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The True Price of Success


Friday, November 19, 2010 by

Pay As You Play by Tomkins, Riley and Fulcher - Book Review by Roy Henderson

Before We Start - Full Disclosure
It’s only right to disclose that I had a small involvement in the book, having been one of the many bloggers and writers who contributed to its second part. I would hopefully have been more involved too, had I not been involved in a few other extra-curricular activities over the last few months. My contribution is listed here, so feel free to tear it to shreds. All feedback is good feedback.

To the Review
As Liverpool fans, we all know who Paul Tomkins is. There’s a thread on RAWK where week in, week out, we to and fro over the merits, demerits and alleged subtext of his standard fayre - or a great part of it - his regular blogs. But as even the most committed detractor would concede, the man is as prolific as he is talented. As well as a mammoth online output, Tomkins has since 2005 published a series of books almost unprecedented in their attention to detail and depth of analysis. Having also been the key columnist on the official club site for several years, it’s fair to say we all know who Paul Tomkins is.

But three questions:
- Do you know who Graeme Riley is?
- Do you know who Gary Fulcher is?
- Do you think fans of other clubs know who any of these three are?

The Three Wise Men
I’d suggest that, not too long from now, the answer to all three of those questions will increasingly be ‘Yes’. At least amongst a certain cadre of football fan, that is. The reason? They’re at the forefront of a movement, and that movement is as inclusive as it is intriguing.

Last month, Tomkins, Riley and Fulcher published “Pay As You Play” after a six-month project led by Tomkins. You might think that’s a natural gestation for any standard book project, particularly one where several people are collaborating. But the term “standard book project” doesn’t apply - this isn’t a standard book. When the postie pops your cardboard package through your letterbox, you’ll hear a thunderous crash, because this is a work of almost unprecedented weight. Flick through its pages, and you’ll gain access to a repository of data so rich that you wonder how a monster like this could have been borne within those six months. It’s a veritable beast.

The Premise
The premise of Pay As You Play (PAYP) is simple - it’s been hitherto impossible to achieve genuine like-for-like comparison between clubs, managers, and players. That’s true of a static analysis based on the present moment alone, let alone comparison between managers, clubs, and players of different eras. The tools we’ve thus far used haven’t been fit for purpose in that regard. So why not invent better tools?

That’s what Tomkins, Riley, Fulcher et al have made a start on here. PAYP represents something fundamentally different to tools like the Guardian Chalkboards, or heat maps, or the various statistical corpora provided by companies like Opta or Actim. These are tools used to provide rudimentary match analyis and assess the microcosmos of a football match. PAYP instead thinks of football clubs and their managers as market operators. Clubs, and the managers at their helm, buy and sell things in what’s essentially an open market. Sure, it’s an unregulated market plagued with sharks and sheisters, but for the most part clubs are subject to the same advantages and disadvantages faced by companies generally when trading in any market. Some have bigger bargaining power and greater resources to allocate. But what’s key is that all of those companies are subjected, either internally or externally, to constant scrutiny of their performance in their chosen markets. The tools developed to perform that scrutiny objectively have, over centuries, become incredibly sophisticated.

In football, on the other hand, we get Messrs Merson, Redknapp and Lawrenson schooling the average football fan on what being ‘effective’ means in the football transfer market. That is to say, we had no insight into what ‘effective’ means whatsoever.

In light of that fact, PAYP should have football fans rejoicing the world over. While it’s restricted to the English game, and for the moment only to the Premier League and those who have participated in it since its inception in 1992 (they only had six months mind), the principles applied here would apply in exactly the same way in any league, and in any country.

The Transfer Price Index
So - to the tools of their trade. Those who read Tomkins’ earlier works “Dynasty” and “Red Race” will be familiar with his “Transfer Price Index”. Simply put, this applies a Retail Price Index-type analysis to prices in the football transfer market. As Tomkins himself says:

“In everyday life, most people are familiar with the concept of the Retail Price Index (RPI) as a measure of inflation. A basket of goods is identified and every month the same items are checked to see what the value would be if these were to be purchased. The difference between the current value and that from the previous month is calculated and termed the RPI. By comparing the value this month with the corresponding value for the same month last year, we obtain the RPI.

