West Ham United’s quest for their first European final in 47 years will come up against a familiar face in Billy Beane, the real-life inspiration for Brad Pitt’s character in the movie Moneyball.
Beane, who pioneered the use of statistical data to turn around the fortunes of Major League Baseball team Oakland Athletics, has an association with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar that goes back nearly a decade.
He bought a 5% stake in AZ in 2020, having acted as an adviser to them for the previous five years.
In a recent speech to the European Clubs’ Association general assembly in Budapest, Beane gave a fascinating insight into both his methods and his thoughts about AZ Alkmaar.
He said that the process and consistency they have had is one of the best untold stories in sports and that their success is not only a great football story, but also a great business story.
AZ are used to operating on a lower budget than their rivals, both at home and in Europe, and Beane first put his Moneyball concept into practice with the Oakland Athletics baseball team.
In football, expected goals have now become a commonplace assessment of a team’s performance, in addition to completed passes in the final third and standard shots on and off target.
Yet Beane is clear that data is not everything and that he wants scouts to give him information that he can’t get from data, such as a player’s character and family background.
To the summer of 2021, West Ham’s total revenue was £192.1m, compared to AZ’s £19m (21.08m euros), and their wage bill was £128.45m, compared to AZ’s £14.13m (16.2m euros).
London Stadium has a 62,500 capacity compared to AZ’s AFAS Stadium, which holds 19,500. Yet with three games of the domestic campaign remaining, AZ are well placed to secure their fifth top-four Eredivisie finish in six seasons.
They need four points to guarantee European football once more.
Beane said that the first thing Robert Eenhoorn, AZ’s general director, did was to stop losing money, which unfortunately meant selling the club’s best players to make up for the poor decisions made by people who were there before him.
The little money he did have, he went out and bought two players from the second division that were completely data driven: Vincent Janssen and Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
The pair were brought in for less than £1m and were later sold to Tottenham and Brighton, respectively, for a combined £33m.
West Ham will face a tough challenge against AZ, who have proven that the data analysis methods used in baseball can be transferrable to other sports.
It remains to be seen whether Beane’s association with AZ will help them reach their first European final since winning the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1981, but one thing is certain: they will be a team to watch in the coming years.