May 3, 2013 3:31 pm

Everton: how the blues made good

Year after year, Everton outperform much richer and starrier football clubs. Simon Kuper went to Goodison Park to find out why
Everton players, including Marouane Fellaini©Ben Roberts

Everton players, including Marouane Fellaini (centre), take to the pitch against QPR, April 13 2013

On the night 11 years ago when Everton last sacked their manager, I happened to be in Madrid interviewing an Everton fan. Steve McManaman, the slender Liverpudlian winger, had risen with Everton’s local rivals Liverpool before joining Real Madrid. That night in 2002, “Macca” was at his zenith. Two months later he would win his second Champions League with Real. But over a beer in a hotel bar just down the road from the giant Bernabeu stadium, still buzzing after helping Real outclass Sparta Prague earlier that evening, he could only talk about one thing: struggling Everton. An inveterate user of his mobile, Macca had just heard that his beloved club had sacked Walter Smith. “I feel for him,” said McManaman. “As a manager you’re only as good as your material. They lost 3-0 last weekend – three personal errors.” What could Smith do without good players?

Macca knew that Everton were headhunting a lower-division manager named David Moyes. From the sofa, he rang a friend at the club to gossip. Then he chuckled wryly: “Why would Moyes go there? Everton are going down. He’s got a better chance of going up with Preston.”

When the burly, rather fearsome-looking Scotsman Moyes took the job in 2002, Everton did look a hopeless case. They were – and are – the second club of England’s poorest city.

No sheikh or oligarch will fund them. Their 121-year-old stadium, Goodison Park, has little scope for VIP boxes, and there aren’t many corporations in Liverpool to hire them anyway. But Moyes – still at Everton today – has turned the club around. Year after year, Everton finish above much richer clubs, including, deliciously, their local rivals Liverpool, whom they visit this Sunday. Everton currently stand sixth in the Premier League, one spot above Liverpool.

They overachieve largely because of their intelligence. Their success suggests that other clubs aren’t using enough brainpower.

One Monday morning in March I visited Everton’s training ground Finch Farm, on Liverpool’s semi-rural outskirts. Two days earlier Everton had beaten Manchester City, possibly the world’s richest club, yet there weren’t hordes of fans waiting outside Finch Farm. In fact, there was nobody waiting there at all.

In the dining room some players in shorts were eating lunch. I recognised only the American goalkeeper Tim Howard; few other Everton players are household names. I sat down a few tables away with four members of Moyes’s support staff. One of them, David Weir, a quiet Scotsman in a cardigan, had played for Everton before becoming a coach there; but the other three were unknown outside Finch Farm. Steve Brown, James Smith and Dan Hargreaves, in their blue elephant-adorned training kit, are Everton’s grunts: data analysts who earn dozens of times less than the players they work with.

The dining room was unprepossessing: cheap tables that might have been bottom-of-the-line from Office Depot, food reminiscent of a university canteen, and above our heads, a screen showing a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

David Moyes©Ben Roberts

David Moyes, now the bookies’ favourite to replace Alex Ferguson at Manchester United

Everton don’t have money to spare on fittings. Their revenues for the past season were just £80.5m, of which the wage bill swallowed £63.4m. Five of the clubs now in the Premier League’s top seven pay about two or three times more in salaries; the only rival with a wage bill even in Everton’s general ballpark is Tottenham Hotspur, who pay around £90m. Normally a club’s wage bill predicts its final league position: the more you spend on players, the better your team will be. Yet Everton, with about the Premier League’s 10th-highest wage bill, have finished eighth or better every year since 2007. That’s overachievement. No wonder Moyes is bookmakers’ favourite to succeed his fellow Scot Alex Ferguson at Manchester United one day.

Everton’s story was prefigured in a book published in the US 10 years ago. Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, is about a small baseball club, the Oakland A’s, based like Everton in a rundown city, which consistently overachieved because it found new ways of using statistics to evaluate players. Clever use of data is part of Everton’s story too. Moyes, while still at little Preston North End until 2002, was reputedly the only manager outside the Premier League who bought statistics on players from the data provider Prozone. When Moyes joined Everton, he brought with him the numbers and the mindset. Probably all Premier League clubs now employ a performance analyst, but often the guy is locked up in a backroom with his laptop and never meets the manager. At Finch Farm, the offices of Moyes’s main performance analysts, Smith and Brown, are opposite his own.

Smith says: “He is quite demanding in terms of data. In terms of managers, he is probably as into it as any.” (A measure of the grunts’ awe for Moyes is that they rarely refer to him by name – what to call him? “Moyes”? “Mr Moyes”? “David”?) Moyes will often march into the offices across the corridor firing out questions: how efficient is next Saturday’s opponent at scoring from throw-ins? What types of passes do their midfielders make? When Everton face Tottenham’s superstar Gareth Bale, Moyes wants “an assessment of where Bale is actually picking up the ball compared to the areas where you think he is working,” says Brown.