The same methodology applies to the TPI, except that the “basket” contains every single footballer bought and sold each season, rather than grocery produce (although a few rotten eggs remain).”

Dynasty used this approach to try and assess Liverpool managers, sides and players from different eras on a fair footing, taking their financial and competitive context into account along the way. Red Race took this a step further, comparing Liverpool’s market performance in recent seasons against what were then its direct rivals at the top of the table.

PAYP is the next logical extension of this approach. It’s the Transfer Price Index approach writ a little larger.

So How Effective Is The Analysis?
It’s important in any review not to give too much away, so I won’t. All I’ll say is that, like any good analysis, it’s nice and transparent. It’s the underlying data that shines through, and it isn’t clouded by spin or agenda. I’ll expand on why that’s crucial below.

The authors acknowledge that their approach is not without its flaws, and it’s that overall acceptance and openness that rings true with the statistical tradition for me. It’s split into four parts as follows.

Part 1: introduces the methods used, and identifies the key trends and points of debate from 1992 to the present day.

Part 2: delves into the detail for each of the clubs involved in the Premier League since 1992.

Part 3: switches focus to each of the 18 seasons in turn.

Part 4: assesses the performance of the big managerial names involved.

How effective it is will ultimately be judged by each reader themselves, so all I can do is offer my personal take on things. For me, while there are obvious areas you’d like to see explored further, the book clearly demonstrates both the correlation between financial muscle and success, and the value of this kind of data in comparative assessment. It’s a big step in the right direction.

Is It Balanced?
There will inevitably be those who disagree - that always seems to be the case when it comes to Paul Tomkins’ work - but for me, balance is baked into this book, and to the entire movement that it’s built upon. What would be the point otherwise? Central to the development of this book, (and you would hope of many later books) were Graeme Riley and Dan Kennett, both experts in commercial data analysis. Their expertise enabled constant tweaking to the underlying database, and to the number crunching methods used to read the overall trends. Being experts in what constitutes competitive balance, their reputations depend on their objectivity. How can you make informed decisisons if any kind of agenda skews your representation of your data of the analysis that flows from it?

It’s likely that many others talented in these fields will get involved with later developments. That bodes well for us, if not for Messrs Merson, Redknapp and Lawrenson.

A Better Mousetrap?
In comparing the relative merits of analysis based on transfer fees versus analysis based on wages, the book’s introduction states: “Neither method is perfect… but as we will outline in this book, we feel that we’ve found the strongest-ever link between transfer spending and success.”

I think that’s a fair assertion. The data presented is compelling in itself. But the book’s about more than that for me. What’s possibly more important is that a. these guys have developed a way to produce and self-publish a book of phenomenal quality in only six months, and b. they’ve demonstrated a commitment to openness, transparency, challenge, and constant refinement, and that commitment is built into the very fabric of their approach.

It’s that spirit that will, you hope, eventually help build the kind of mousetrap we need.

Hopes For The Future
One thing that’s clear about Paul Tomkins is that he’s a man who responds positively to a challenge. So it’s with that spirit in mind that I hope he truly pushes the power of this idea and helps reinforce and build on the genuinely enlightened thinking that currently goes into our analysis of the game. Ex players and media hacks serve us up the same old nonsense week in and week out, and have done for years. In the process we never really get much insight into what makes the game tick. And while this isn’t the only front on which fans need to take the game back, it’s one front where we can really make inroads into ‘enemy’ lines. All we need is access to the data, a few clever heads to knock together, and a few more with the ability to present the insight it creates in a way that’s accessible to the day-to-day fan.

People are excited about the idea. Only three weeks ago I spoke to an illustrator for a well-known children’s comic and he started to wonder how you could make this kind of information accessible to school kids. It’s quite a challenge when you think about it like that. But ultimately it should be the aim if this movement’s really going to change things.

