them?  Paging any team that has tried to work with Milton Bradley.

The book falls into the comically unaware when Kuper and Szymanski discuss the success of black players in English soccer in the 1980's.  On average black players in that era had a career that lasted about two years longer than their white counterparts and they had more success on the field too.  Now that could be a bit of the 'Jackie Robinson Effect' where you have to be really good to get past the discrimination boundary but they don't bring that up.  The most maddening thing is they also don't bring up signing black players would have been a transfer market secret in the 1980's.  If there was a group of players that were playing better and for longer periods of time today, Billy Beane or Olympique Lyonnais would sign them.  That is what the list is all about, right?

Did the authors just plain miss that?  Did they notice it and decide not to point it out because it would show that their list was not so much timeless secrets as much as it is a trendy list to contemplate?  The former does sound much better than the latter so I'm going to go with 'B'.  That is the skeptical nitpick review and I owe this book a future service but come on gentlemen.  I'm shocked that they left something so wide open for critique.  Maybe that was the one chapter they didn't consult each other on and they missed out on the 'wisdom of crowds'...  Either way, if I'm running a club I would operate by this list and this list alone:

  1. Exploit market inefficiencies and leave your competition in the dust.