To start with an understatement: Liverpool have come a long way under manager Jürgen Norbert Klopp. From struggling to qualify for the Europa League to consistently in (and challenging for) the Champions League. From struggling to break 60 points in the league, to threatening to break 100.
The list of drastic changes goes on and on. Not only have things (including personnel) on the pitch improved, but so too have they have the off the pitch.
However, a few holdovers from the Before Klopp Era ended up quietly helping drive this transformation: Liverpool’s analytics team. The team, led by Ian Graham, were the focus of a fantastic and in-depth feature by the New York Times yesterday (I highly recommend reading the whole thing). Although the Liverpool boss played a rare bit part in the article, his incredible and rare managerial skills to listen, adapt, praise, and delegate came through in the piece.
Klopp analyzed no data at Dortmund. In this, he was like most managers. He was consumed by coaching his young team on the field. But by the time Graham left his office that morning in 2015, Klopp’s epiphany was complete. He was convinced that Graham, despite having watched none of Dortmund’s games, appreciated the unusually bad fortune that had befallen the team almost as keenly as if he’d been coaching it himself. Later, Klopp learned that without Graham’s analysis of that season, which was only one aspect of as thorough an investigative process as any soccer club had undertaken to replace a manager, he never would have been hired. “The department there in the back of the building?” he said recently, referring to Graham and his staff. “They’re the reason I’m here.”
Graham, who earned a doctorate in theoretical physics at Cambridge, built his own database to track the progress of more than 100,000 players from around the world. By recommending which of them Liverpool should try to acquire, and then how the new arrivals should be used, he has helped the club, once soccer’s most glamorous and successful, return to the cusp of glory.
Klopp’s ability to think outside the box separates him from other managers. It was even the subject of one of my first posts about the manager upon his appointment. This is in stark contrast to a quote cited in the article by, arguably, the most stereotypical of stereotypical British managers:
“Our game is unpredictable,” says Sam Allardyce, who has managed 12 clubs over nearly three decades before Everton fired him last year. “Too unpredictable to make decisions on stats. We’re not talking about baseball or American football here.”
Considering Klopp’s success at both Dortmund and Mainz, it’s slightly surprising that his previous teams didn’t employ similar statistical analysis. But then again, the field within football—especially compared to other sports like baseball—is still up and coming.
While many managers in Klopp’s shoes might get egotistical—feeling that they’ve coached long enough, with enough success, to ignore the stat nerds—that is not the impression the reader got from this article. Indeed, quite the opposite. And it fits with Klopp’s character and overall ambitions at the club. Throughout his tenure, he has looked for marginal gains everywhere he can, whether its in the transfer market, nutritional and fitness experts, training facilities, and even throw-in coaches.
By combining his naturally successful and distinctive playing style with cutting-edge analytics, Klopp managed to produce arguably his best season as a manager. Hopefully the analytics guys saved just a little bit extra for the Champions League final, so we all can enjoy capping the fantastic season in an appropriate fashion.