Why a 'Moneyball' approach could be the answer for Celtic

By Euan Davidson

May 4, 2021

Do you remember the book and film ‘Moneyball’?

If not, it’s the story of Billy Beane, a baseball General Manager who turned the Oakland Athletics from a bloated, dying club to an MLB powerhouse. The method was using analytics, and finding value in unorthodox ways. So, instead of going after big-name players, it was a case of trading for or signing players with very specific attributes.

You still with me? Good. So, Beane, using scouting based on numbers, turned the As into legitimate competitors. They turned from being a squad full of overpaid sluggers to a leaner, more successful outfit. It’s a model that’s been followed across sport, with teams trying to squeeze value where it looked like there wasn’t any.

Of course, it’s had applications in football. We’ve seen the likes of Red Bull’s teams utilising this kind of approach. Scouring leagues for talent based on their tangible output, the likes of Leipzig and Salzburg have unearthed gems from less-heralded locales. Think Erling Haaland, as just one example.

What’s this got to do with Celtic? Well, given our links to EFL players, it makes sense to keep abreast of what’s happening there. And this excellent article on Barnsley and Moneyball [Sportico] piqued my interest. Could Celtic have adopted a similar style over the last decade?

Moneyball proponent Billy Beane at the Oakland As / (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images)

Celtic and Moneyball: would it have worked?

According to the Sportico article, Barnsley’s ownership had a three-pillar Moneyball system. The first was based on “a reliance on analytics over traditional scouting”.

For a club like Celtic, traditional scouting has unearthed enormous successes. Neil McGuinness’ insights on discovering Virgil van Dijk, for example, make for great reading. The likes of Victor Wanyama, Fraser Forster, Gary Hooper and countless others have been examples of the “traditional” approach.

Meanwhile, players like Vakoun Issouf Bayo and Maryan Shved might’ve been signed based on their considerable stats. Bayo had 10 goals in 16 games for DAC Dunajska Streda before signing for Celtic [Transfermarkt]. Meanwhile, Shved managed 14 goal involvements prior to his move to Paradise [Transfermarkt].

But that’s just a very small sample, and there are plenty of examples of either method yielding minimal results. It’s impossible to know what could’ve been if Celtic went purely with the data. In more recent years, you’d have guessed that say, Kasper Junker would’ve been a priority.

In Barnsley’s case, it’s vaulted them into a realistic Premier League promotion push. It’s impossible to say whether this would’ve worked or not without years of data and evidence. So: pillar 1 – unconfirmed.


“Ruthless commitment to young players”

The second ‘pillar’ was a commitment to playing youngsters. While currently there are complaints (chiefly by me) that veteran players are too influential, this is something that Celtic have actually been pretty good at over the last 10 or so years.

Barring the odd Ronny Deila experiment with Carlton Cole, or Brendan Rodgers and Marvin Compper, each manager has generally tried to keep the average age of the squad down. As Transfermarkt shows, during each of Neil Lennon’s years over both spells, the average age hovered at around 23. During the 16-17 Invincible season, that number was exactly 23.8.

Fine, not that many Academy graduates are getting into the team, and that’s its own issue. In terms of signings, though, generally speaking Celtic are bringing in players during their late developmental years, and often moving them on for profit. That’s a huge part of how Moneyball can be successfully implemented.

While a handful of veteran players have been able to hold onto significant wages at the club, generally speaking Celtic perform well in this category.

Pillar 2 – it works.

Former Celtic boss Ronny Deila / (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

“High-pressing system”; the interpretation of Moneyball in football

Finally, according to Barnsley’s ownership group PMG, the implementation of a clear playing style is the third pillar of a successful Moneyball system.

The wrinkle here is that PMG own multiple clubs, including Jack Hendry’s Oostende. So, it’s a different scenario. But let’s apply it in-house, and use this reference in terms of our first team, development team and women’s team. A high-pressing, high-tempo style has always been popular with Celtic supporters, but there’s no real coherent multi-team strategy in terms of playing style.

Fran Alonso, Celtic FC Women coach, consistently gets it right. His side are relentless out of possession, maintaining a shape to attack once they’ve won the ball back. With an emphasis on fitness and intensity, Alonso uses substitutions at vital teams to keep the energy up to consistently keep a high-tempo and the recent results emphasise the success of this.

As for the Men’s team? Well, it’s hard to say. Under Deila, absolutely. Rodgers: yes, and with frightening success domestically. Under Lennon, though? It’s been inconsistent. Too often, whether through lack of fitness or lack of desire, players have dropped off and neglected their marking duties.

Under a Director of Football, this needs to be a point of emphasis. That’s one of the key jobs of a Director; keeping everything aligned from the first-team to the Academy. There’s got to be a clear and coherent strategy.

So pillar 3 – tick, but with caveats.

Fergal Harkin has been linked with a move to Celtic / (Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)

What does any of this Moneyball stuff mean?

Given that Celtic are in a state of flux, there’s surely going to be a big ideological change at the club. A new Director will be tasked with establishing an overarching identity, and that identity may well be a version of Moneyball.

Given Barnsley’s relative success, and examples across Europe, there’s evidence that this kind of thing works. However, it lacks a human touch. In-person scouting can be beneficial in so many ways, not least being surprised by another player and taking a chance on them instead.

It also implies that in-person scouting isn’t as thorough, and that’s entirely unfair. John Park, McGuinness and others would surely show you volumes and volumes of notes.

But buying young players to sell for a profit? That’s something Celtic have done. Playing a high-tempo, high-pressing game? Ditto. These are things Celtic have excelled at, and with the help of a forward-thinking coach, a version of Moneyball might be what the club need to both balance the books and keep the standard high.

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