Comolli helps to guide the statistical revolution at Liverpool
This Saturday will mark the anniversary of Fenway Sports Group's takeover of Liverpool and it comes just a few days after UK magazine
Of course, this calculation is skewed and
He is evangelical in his use of data in football, and says now that no major decision at the club is taken without seeing what the stats say. When it works, it can be a great success: as proven by forward Luis Suarez, the new hero at Anfield whose £23 million ($35M) transfer fee is now widely seen as a bargain.
"For Luis, I looked at the stats over the last three years, notably the number of games played which is an important factor," he told
Left back Jose Enrique was another signing backed by the data: when Liverpool missed out on Gael Clichy (whom, when 17 and after a handful of games for Cannes, Comolli had discovered for Arsenal), Comolli drew up a shortlist and noticed that Enrique's statistical figures were impressive, more so than the scouting reports on him. He was also cheaper, in terms of transfer fee and salary, than Clichy. With Enrique one of Liverpool's standout performers thus far this season, it's further evidence that Comolli's methodology has worked.
If only it were always that easy. When a signing doesn't come off, as in the case -- so far, it has to be said -- of Andy Carroll, who cost Liverpool £35M ($54M) in January, and has scored four goals in his first 17 appearances for the club, the whole system is blamed. Comolli bristles at any mention of Carroll in this context, though he did previously admit to Infosport that Suarez had originally been signed to play alongside Fernando Torres, and not Carroll. The problem is that what works for one player might not work for another.
Take this interview with Leaders in Performance last May: "The first thing we used to look for is the talent, but not anymore," Comolli said. "What we want is a talented player but with the right attitude and intelligence. Is he a team player? Is he intelligent enough that he puts himself at the disposal of the team? We need to look a lot more at the psychological aspect of the player, the attitude of the player, the mentality of the player on the pitch than we used to." While that explains why Liverpool wanted Suarez, it also makes Carroll's arrival a little surprising, given the reservations by some scouts about his "attitude and mentality" before he joined.
Comolli's backers, quite reasonably, point out that Suarez and Carroll combined cost almost the same as the sales of Fernando Torres (£50M/$80M) and Ryan Babel (€7M/$9.5M) generated, while Henry has claimed that Carroll's value is actually Fernando Torres less £15M ($23M). That seems disingenuous -- if Torres had joined Chelsea for £25 million ($39M), it's unlikely Newcastle would have sold Carroll for £10 million ($15M).
"Value" is the magic word here: "The whole principle is about creating value, and managing to find a player in the market who is underestimated financially compared to his stats," Comolli told
However, it's important to note that "Moneyball" theory does not preclude big-money signings in positions of key value (after all, Henry's Boston Red Sox have spent the second-highest amount in the last decade in Major League Baseball). Comolli sanctioned the deal for Carroll because his age (22), English nationality and rare physical traits had already made him one of Liverpool's primary transfer targets.
Comolli himself never made the grade as a professional player: he was in the youth team at Monaco but found his path blocked by the likes of Lilian Thuram and Emmanuel Petit. At 19, he was coaching Monaco's U-16 team, before Arsene Wenger, then coaching Nagoya Grampus Eight, persuaded him to move to Japan and coach the goalkeepers at Nagasaki U-18s. One year later, he was working for Wenger at Arsenal, as a scout covering Europe.
It was Wenger who first ignited Comolli's commitment to statistics, after the coach noted Manchester United had the best percentage of successful passes in the opposition half and that Roy Keane won the most one-on-one challenges in the Premier League. "Now you know why they win," Wenger told him.
"The revelation came from reading 'Moneyball', that's when everything fell into place," Comolli told
Paul Tomkins, in
Comolli has denied the claims of
Comolli, quite reasonably, insisted that so much summer business could not have happened had the two men disagreed. On top of the players brought in, Liverpool sold 14 players and moved out another nine on loan: in some cases, like Christian Poulsen and Milan Jovanovic, it bought out the player's contract and in others, like Joe Cole, is still subsidizing his salary.
One French reporter who knows Comolli well suggested that the summer deals were an expensive compromise: Comolli wanted young players knowing their value would increase, while Dalglish wanted British players. The result: almost £50M ($80M) spent on Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing.
In any case, Comolli knows all about power struggles: in his last job at Saint-Etienne, the club's joint-owners were constantly at war with Comolli stuck in the middle. Bernard Caiazzo was the businessman who liked big-name players and enjoyed the attention that comes with owning a club, while Roland Romeyer preferred hardworking players, spoke like a supporter, and was happier in the background. The pair bickered nonstop and the club only just survived relegation. After Comolli left, Saint-Etienne changed its administrative structure and results immediately improved. (That spell also explains why he gets very little credit, and still has a relatively low profile, in France.)
Martin Jol also blamed Comolli for his failure as Tottenham Hotspur coach. "Comolli was responsible, he was responsible for most of the football things," Jol told a news conference after his recent appointment as Fulham coach. It's true that Comolli had bought Darren Bent and Didier Zokora against Jol's wishes, but the club still finished fifth in successive seasons. It was only after Jol's fallout with Dimitar Berbatov, which coincided with Spurs' worst start for 19 years, one win in 10 league games, that the Dutchman was dismissed in October 2007. Comolli's choice as successor was Juande Ramos (who at Sevilla had brought out the best in Fredi Kanoute, a player that struggled under Jol at Spurs) but 13 months and a League Cup trophy later, both men had left the club.
The other lesson Comolli took from Wenger, which is another part of the "Soccernomics" remit, is to always replace your best players while they are still there. (Wenger did this by signing Emmanuel Adebayor before Thierry Henry left, Robin Van Persie before Dennis Bergkamp left, Mathieu Flamini before Patrick Vieira left and he has done the same with Jack Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas.) The Torres deal was done too quickly for that to happen, while it remains to be seen whether Jordan Henderson could prove to be a long-term replacement for Steven Gerrard, or Sebastien Coates for Jamie Carragher.
If you add Stewart Downing to Suarez and Enrique as successful purchases so far, you can sympathize with Comolli's reaction whenever Carroll is brought up. He may not like it, but Comolli knows it's the fate of the sporting director to be remembered for his flops.
And even if Carroll does struggle to improve, Comolli is already helping Liverpool to a profit on and off the pitch. On Saturday, Liverpool welcome Manchester United to Anfield, 12 months to the day that FSG bought the club. One year on, the mood is better, the squad is trimmer, and the future is brighter. Comolli has played his role.