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Moneyball has found a new home

In Milan they want to focus on the approach that made the Oakland Athletics famous

Moneyball has found a new home In Milan they want to focus on the approach that made the Oakland Athletics famous

It’s pure chaos down at AC Milan’s front office. After the sacking of directors Paolo Maldini and Frederic Massara, there is little clarity in the club’s future. Amidst this mess, only one thing is pushing certainty: Moneyball will shape transfer windows to come. First of all, what is Moneyball? Moneyball is essentially the art of trading your stars at their all time high value for many underrated, young, or up-and-coming players, in the hopes that they will one day exceed the output of those you traded away. It originated in baseball with the Oakland Athletics (also known as the A’s), as general manager Billy Beane used sabermetrics (advanced statistics that analyze in-game activity) to reveal undetected and almost invisible qualities in certain players. It turned out to be the ultimate small team strategy, characterized by an underdog mentality that has allowed this small budget team to win games - many games - in the MLB during the early 2000s.

And now, the chances of Moneyball landing on Italian soil have become very real. Milan owner Gerry Cardinale is a big fan of Beane’s, keen on bringing him and his strategy to the Lombardy capital and revolutionizing football just like the Athletics managed to change the MLB.

The true peak of Moneyball performance came during the 2002 season, when the Athletics broke the MLB American League record for consecutive wins with 20, despite a very modest roster and budget. Their story was the focus of a 2003 book by writer Michael Lewis, which exposed what was until then a well-kept secret: Moneyball wins you games. Thus began an era of constant winning, losing, and rebuilding for the Athletics, all in the interest of the Moneyball strategy, player trading, and saving money.With their strategy exposed, the A’s started struggling throughout the 2000s, and only managed an American League Championship Series in 2006 (the equivalent of the Conference Finals in the NBA or NFC/AFC Championship games in the NFL), but that was followed by a 6-year absence in the playoffs and a truly dark age for Oakland fans. Nevertheless, the Athletics returned to the playoffs in 2012, thanks to a strong core headed by All-Stars Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson. Still stuck in old ways, however, management decided to trade the stars when they reached their highest market valuation in 2014, getting some unknown prospects in return and sinking back to the bottom of the MLB. That is, until 2018, when those same prospects blossomed into competitive players and gave the A’s 3 playoff appearances during the closing years of the 2010s. And after a great 2020 season, Oakland shot themselves in the foot once again, trading 7 of their best players (including 3 All-Stars) and letting their manager sign with the San Diego Padres. The team was literally torn apart, and this saw the A’s return to losing, which brings us to today.

In 2023 we can look at the A’s performances over the 21st century and see how effective they have been at rebuilding, regardless of whom they have had to give up. This has in turn allowed them to keep competing against rich and powerful opponents, taking them down on a number of occasions. A continuous saga of David vs. Goliath in the baseball diamond, beautiful and romantic. But, the Athletics’ obsession with operating on a small budget has now become their biggest weakness, and ultimately, their end - victims of their own strategy, guilty of taking it too far. With the lowest payroll in the league, the A’s highest paid player in 2022 - Chad Pinder - had a yearly salary of $2,7 million, while the MLB average was $4,4 million. It is so bad that there are even single players like Mike Shcerzer and Justin Verlander that earn just as much as the entire Athletics roster. This is a major reason why the 2023 Oakland Athletics are a prime candidate for the title of “worst team in MLB history”, as they currently possess the 3rd worst winning percentage ever and play games in an empty stadium that fell victim to boycotts and protests from the fans. Despite some success, Moneyball effectively ended the Athletics, no matter how we look at the situation. So what is this strategy going to do to Milan? With the ever-developing technologies that football clubs have at their disposal, a shift into data analysis and methods like sabermetrics is bound to happen. We have already seen this at Brentford, who, like the A's, had to find a way to compete with richer and mightier opponents when they secured Premier League promotion in 2021. Two years later, and they have become a consistent dark horse for big clubs this season - such as Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool - managing a 9th place finish, just 3 points shy of Europa League qualification.

Considering that Brentford played in League One when current owner Matt Benham took over, you could say that the Moneyball strategy that he implemented worked wonders. Players like Neal Maupay, Ollie Watkins, and Saïd Benrahma were picked up as nobodies for roughly £6 million, and were sold years later as bona fide stars in exchange for more than £80 million. Scouting, growing, and selling at all-time high value for enormous profit. Then do it all over again. Good for small clubs, but is it the right way to go for bigger teams?AC Milan themselves have been able to find true bargains over the past half decade - Pierre Kalulu for €1,29 million, Malick Thiaw for €8,60 million, Mike Maignan for €15,40, and even Olivier Giroud for €2,85 million - and use them alongside other stars like Rafael Leão and Theo Hernández (who have doubled or tripled in market value ever since joining AC Milan) to lift themselves out of the 2010s dark age and win a long awaited league title in 2022. This was enough to return to the Italian élite, but a club like AC Milan is going to want to compete in the Champions League too, especially after reaching the semi-finals this year. This is where you need a salto di qualità, or ‘jump in quality’. There needs to be a leap towards progress and improvement, and who better to help you there than big name players or important signings that scream “we are a big club”? Bargains and investing on emerging prospects will only get you so far.But say that Milan does end up preferring to sign obscure talents for small fees in the hopes of nurturing them and turning them into superstars. There is still something, or better, someone, who would have to share the stage with Billy Beane and Moneyball. The man in question is Geoffrey Moncada, current head of scouting at Milan. Known for his good eye, Moncada has not only been the key orchestrator behind many transfers that have brought Milan Scudetto glory last year, but he is also famous for discovering Kylian Mbappè in 2011. His method, however, is a lot more traditional than Moneyball, as he focuses on human and unquantifiable traits, basing many assessments on hunches and personal evaluation. This is where the antithesis rises and we as outsiders are left wondering how the two philosophies will work. Is one going to rule over the other? How do we combine the expertise of a human eye in evaluating unmeasurable qualities with the piercing insight into key aspects of the game through state-of-the-art technology? How important is human interpretation in football? Do we even need it anymore?

Milan are in a limbo, full of uncertainty. Between the Billy Beanes and Geoffrey Moncadas, small spending or big signings, it is unclear what exactly Milan will do to ensure good sporting results. And while Moneyball has enormously helped small, emerging clubs to survive and live to fight another day against stronger teams, AC Milan is neither small nor emerging. Some can afford to scrap for wins with unorthodox and creative tactics, but this is simply not what is expected of Milan. The Rossoneri are chasing titles, something that Moneyball famously never brought to the Oakland Athletics.


Bottom line: Moneyball is looking for a new home, and Milan has become its next destination. Whether the club will be a victim, or a beneficiary, only time will tell.