Antonio Conte, Football Media & Cricket Selectors

I've not written much on here recently but as I've been doing every so often, I thought I'd blog about some areas which have caught my interest recently.

On Thursday, the Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte, was reported to be questioning Tottenham's ambition following a lack of activity in the transfer market.  If you're interested, you can read more here, but summarising the key quotes:-

"If [Spurs] don't win the title, it's not a tragedy," said Conte. 

"If they don't arrive in the Champions League, it's not a tragedy. If they go out in the first round of the Champions League, it's not a tragedy. If they go out after the first game that they play in the Europa League, it's not a tragedy.

"Maybe for Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and - I don't know - Liverpool, it is a tragedy. You must understand the status of the team.

"Every team has to understand what their ambitions are. If their ambitions are to fight for the title or win the Champions League, you must buy expensive players. Otherwise you continue to stay in your level. It's simple."

Antonio Conte's opinion is that you must buy expensive players to fight for the title...

I want to focus primarily on the final paragraph, and particularly the sentence "If their ambitions are to fight for the title or win the Champions League, you must buy expensive players".

Even in the hyperbole-riddled world of football, this is an extremely absurd comment. While it's certainly easier to win titles buying expensive players, as Jose Mourinho has proven throughout his career (I'd like to see him try if he was manager of a Stoke, or a West Brom), it's not entirely a pre-requisite, as Monaco illustrated effectively in France this season.

Another BBC Sport article here describes the basics of Monaco's transformation well, as well as giving a nod to the current sporting director, Antonio Cordon.  Monaco have bought under-valued players, and used them to succeed, before selling them for considerable profits.  If they can do it, why cannot others?

The answer, almost certainly, lies in the inherent lack of trust in sports data and analytics with regard to recruitment, as well as an unwillingness to plan for anything other than the immediate short-term.

As most readers will probably be aware, Matthew Benham, owner of FC Midtjylland and Brentford, is one of the leaders in this area, and it's fair to suggest that both clubs have over-performed expectations based on their respective budgets.  Football still has a long way to go before analytics are fully embraced, and until a team fully adopt an analytics approach and significantly succeed with such an approach, it won't.  The sport is riddled with old-school thinkers, with particular reference to subjective 'eye tests', a concept suitably ridiculed by Billy Beane, in the book 'Moneyball' - more on this 'eye test' logic later...

Such a sensible, numbers-driven approach would not find favour with another old-school industry, the football media, who do so much to mislead football supporters.  Transfer rumours frequently follow the adage 'if you throw enough darts, you'll eventually hit the bullseye' while inaccurate and agenda-driven 'statistics' affect the opinions of supporters.

A notable example includes Newcastle United, and manager Rafa Benitez, who have been accused of spending fortunes in the Championship in their successful bid to return to the Premier League.  While it's true that they spend in excess of £60m in doing so, their net spend - according to Transfermarkt - was over -£30m - so they actually made a profit in doing so.  Indeed, all their spending was covered by the departures of three players - Georginio Wijnaldum, Moussa Sissoko and Andros Townsend.  

Romelu Lukaku's sale has roughly covered the Everton transfer expenditure...

Recently, Everton have been lauded by the media for being ambitious, with an outlay of over £80m already in this transfer window.  However, they recouped this by the sale of their star player, Romelu Lukaku, to Manchester United.  

Does this ring any bells with Tottenham Hotspur, and Gareth Bale?

The only difference is that Everton did the buying first, and Tottenham did the selling first, but the effect is much the same.  Everton, almost certainly, did their spending in the knowledge of significantly recouping their costs from the Lukaku sale.

On that subject, Tottenham were accused of wasting the 'Bale money', but this is entirely disproven by the financial figures.  

Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado, Vlad Chiriches and Etienne Capoue were purchased for just over £100m, and sales of the latter five players have generated a combined £52m, around half of the outlay.

This leaves Spurs with a 'deficit' of around £50m from the spending, but with Lamela and Eriksen as assets, and a Twitter poll (below) indicated that Eriksen's market value was £53.1m, by using the midpoints of the brackets I assigned.

Given this, we can state that instead of wasting the 'Bale money', they actually have managed to acquire Erik Lamela as an asset for free - a statement I do not expect to be mentioned in our print media in the near future.

Finally, back to the 'eye tests' that still intrude on the sports coaching and selection mentalities of major teams.  

Possibly one of the most ludicrous examples of this is the England Cricket Team, whose teams are chosen by a selection panel which includes the coach, Trevor Bayliss, and three selectors.  The intended purpose of these selectors is to watch county cricket with a view to establishing the best players for the team.  

However, the problem with this is that there are multiple matches at the same time, and the inability - due to time constraints - of a selector to watch a player numerous times means that this approach is very variance-heavy.  Even the world's best batsman can get a good ball and score a duck, so if this batsman is watched by the given selector on that given day, he won't have made an impression.

With this in mind, should we be surprised that England don't know their best team, or even their best batting order (although there should never be a fixed batting order - it should be flexible and situation dependent), or that they pick the player rather than the format - with prime examples including Mason Crane being included in the recent T20 team against South Africa, despite impressing with the red ball, Dawid Malan now called up for Test Cricket despite being superb in T20s, and in the past, James Vince (a much better white-ball cricketer than red-ball) and Alex Hales being similar situations.

Keaton Jennings is the latest player whose future has been speculated on, following a run of bad scores in the current South Africa series, and I listened with bemusement yesterday as commentators stated that he needed to score a 50 to guarantee his place in the team for the next Test.  These statements were actually made despite being reprieved twice, including a dropped catch, in the early part of his innings, so are we saying that his entire future is based on whether a catch he offers is held or dropped?  The ability of a South African fielder to catch a chance should have no impact on whether Jennings is the best player for his role in the side.

The answer, quite simply, yet again, is analytics.  Sack the selectors - a method anchored in years gone by - and use a decent statistical analyst to pick the team in conjunction with the coach and captain.  As my Twitter bio says, the most dangerous phrase in the language is "we've always done it this way", and the current selection policy of the England Cricket Team is fraught with this danger.

My analytics last year discovered just how good Benny Howell is at T20, a format where it is pretty irrelevant how good you are in other formats, and my article here, written around a year ago, found Howell to be the 5th best T20 bowler in the world, and I wrote: "Benny Howell's numbers have been superb for a few years now and he lies 5th in the table - he's also a very useful lower order hitter with a decent strike rate, and could be a player who could step up to international level or be a cheap pick for a foreign franchise during the English off-season."

Since then, Howell had a strong 5-match spell at Khulna Titans in the Bangladesh Premier League  - I wonder if they also saw his talent through the numbers - where he took 5 wickets at 24.20 with an economy rate of 6.05 across 20 overs, and is now again impressing in the current T20 Blast, taking 9 wickets at a superb cost of 17.11 runs per wicket, and going at just 7.33 runs per over - not to mention amassing 133 runs with the bat across five innings.

Following Howell's performance in the Live Sky game this week, commentators and former England players on social media started to champion Howell, speculating that he should be considered for the England team.

My numbers and analysis a year ago  aptly demonstrated that he is the best T20 bowler in England, so it's pretty amusing to see that the 'eye test' takes a year later, as well as the high profile Live Sky match, to draw similar conclusions.

Numbers don't lie.