PAYP makes an excellent start in that direction. The writing is clear and direct, making a subject that could be dry and intractable both engaging and intuitive to understand. The use of standard graphs and infographics is intriguing to me, as it’s an area I’m fascinated in. I remember suggesting a few months ago that by applying the principles of Edward Tufte, Tomkins and his compadres could really bring the findings of this work home to your average fan. Taking one look at the heat map graphic from PAYP, which plots the trends in competitive balance since 1992, you realise that this spirit is central to the group’s work. To be honest, it makes you want to throw yourself in there and get involved.

Along with developing better tools for genuinely insighful and objective analysis, you can only hope as much effort goes into keeping the information engaging for users. On that front, I’ll be reporting for duty - but then it’s my hobby anyway.

I guess the best way to sum up my hopes is this: I’ll meet you all for a pint at the close of the 15th annual International TPI Convention in 2028.

This book represents the fish in the penguin’s mouth on the top of a very large iceberg indeed. It’s an intriguing insight into how managers and clubs have performed since 1992, and it will refresh those expect balance and fairness in books of this type. These “Three Wise Men” deliver objective praise to people you might not expect during the course of the book. I’d highly recommend that you add it to your Xmas list and pop it up the chimney for an early delivery. Or, if you don’t believe in Setanta, just rock it up on a Kindle reader app.

Pretty soon, people throughout the game are going to be well aware of who these Three Wise Men are. Tomkins, Riley, and Fulcher had best brush up on their public speaking skills, because they’re going to be in demand.

Roy Henderson, or royhendo as he is most commontly know in internet circles, is a regular contributor to the Red and White Kop website and has his own site at He can also be found on Twitter.  More information about Pay as You Play can be found on the official website.

The Lad Can Play: Michael Ngoo


Tuesday, November 02, 2010 by

It is impossible not to notice Michael Ngoo. During games he sticks out as an adult playing with a bunch of kids would, such is the gap in height between the 6 ft 4 tall striker and the rest of the players. The difference is so marked that it is difficult not to presume, even if fleetingly, that his inclusion might be purely to leverage on his height and get the team some easy goals.

Watch Ngoo play, however, and such notions would quickly disappear. His height is an obvious advantage but what he truly brings to the side is the ability to run with the ball, to get past people and create goals just as much as score them

When Ngoo joined Liverpool from Southend midway through last season, such instances were sporadic. There would be one or two moves hinting that the player had something about him but there would also be miscontrolled passes or instances where possession was lost far too cheaply. It was as if his eagerness to prove that he was a player with the technique worthy of playing for Liverpool, and not someone who was only good enough to act as a target man, was getting in the way of him showing what he really could do.

It is easy to understand Ngoo’s state of mind. The previous summer, he had been invited for a trial by Manchester United where he had joined their academy side for a tournament in Ireland. There he had done well enough to be judged as one of the best players on show and United were interested in making the deal permanent. Yet there was also some reluctance from their part to pay what Southend were asking and ultimately nothing came out of it.

Mentally it must have been tough on him to get over such a disappointment and, when the chance to play for Liverpool came about, the pressure to justify his place must have been immense.

With games and time, his confidence started to grow and so it is that this season we are seeing an almost completely different player, one who is a menace every time he gets the ball at his feet.

Yet there is more to Ngoo’s progress than just belief. Over the summer he seems to have bulked up a fair bit which has made him not only more imposing as a player but also much more difficult to bully physically. From a player who struggled to handle a full game last season, he now looks more than ready to take on the next challenge which is that of showing his ability with the reserves.

In truth, that this hasn’t happened already because of his call ups to the England U19s. It would be easy to view the frequency and timing of those games as a hindrance but they are anything but. Tactically, he is learning by facing different styles of players and also by coming across different systems to those that he is used to at Liverpool. Noel Blake, who is the English U19s manager, has experimented with Ngoo playing him both in a central role and as a support striker in a three man attack.

His ability has shone through in both roles yet it would appear that his impact is much more significant in the latter system. Defenders quite simply aren’t expecting such a big player to be so good with the ball at his feet. And, even when they know what to expect, they often can’t deal with it.