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Back to the Future: The (Defensive) Middle Ages

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A look at Liverpool's squad needs through the lens of FSG's transfer model. First stop, defensive midfield.

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Time travel is an awesome concept. Not just for discussions over its plausability or the ways in which it can be used to tell stories, but also because, in a certain light, we can all be time travelers. We may not literally hop into a poorly constructed car rigged with a flux capacitor, but we all engage in trips forward and backward in time. Sometimes it's looking back during a difficult patch and wondering how things might have been done differently. Or it might be a hopeful look forward and imagining how things might be if everything goes to plan.

For the football supporter, this time travel often involves the analysis of past transfers, tactical decisions, and substitution choices, trying to plot a course from their starting point to the most positive of potential futures. We football fans are all massively neurotic time travellers. And because I'm one of you, here's my bit of time traveling: a glimpse at Liverpool's future personnel options through the past and present, one position at a time. But first, a quick detour through FSG's transfer model.

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One of the most frequent criticisms of FSG and their transfer model has involved a misunderstanding of Moneyball and the holding up of the club's failure to land coveted targets alongside the purchases that haven't seemed to work out, put together as proof positive of an error-filled transfer model. The argument's premise is that the use of Moneyball principles - predicated on finding value in the market - means that the failures in the transfer-market are due to FSG building on the cheap.

While the underlying principles of Moneyball are to find value in the market, there's a giant chasm between finding value and being cheap. Namely, the first hope in employing this system is to make personnel decisions that are smart. Value, in this case, is to a two-tiered system: finding first what metrics are best to evaluate, accurately, the true contribution of a player. Then, gauging just what facets of the game are worth the most allows for true valuations - meaning that good calculations will limit the likelihood of overspending or, more importantly, overlooking the hidden value of players whose contributions have been missed by others.

FSG's work in Boston is often viewed as leveraging these shrewd player evaluation tactics with the the constant maximization of the commercial revenue potential of the Red Sox to create a scenario where the team can stay a step ahead by identifying the best players and paying accordingly. So far at least it does seem they've attempted to do the same here at Liverpool.

The statistical revolution that heralded the Moneyball movement in baseball identified a correlation between age and peak contribution value - finding that in general that fell between the ages of 26 and 30. For the purposes of our discussions here, let's assume that the range holds similarly for the more physical sport of football.

For clarity's sake, the players I've included in this evaluation is anyone that has spent time in that role at one point in their career - at Liverpool or otherwise. I've also only decided to take a look at the players most likely to feature beyond this season. Knowing this, let's take a look at the current state of Liverpool's defensive midfield.

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Currently, Lucas is a clear lock as the starting DM. His return to form has been noted with much enthusiasm around these parts and it's clear that, at present, he represents a high standard. Being 28 and on reasonable wages, it's not hard to see that he's also the linchpin on which the rest of the DM personnel puzzle rests. Without someone of Lucas' quality, in their prime, Liverpool could be looking for a clear upgrade at this position in every window until someone like him comes along or, until one of the younger DMs comes into age.

The next member of this squad actually shows why Lucas' value to Liverpool is much higher - 21 year old Emre Çan is almost certainly intended to be the successor to Lucas with Joe Allen having shown little sign of developing into a payer who can fill that role as first choice since he arrived at the club. Çan is, inexperience aside, at least the most like-for-like swap in terms of who could fill that role. While his quality is not in doubt, his relative inexperience may still place him behind the 24-year-old Allen in Rodgers' estimation.

These ages are important because the cyclical nature of professional sports with injuries, and other reasons for personnel turnover often create gaps in positional depth. However, Liverpool have quietly filled the position with players capable of plugging this midfield gap while maximizing years of player control and appreciation value with regards to transfer fees.

Perhaps, then, the transfer committee may not be quite as addled as some have worried. A depth chart of Lucas followed by Çan and/or Allen is one that doesn't seem all that terrible. It also allows for a natural succession moving forward, with the younger players providing fringe contributions early on and those in their mid-20s like Allen being the direct backup to those in their prime. If the younger player blooms early, all the better, but the contingency and intentionality of that build is plain to see.

Finally, the positional flexibility of Allen and Çan has allowed for more holes across the pitch to be plugged with capable backups without creating a the kind of bloated squad and payrolls so many other "big" clubs end up with. With FFP and Liverpool's own limitations with regards to matchday and Champions League revenue, this is no small feat. Wage bills can get out of hand quickly trying to round out a squad with quality depth, and it appears that Liverpool have looked for tactical/positional flexibility as a workaround to the FFP/wage constraints.

Question marks remain, but it may be that, under FSG, Brendan Rodgers and the transfer committee have managed to create squad depth at multiple positions with single purchases, allowing for spending to be prioritized in different ways. As we move forward in this series, we'll take a look at how well that spending has actually gone down.