October 9, 2011


Billy Beane's soccer ally (Jorge Arangure, 9/23/11, ESPN Insider)

During A's games, Billy Beane will often receive a simple email: "Hey, I'm watching your game on my computer."

That wouldn't be so peculiar if not for the fact that the sender was a Frenchman living several time zones away in Liverpool, England. In fact, it's not unusual for Damien Comolli to be watching an A's or Red Sox game at 3 a.m. When the English transfer window closed just before midnight on Aug. 31, Comolli, after having worked an 18-hour day to secure the sale of several players who had bloated the Liverpool payroll, had gone home and watched the Red Sox-Yankees game on his computer. The next night he stayed up until 4 a.m. watching the two teams.

"By virtue of his new employer he has to act like he likes Boston more than he likes Oakland now," Beane says. "I know better."

Without a doubt, Comolli's friendship with Beane has shaped his career. At first, the conversations with Beane were casual. Comolli learned that statistics could be used not only to analyze one's own team, but also for player procurement. Beane's approach even seemed even more fitting for English Premier League football, where the season champion is determined by the regular season standings. There was no uncertainty of a playoff system that Beane detested. And while there's no single soccer metric that is as important as on-base percentage, Comolli figured out that there was one number that correlated most with the teams at the top of the table: passing percentage. That stat became the principle from which Comolli bases his moves.

"Let's take the [San Francisco] Giants last year," Comolli explained. "After the season, and going into the playoffs, nobody thought they would raise their game like that and win the World Series. It was almost impossible to guess. But in football, I don't think that could happen. I think the best team over 38 games without playoffs always wins. And throughout the season you can almost track which are the best teams. And the best teams are the one who are most successful at passing the ball."

After their initial meeting, Comolli and Beane decided to take a trip together to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Beane was fascinated at how intense Comolli could be while watching games. Comolli noted every movement and analyzed every play. His mind worked like a computer. During breakfast at a hotel in Munich one day, Comolli, then fully engaged in the transfer window while still at Tottenham, closed three deals in three different languages with three different agents, which floored Beane.

"And I thought negotiating a contract with Scott Boras was tough," Beane jokes.

When Comolli was fired by Tottenham, Beane encouraged him to hold onto his beliefs, despite the harsh criticism Comolli received in England. Almost immediately after the Liverpool sale, Beane contacted his friend Henry -- who had tried to hire Beane as Boston general manager in 2003 -- and suggested he hire Comolli, who had taken a job with Saint-Etienne shortly after being fired at Spurs.

"I've got a pretty good feel for the type of executive and the type of system John wanted to run," Beane says. "I knew Damien and knew what he believed in and I thought it was the perfect match."

Less than two weeks later, Henry hired Comolli.

The first moves Comolli made after taking the Liverpool job, other than completely building the team's analytic department, which was non-existent prior to his arrival, was to hire scores of scouts -- which some would say would be anti-Moneyball. But by that time, the Moneyball ideologies had evolved. Despite what many thought, Moneyball was never about one simple principle such as OBP. It was about an approach.

When Comolli took the job at Liverpool, the club remarkably didn't have any scouts based in the UK. Such deficiencies, Comolli knew, would lead to a lack of data.

There's a sublime bit in a FourFourTwo interview with rapidly failing Bolton manager Owen Coyle where he says: "Your facts and stats will tell you anything you want but nothing can beat the naked eye in football." If a scout had mouthed those words in the Moneyball movie folks would have called it an unfair caricature.
Posted by at October 9, 2011 10:01 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus
« | Main | IT'S OVER, WE WON: »