The Moyes years – a story of success

Marouane Fellaini

Aug 2004: Wayne Rooney sold to Manchester United for £25.6m

Jan 2005: Mikel Arteta arrives on loan from Real Sociedad. Signs for £2m in July 2005. Sold to Arsenal for £10m in 2011

Sept 2008: Marouane Fellaini bought from Standard Liege for more than £15m, breaking the club’s transfer record

Nov 2012: Leon Osman, who has played more than 300 games for Everton, makes England debut, aged 31

Stats don’t determine Moyes’s strategy. Rather, they are just one of the tools he uses to give underfinanced Everton an edge. He is always searching for an edge. That’s why he spent scarce cash to move Everton’s training ground from Bellefield to custom-built Finch Farm. A mark of his attention to detail: one of the training pitches there has the exact dimensions of Goodison Park, so that Everton can always simulate match conditions. Weir says: “Moyes almost wanted to take the excuses out: the training facilities, how we travelled, bringing Prozone in. He’s always looking for a little half a per cent to make you better.”

Perhaps the greatest edge Moyes brings is by analysing videos of matches – of Everton and their future opponents. “The level that he goes through the minutiae of the video,” marvels Smith. “Stopping it, playing it again, going through it slowly, from another angle, saying, ‘Go and bring in so-and-so and see what he says about it.’ I think it’s part of why he doesn’t often get it wrong.” Brown adds: “The traditional manager, who leaves at two or three in the afternoon – he couldn’t be further removed from doing that.”

Moyes has no particular ideology of how to play football. Arsène Wenger of Arsenal, say, has always striven for a fast-passing attacking game. Moyes, by contrast, tailors Everton’s style to each new opponent. He works out what the opposition does – and then tries to stop it. Before facing Manchester City, for instance, he found the positions where City’s playmaker David Silva usually receives the ball, and put men there.

The insights gleaned from video and statistics are constantly transmitted to Everton’s players. Brown says: “There is a post-match data sheet that goes up in the changing room. Some players will actually sit down and look at the Prozone data with us; they will look at pass-maps and their ‘receive positions’, their crossing data. One central midfielder comes in every week and looks at his pass completion.” The analysts caution that you need to understand the context of any piece of data. For instance, what was a player’s role in a particular game? Who was he playing alongside? Match data without context are meaningless.

Still, one suspects that the Evertonian happiest to see his weekly numbers is left-back Leighton Baines. The public doesn’t consider him a superstar, but the data provider Opta recently named him “the only player in Europe’s big five leagues this season to create 100+ goalscoring chances”.

Aren’t some players sceptical of numbers? “There is a bit of that,” agrees Brown. But mostly, the analysts find, players appreciate the help. Many players consider stats (about themselves and opponents) a survival tool that could help lengthen their careers in the lucrative Premier League. Smith says: “Going out to play in the Premier League is a daunting thing. They want David Moyes to tell them what to do. That’s reassuring. One player said to me, ‘They might complain about a meeting, but if it wasn’t there they would be the first to say, ‘Where is the meeting?’” Brown adds: “It’s definitely been noted to me by players who have left Everton that the level of detail, of preparation, has been missing at other clubs.”

Team meetings at other clubs rarely last more than 15 minutes. Everton’s meetings are longer and more frequent. A player might receive briefings on the opposition and his own tasks throughout the week. Consequently, Everton play a very planned game. More than at rival clubs, their players take to the field with quite complex guidelines for what to do.

Local teenagers play on Neston Street opposite Goodison Park©Ben Roberts

Local teenagers play on Neston Street opposite Goodison Park, home to Everton FC’s stadium since 1892

The staffers note that most fans and media seem unaware of this planning. Often, in pubs and TV studios, a game is discussed as if it were a mix of bursts of inspiration, individual blunders and a manager’s motivational powers. Hargreaves, who works for the academy with the remit to ensure its decisions are evidence-based, says: “What the public sees isn’t necessarily what’s happening.” In part, that’s because managers such as Moyes won’t reveal their tactical secrets. So journalists end up writing about how a winning manager “psyched out” his opponent with “mind games”.

. . .

