BUILDING A TEAM: Basketball as a blueprint?

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Cameron Downer provides an interesting analysis of how, whether by design or coincidence, Liverpool are showing similarities with NBA franchises in their structure and philosophy.

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Premier League football fans over the years could typically be characterised as traditionalists hell-bent on maintaining the identity of the English game and resistant to foreign thinking. However, recent times have seen a weakening of this stance, with Spanish dominance of the modern game forcing many to consider the value of continental philosophies.

This concession is generally not extended to philosophies from other sports. Particularly barred from consideration is the thinking behind successful American sporting organisations. Purists scoff at the concepts of ‘Moneyball’ and view words like ‘franchise’ with suspicion. They remain wary of American sport and its evil undertones of business and profiteering, but such thinking is archaic and misinformed.

Disclaimer

We’ve all read opinion pieces that draw broad, lazy comparisons between football and other sporting codes in order to support a narrative. A popular recent trend amongst sportswriters is to attempt to correlate faintly similar policies of the Boston Red Sox with those recently being implemented at Liverpool Football Club. Vague parallels like these can be tiresome and are often scarcely informative. Common ownership alone does not indicate analogous operating conditions. Similarly, a common objective — ultimately to win games en route to titles and trophies — does not mean sporting organisations from different countries or codes can necessarily be compared like-for-like.

Nevertheless, there can be merit found in drawing such comparisons. The key is in properly understanding the various frameworks and nuances of different sports that influence managerial decision-making, while keeping references as relevant as possible to football and LFC. I will attempt to do so, using examples from the NBA to illuminate some of the possible rationale behind Brendan Rodgers’ management and transfer activity as Liverpool boss. In focus will be his efforts to build a competitive team both for now and for the future.

‘Layering’ the Football Club

For readers unfamiliar with the NBA and how it functions, every year a draft takes place giving teams an opportunity to make selections of players from the college basketball talent pool.

Since its conception in 2008 when it rebranded from the Seattle Supersonics, the Oklahoma City Thunder has emerged as the leading how-to franchise in all of basketball in terms of youth development and the blueprint for building a team. Central to that reputation is the decision-making of general manager (read: Director of Football) Sam Presti. Following the recent 2013 NBA Draft last month, Presti spoke at an introductory press conference for the Thunder’s newly drafted players. He talked of his desire to “continue to layer” the team with “like-minded players”.

This concept of ‘layering’ a team or organisation is particularly interesting. It involves signing groups of talented individuals of similar ages in order to create generational cores of gifted players.

A football club can achieve a number of things by following such a policy. It can improve its sustainability by promoting talent to the first team from within, rather than emptying its coffers and lining the pockets of competitors. Fenway Sports Group along with managers prior to their stewardship, most notably Rafael Benitez, identified this need to ‘farm’ talent (to borrow an American expression) within the confines of Liverpool’s Kirkby Academy and Melwood training ground.

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Whether intentionally pursuing a policy of ‘layering’ in its transfer strategy or not, there are notable generational cores of young talent forming at LFC. In the absence of any clear cut-off point, for argument’s sake, let me define them as the ’17-19 year old layer’ and ’20-22 year old layer’. In each category we have the following promising talents, amongst others, signed in recent years:

17-19 layer: Jordan Ibe (17), Raheem Sterling (18), Suso (19), Yesil (19)

20-22 layer: Luis Alberto (20), Joao Texeira (20), Coutinho (21), Borini (22)

(These parameters could obviously be extended to include players like Jordan Henderson (23), Daniel Sturridge (23) and Joe Allen (23) also)

On the whole and with the exception of perhaps Texeira, players from the ‘20-22 layer’ are more likely to see regular first-team action at Liverpool this season, though this is perhaps unsurprising given their more advanced ages. Furthermore, Raheem Sterling may be involved more often than his immediate peers, as his talent belies his years. The hope is of course that, when members of the ‘20-22 layer’ enter their prime and are hopefully key contributors for LFC, the members of the layer beneath them will be making their case for playing time and be ready to deputise when required.

Layering a sporting organisation can ensure that, even as key players age, move on to a new challenge or retire, the team remains competitive and relevant. Just days ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were dealt a blow, when starting shooting guard Kevin Martin accepted a lucrative contract offer in free agency to join a rival Western Conference franchise, the Minnesota Timberwolves. The mechanics of how and why such situations come about in the NBA is not pertinent to our analysis of LFC, because football operates under a completely different structure and set of rules. However the reaction of Presti and the Thunder to a difficult situation is significant.

Where other teams, by necessity, may already have pulled the trigger on a trade for a replacement, Oklahoma City instead have the luxury of giving young burgeoning talent Jeremy Lamb an opportunity to prove he is ready during the Summer League (read: Pre-season). There’s no guarantee that Presti won’t trade for a player somewhere down the line, but for now he has decided to trust his development coaches and reap the rewards of layering his organisation.

In a somewhat comparable situation last season, Brendan Rodgers put his faith in Academy talents Raheem Sterling and Suso after failing to secure key transfer targets Gylfi Sigurdsson, Clint Dempsey and Daniel Sturridge in the summer transfer window. The difference, of course, lies in the fact that Rodgers had little alternative than to hand the keys to the kids as it were, given the threadbare nature of his squad. Nonetheless, with further signings and development, in time he could have a selection of young backups for every scenario.

Synchronizing Development

Clever NBA General Managers often seek to synchronise the development of their starting team, in an attempt to ensure players peak at a similar time and mount the strongest possible challenge for a championship. Similar to the notion of layering, they will endeavour to group the ages of players, but with a specific focus on key players rather than youth. Presti acknowledges it is not a perfect science because “everyone has their own development arc”, but nevertheless the idea of growing a team together is plausible and justifiable.

This concept might seem somewhat foreign to Premier League football, where teenagers and players in their thirties often co-exist in a starting eleven. But upon closer inspection, is there evidence of this occurring at Liverpool?

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The average age of Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side last season was a mere 23.18 years, the youngest in the Premier League. With the exception of Kolo Toure, who was signed somewhat out of necessity to replace Jamie Carragher’s departing experience and leadership, all of Rodgers’ first team signings as Liverpool Manager have been aged between 20 and 25.

One might suggest that simply ‘buying young’ doesn’t mean the manager is intentionally synchronising the development of his team. Younger players may be targeted at Liverpool because they generally demand more modest transfer fees than established stars and will maintain re-sale value. But whether by chance or design, many of Rodgers’ signings are at similar stages of their ‘development arcs’ and are therefore well-positioned to grow together.

Let us consider some signings of the past few seasons and the amount of experience they each have in football.

One of Rodgers’ youngest first-team additions is Philippe Coutinho. The impact Liverpool’s Number 10 has had since joining in January is certainly not lost on the club’s supporters. Although he joined Liverpool at the tender age of 20, Coutinho had already featured in almost 50 top-flight league games for Inter Milan and Espanyol, where he played on loan for half the 2011/12 season. Additionally, Philippe could boast a handful of Champions League appearances as a teenager. Clearly, he possesses a rare wealth of experience in the game for a player of his age and this, along with his undeniably immense talent, helps to explain the immediate impression he made. It is not a stretch to consider Coutinho an old 21. Brendan Rodgers certainly thinks so, saying of the Brazilian back in May “he’s 20 years of age, but he’s not a boy.” To return to Presti’s assertion: every player’s development arc is different — and Coutinho’s arc has an unusually steep gradient.

Contrastingly, the manager’s oldest signing (excluding Kolo Toure) is recent addition Iago Aspas, at 25 years of age. Despite having played in 136 senior matches during his career with Celta de Vigo, Aspas only played one full season of football in Spain’s top flight. Although a player can of course develop at any level of football, it is therefore conceivable that Aspas and Coutinho may be at more similar stages of their development than their age disparity suggests.

Other recent Liverpool signings in the 20-25 age bracket have similar levels of top-flight footballing experience too. Joe Allen has played two seasons of Premier League football, Fabio Borini boasts a season in the Serie A with Roma and an, admittedly injury-disrupted, season in the Premier League with Liverpool. Daniel Sturridge has approximately three full season’s worth of Premier League experience amassed at Chelsea, Bolton and Liverpool, while new-boy Simon Mignolet was Sunderland’s undisputed number one for two full seasons. The only clear anomaly is Luis Alberto, who joins Liverpool with obvious potential but without any significant top-flight experience.

There has been some debate about the rationale of the signing of Simon Mignolet. His ability is not in question as most Reds agree the Belgian is one of the finest goalkeepers in the Premier League. Many simply feel that with Victor Valdes staying at Barcelona for another season, Pepe Reina is likely to remain at the club. Rodgers points to a desire for competition at every position, and Mignolet certainly provides that. But perhaps further justification can be found in their respective ages. At 24 years old, the former Sunderland stopper’s development arc aligns better with the core of the squad than Reina does at 30. As such he could potentially provide certainty and continuity between the posts for a decade to come. As the manager looks to build his squad for now, but with an eye on the future, it is probable that Mignolet was signed with a long-term vision in mind.

Because of this grouping and this synchronisation of development, we are likely to see a lot of natural growth from within this set of players in the coming years. In theory, the culmination of this should be a Liverpool team full of players collectively arriving at the peak of their powers. That can only mean good things on the pitch.

Summary

Many football fans are, or traditionally have been, reluctant to see the benefit in managerial philosophies from other sports. To a degree this is understandable as we all wish to maintain the identity of the game we love. But modern football coaches and executives can benefit from looking abroad and looking beyond their own code for inspiration. Sport is abundant with gifted managerial minds and tapping into some of that wisdom can help a young boss like Brendan Rodgers greatly.

Whether intentional or simply coincidental, there are indeed similarities between youth and development policies employed at Liverpool Football Club and top NBA franchises.

To mark the end of the 30-year wait for a league title, the ‘Liverpool Mishmash’ poster is available to order exclusively on This Is Anfield — the history of the Reds in one image!

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