Saturday, June 16, 2007
ESPNsoccernet: June 21, 1:18 PM UK
The Freiburg experiment: A different school of thought
The last time we met, I began my column with what looked like an offhand remark, namely that I was reading "Moneyball" and that it was about baseball. This was correct, but deliberately imprecise.
The first part of the book is about a lot of numbers, what they can tell you and how you could use those statistics to gain an insight. And that's what
I did in the last column, using one of the few football stats that seem to make any sense.
The second part of "Moneyball" is about winning against all odds. It's about how Billy Beane, as general manager of the comparatively poor Oakland A's, and his assistant Paul DePodesta tested their belief on the field of play. And their belief was that, in the words of author Michael Lewis, 'the market for... players was so inefficient, and the general grasp of sound... strategy so weak, that superior management could still run circles around taller piles of cash.'
Or, put differently: 'The question wasn't whether a [poor] team could keep its stars... The question was: how did a... team find stars in the first place, and how could it find new ones to replace the old ones it lost? How fungible were... players? The short answer was: a lot more fungible than the people who ran... teams believed.'
Fungible, in this context, means 'interchangeable'. And excuse those unwieldy stops I put into the quotes, but I tried to eliminate the most direct references to baseball so that the lines become more general. That's because I have another story from the past season for you, a story that - like the tale of Berkant Göktan you heard in late May - took place in the second division.
Actually, only a grandiose goalkeeping gaffe in stoppage time prevented this story from becoming the best bar none of the 2006-07 campaign. This story is about someone I was reminded of quite a few times when I read "Moneyball". In the book, it says that DePodesta 'was an outsider who had found a way to enter a place designed to keep outsiders out'.
And in July of 1991, when second-division SC Freiburg hired a new manager, the man they presented was certainly an outsider: Volker Finke was a teacher at a secondary school granted a sabbatical leave. In his 43 years on this planet he had never played professional football and his coaching experience in the professional game amounted to less than three months in the 2nd Bundesliga with the tiny club TSV Havelse (he was fired after 13 games).
Actually, Finke later said about his taking over at Freiburg: 'I had the feeling that it was a temporary job and that I would go back into teaching.' Well, he did teach over the next sixteen years. But not at schools.
Two years before Billy Beane moved into the Oakland A's front office to challenge conventional sports wisdom, Finke set about proving that professional football was not as efficiently and as rationally and as, well, professionally run as people wanted you to believe. Because if that had been the case, a small club without any funds like Freiburg should not have been able to compete. But they did. And in the process, Finke's boss, chairman Achim Stocker, challenged a few wisdoms himself, for instance that you should fire the coach if there's a problem.
That solution, Stocker made clear early on, was never again to be a solution.
Finke's premise was as simple as it was old: the other teams have and always will have an advantage - money; if we play their game, they will always price us out of the market, consequently we have to play a different game. In contrast to men in similar situations, Finke meant this literally.
See, the problem of the small club is as old as football. But strangely enough, the vast majority of small and poor clubs have traditionally decided to survive under these circumstances by either doing exactly what the big boys do, only on a smaller scale, or by developing a trench mentality, or by accepting their fate and becoming a feeder club.
If, for instance, the rich clubs went out and bought a tall striker to capitalise on the new and expensive guy who crosses so well and also bought a lithe forward to get on the end of the through balls the recently signed playmaker could play, then some poor clubs would try to find a cheaper towering centre forward, a less good crosser, a not quite as lithe forward and a playmaker rejected by big clubs for whatever reason. Either that or they developed very defensive tactics to minimise the damage. Or, the third approach, they concentrated on nurturing youngsters and then selling them.
Finke liked neither of the three traditional approaches. The first was silly, the second timid. The third was by and large okay, yet got you nowhere. But what if you would play a different game from the big dogs, out there on the pitch? What if you didn't need a towering striker or a guy who can cross, what if the midfielders you were looking for were not the kind of maestros the big clubs were looking for?
And, to make this even more enticing, what if you didn't even look for the players the other small, poor clubs were looking for? What if you didn't scout for strong workhorses and full backs who'd get a boot in and then hoof the ball upfield? What if you didn't even look for the most important of players, the guy who could be the sweeper?
In theory, this would open a whole new market to you - a potentially large group of players no-one else cared about because they were considered unsuited to the professional game. Rather, to the professional game as most clubs played it.
For instance, in 1991 the vast majority of football people still regarded the game as a succession of one-on-ones and automatically discarded players who
wouldn't win many challenges, either defensively or offensively. You could get these players for little money. All you then had to do was play a game where there would be no, or very few, one-on-one situations.
Finke couldn't do this overnight, as he didn't have the personnel. For a couple of seasons, he was even forced to play with a sweeper, like every other German coach at the time. But two years and twenty fairly unknown signings later he was ready. What happened next and why this still made for a great story two football generations on, in 2006-07, will have to be next week's topic. Sorry, but my allocation of words is up.
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