A football club is a collection of talent. In this bizarre industry, three-quarters of a club’s revenues might be paid to 25 young men and their agents. That means that a club’s most important decisions concern recruitment. Here too, Everton need to outsmart richer clubs. This starts with where they look for talent. Everton are doing a decent job. Outside the dining room hangs a plaque listing the players from the club’s academy who went on to represent their country. Wayne Rooney’s name leaps out. But the ensemble is impressive given that Everton compete for talent in a relatively small region with a more prestigious club: local boys who supported Everton such as McManaman, Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher all ended up choosing Liverpool’s academy instead.

Still, Everton can do better. Like many English clubs, they scout mainly in working-class neighbourhoods. Hargreaves says: “Traditionally we have core areas where we think we find players. But there’s a growing middle-class, there are more green spaces in the middle-class areas.” Has Everton operated an unintentional bias against the middle classes? “I think evidence would suggest that’s the case.”

Then there’s the issue of bringing players from academy to first team. Very few teenagers are ready for the Premier League. Some adult players therefore need several more years of schooling before they might, possibly, make the big time. Hargreaves says: “I’d argue that a Rooney or a Messi is a freak. The real gains we could have are with players who are not the outstanding talent in their age group. Ten years ago, Leon Osman was sent on loan to other clubs two or three times, and made his debut here aged nearly 22. Leon Osman has played perhaps 300 games for Everton.” Recently he made his debut for England, aged 31.

Signed shirts and footballs©Ben Roberts

Signed shirts and footballs in the First Team Canteen at Finch Farm training facility

Where you recruit matters too. Some national markets are less overfished than others. Smith says: “Probably our best example of getting a player cheaply was Seamus Coleman [bought from Sligo Rovers in Ireland]. We paid £60,000 for him when he was 19, 20. There was a succession element to it: when he came, we were well covered at right-back, and he wasn’t ready to play right-back for us anyway. He went on loan to Blackpool a boy, straight out of the League of Ireland, and came back a footballer, far better prepared for the Premier League.”

Coleman recently signed a contract to stay at Goodison until 2018. Now Everton are searching Ireland for more Colemans, but they are also targeting other underfished markets such as Switzerland, Croatia and Poland. Smith and Brown can get very excited about unknown young Poles. Signing a player is always a leap into the dark. “Watching players is a very subjective thing, an inexact science,” says Smith. “There are all kinds of inputs: live player reports, extensive video analysis, speaking to people who have worked with them, and data is one of those layers. Data plays a role – not a massive role at the moment.”

One occasion when data did matter was in 2008, when Everton were trying to replace their midfielder Lee Carsley. Smith says: “We needed someone to replace things that he had been doing: possession regains, winning tackles and headers, protecting the back four.” The club’s eye fell on a 20-year-old Belgian, obscure but for his enormous hair, named Marouane Fellaini. “We’d followed him at the 2008 Olympics but he didn’t have a great tournament. Actually he got sent off quite early on,” Smith recalls. There were few match stats for Fellaini, because there was then no data available for Belgian league matches. And so Everton watched videos of him to compile their own stats, using key performance indicators that seemed relevant. “It’s GCSE maths,” admits Smith, “as opposed to PhD maths, which is perhaps what we want to be working towards. But Fellaini was one of those where everything said, ‘Yes, do it’: the data, the subjective reports, the age, the fact that he was already playing for Belgium, his size.” And so Everton gambled £15m on him – still the club’s record transfer fee. It paid off. This summer, Fellaini is expected to join a richer club for an even bigger fee.

Everton’s performance analysts want to improve their use of data. They are now picking brains inside and outside football for new insights. They are painfully aware, for instance, that nobody in their group has a maths degree. Still, football clubs may be more advanced than most corporations in using data to recruit employees. Only about one in 10 human-resources staff at FTSE 100 companies has a degree involving numbers, says Rob Symes, who made the documentary film Outside View on sports and data. Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for economics, says in the film that a key to good decision-making is to let statistics “not humans make the final decision”.

Everton’s mix of stats and humans seems to work. If they avoid defeat at Anfield on Sunday, they should finish above Liverpool again. That would please fans who haven’t forgotten Liverpool’s then manager Rafael Benitez calling Everton a “small club” in 2007. Liverpool’s history, fan-base and wage bill still dwarf Everton’s.

But Moyes’s grunts don’t seem to mind. After we’ve been talking for several hours, Smith starts musing on what he likes about the club. Everton, he says, doesn’t generate weekly soap opera of players’ misbehaviour. (Here Brown, listening to his colleague’s paean, hastily reaches back to touch the wood of a cheap table.) “This is a club to be proud of,” says Smith, “from the point of view of overachieving, from the way it conducts itself, from the way the manager and players are perceived. It’s respected by other clubs and other managers and other staff.” He doesn’t mind that Everton are unfashionable. “I actually think that the old stadium, with its history, that’s part of what Everton is.” If Everton were richer, it might not be half as clever.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE