Andrew Robertson was Liverpool’s best “overlooked” signing and one reason why the club hired Jürgen Klopp was because they worked out he had been one of the “unluckiest” managers in Europe over a 10-year period, Liverpool’s director of research has said.
Ian Graham has offered a fascinating insight into the work he does including using “missile tracking” technology to assess players and said that Mohamed Salah, whom he had urged Klopp to sign, would be worth far more than €150 million (£129m) if he were sold.
Speaking on the Freakonomics Radio podcast Graham, who runs the data analysis at Liverpool, was asked which player was his favourite “discovery signing” and talked about Robertson who arrived from relegated Hull City for £8m in 2017.
“The sort of players I really like shine through in the data but don’t naturally shine through for your typical football fan or even your typical scout,” Graham told the podcast. “He’s a sort of awkward, ungainly player or a player who has been overlooked for various other purposes. One of my favourite players is Andy Robertson who is one of the best left-backs in Europe.”
On the podcast entitled Can Britain Get Its ‘Great’ Back? Graham is one the guests interviewed by host Stephen Dubner and explained his liking of Robertson who did not start playing in the Premier League until he was 22 with a struggling Hull City side.
“Andy Robertson’s problem was his background as much as anything,” Graham said. “They [Hull] got relegated from the Premier League and he was the best young full-back in Britain at the time. He was a really strange case of a really attacking full-back playing in a really poor defensive team.”
Graham uses his background – he has a PhD in Theoretical Physics from Cambridge University – to analyse players. The Welshman, who grew up a Liverpool fan, created his own model to evaluate players and works out of the club’s Melwood training ground with his analytics team. For four years until 2012 he worked for Tottenham Hotspur before he was hired after Fenway Sports Group bought Liverpool.
Graham and his team use data on every touch that every player makes during a game, where they are on the pitch and where it happens, employing “optical tracking” which is the same technology developed by the military for tracking missiles. With this the analysts receive “25 frames per second” of where exactly every player is on the pitch during a game.
In the podcast Graham explained that one of his least favourite measures is a player’s “pass completion rate” as he argues that it often distorts in favour of players who attempt only easy passes as opposed to those who play more risky balls which have a greater chance of leading to a goal being scored.
“So some of the best passers in the game have some of the lowest pass completion percentages in the game and that’s because the risk reward pay-off is very, very skewed in football,” Graham said.
There is therefore an argument that it is very easy to “massage statistics” so that a player can achieve a high pass completion rate without actually helping his team create a goal-scoring chance.
“The passes I really love are the passes that go in behind the opposition’s defence and take four or five defenders out of the game. Those passes are really hard to make but someone who gets those passes correct half the time is a world-class attacking midfielder,” Graham explained.
Graham’s work is allied to traditional scouting with Liverpool having detailed data on hundreds of thousands of players with his team of analysts helping the “filtering” down of possible targets to be looked at. Graham does not examine video evidence or scout players himself beyond analysing the data.
That process also applies to hiring a manager with Graham playing “a small role” in pursuing Klopp in 2015 when he succeeded Brendan Rodgers. “Our owners and me and all my colleagues were huge fans of Jürgen and his Dortmund team in the early 2010s,” he said. “They played the most exciting brand of football in Europe and coming from a place really not of financial dominance. They won the German Bundesliga twice at a huge financial deficit compared to Bayern Munich and so he was always one of our dream hires as manager but his last season at Dortmund was disastrous.
"So they were in the relegation zone and the German media said: It’s all over for Dortmund. Klopp’s lost it and there’s no way back for them.'”
Graham disagreed. He created a mathematical model of every pass, shot and tackle during Klopp’s years at Dortmund to evaluate each game and how they should have ended. It showed that even in Klopp’s final season at Dortmund, when they finished seventh, they should have come second. The analysis proved that the results did not match Dortmund’s performances.
“So I analysed 10 seasons of Bundesliga performances and Dortmund were the second unluckiest team in that 10-year history. It was just some terrible luck cost Jürgen,” Graham said.
Graham said that Klopp has embraced the work that he does.
“My concern about Jürgen was his act that you see on the cameras every week was just that – an act,” he said. “And that the real person would be someone different but it really isn’t. Data analysis is something that is new and because football is a very conservative sport it’s something that is very difficult to get across.”
In the podcast Graham discussed how Klopp has embraced his work. When it came to signing Salah from Roma from £34m in 2017 Klopp had to be persuaded but, of course, the forward has been an astonishing success.
Graham was asked how much the 27-year-old would now be worth in the transfer market and said: “He’s not for sale. If we could benchmark him against a recent player that we sold which was Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona your minimum starting bid would be €150m at which point the answer would be ‘no, stop wasting our time’.”