It’s hard to believe initially that Brendan Rodgers is a scapegoat. After all, a delicately portly Northern Irishman with the philosophical sense of David Brent and the humour of a mildly misshapen and ever so slightly morose brick does not invite sympathy.
Ultimately, however, Brendan Rodgers is a victim, a sacrificial lamb proffered as an offering to make good the deficiencies of a ‘Moneyball’ system wreaking havoc on English football.
To clarify, this is no criticism of Liverpool, who have pulled off a great coup in landing Jurgen Klopp as manager at a time when results meant that, surely, Rodgers was stretching thin his already borrowed time. If there is any fault, it lies with Arsenal, whose increasingly misplaced faith in Arsene Wenger has resulted in them failing to acquire the highly rated former Borussia Dortmund manager.
Nevertheless, Rodgers has much reason to feel aggrieved at his sacking this week.
At the beginning of the season, few believed that John Henry would do it – pull the trigger, that is. After missing out on the Champions League there were rumblings only amongst the more deluded sections of the Anfield faithful (the same types who insist that this year is always their year and risibly proclaim Jon Flanagan as the ‘Scouse Cafu’) and little to suggest that Rodgers’ job was in jeopardy. Yet John Henry is no Abraham and Rodgers much less an Isaac, and the former Swansea manager would not be spared a knife he did little to deserve.
Rodgers’ sacking highlights an increasingly pernicious force in British football – a near fetishisation of numbers and statistics, a blind faith in the recruiting ability of an inscrutable team of executives and an obsession with the apparently messianic force of ‘Moneyball’.
Those familiar with Soccernomics will, at this point, be nodding their heads wisely, smug in their sagacious footballing knowledge and happy at finally finding some real-world application for a book likely spent being digested while lying on the hot sands of Corfu. To most, however, ‘Moneyball’ is still an alien term, a half-remembered concept far outside of the conventional footballing lexicon.
Named after a 2003 book by Michael Lewis, ‘Moneyball’ is the street name for sabermetrics, the ruthless analysis of statistics as a means of evaluating baseball players that has revolutionised American baseball. One of its most zealous converts is a certain John Henry, whose possessions as head of the Fenway Sports Group include the Boston Red Sox, the New England Sports Network and, most importantly of all, Liverpool Football Club.
Through Michael Edwards, the director of technical performance, Liverpool sought to expose players undervalued in the transfer market using statistics, to find a premium goalscorer, a top-notch playmaker or a titanic defender on the (relatively) cheap all through the evaluation of previously ignored facts and figures. A transfer committee would then, on this basis of this, make the decision to sign a player. Yet football is not baseball and this system is far from infallible.
Since FSG’s first full season as owners of Liverpool (2011 – 2012), the Merseyside club have spent in the region of three hundred and fifty million pounds on transfers. Not a single one of these players have been sold for a profit. In this time, Stewart Downing, Dejan Lovren and Lazar Marković have all been signed for twenty million pounds each.
All of which makes you wonder just how much Brendan Rodgers is truly to blame. It is forgotten, now, but once the much lambasted Rodgers was close to being crowned alongside Steven Gerrard as Liverpool’s greatest servant of this millennium, the man who delivered them the hallowed league title after so long in the wilderness. Were it not for a Gerrard slip, the Premier League may have found its way to Anfield in 2014.
When it comes to statistics, Rodgers’ win ratio of 55.3% seems worthy of consideration by Edwards. As the highest ratio of any Liverpool manager in the Premier League era besides Rafael Benítez this is evidently impressive, yet this hides the fact that Rodgers was working in a completely different environment from his Spanish predecessor.
For whilst Benítez was in charge of transfer policy, Rodgers was not. Few will have heard of Ian Ayre, Dave Fallows or Barry Hunter but it is they, alongside Edwards, who comprise Liverpool’s transfer committee, responsible for the likes of Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto and Mario Balotelli.
Balotelli is a case in point. Given that the immobile and eccentric Italian seems the antithesis of a Brendan Rodgers player, who has historically favoured hard working, versatile players capable of engaging in a high pressing game, it seems safe to say that the Northern Irishman was not behind his recruitment. Now, however, he must pay the price for Balotelli’s failure to replicate the goalscoring form of the departed Luis Suárez.
Rodgers has reason to feel hard done by. As a superb man-manager, coaxing electric form out of the likes of Jordan Henderson who had previously proven underwhelming, Rodgers came so close to winning the ultimate prize and so set himself the standard of achieving Champions League football, which Liverpool had not achieved since 2009. When the signings foisted upon him by a committee who do not face judgement on matchday failed to perform, he was promptly hoisted by his own petard.
A fundamental premise of any job is that a responsibility for achieving a particular end entails a proportional responsibility for deciding the specific means. Rodgers may have agreed to this particular dirty deal, a Faustian pact in which he traded his soul for the hope of Premier League glory, yet he did not deserve this.
This kind of transfer policy is not all bad – few Liverpool fans would criticise the signings of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho. Nor are Liverpool the only offenders, by any means. Yet Henry’s supposed revolution has failed to turn so much as a single stone at Anfield, where the age-old proclivity for making stupid signings perseveres without any marked improvement in achievement on the pitch.
Simultaneously, the deficiencies of this system are well shown far to the west of Liverpool, just south of the M4. For a Brentford team who made waves by narrowly missing out on the play-offs in their first season in the Championship last year, forcing out their manager by attempting to wrest away his control of transfer policy seems a uniquely obtuse move. As they now sit precariously outside of the relegation zone only on goals scored, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a satisfying example of just desserts in an unfair world.
For plucky, smaller clubs like Southampton, who have little to lose, this kind of model can provide a gamble worth taking, an opportunity to vastly improve their lot and thus to return to the promised land of the Premier League. For clubs like Liverpool or Brentford, who not only have their cake but now apparently want to eat it, it seems little more than a way to force out a talented manager.
At his zenith, Rodgers was astonishingly (if perhaps spuriously) linked with a move to Barcelona, whilst Warburton’s Rangers are now so high in the Scottish Championship that he can probably see Brentford from Ibrox given the broken teams piled beneath him. Both were especially capable in their previous roles.
The ‘Moneyball’ revolution is ill suited to football, a sport whose passion, drama and unpredictability seemingly defies a robotic reductivism to statistics that would make even Rain Man shed a tear. Transfer policy must remain in the hands of those who will be judged by it. Brendan Rodgers is a scapegoat and at this rate, he will by no means be the last.