With the ever-increasing presence of statistical analysis in football, and particularly in player recruitment, has come the rise of the transfer guru.
Leicester City’s 2015-16 title success prompted Everton to poach Steve Walsh, the man credited with spotting N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, but he proved unable to unearth similar hidden gems and was replaced two years later.
One man who has been delivering consistently, however, is Liverpool sporting director Michael Edwards.
In collaboration with head coach Jurgen Klopp, owners Fenway Sports Group and his team of scouts and analysts, Liverpool have assembled what is increasingly looking like the best team the Premier League has seen.
Andy Robertson and Gini Wijnaldum were purchased from relegated sides for a total of £33m, while Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah were by no means certain to be stars when signed from Southampton and Roma respectively.
Then there is Virgil van Dijk, Alisson, Fabinho and, more recently with an eye on the future, 16-year-old Harvey Elliott and Takumi Minamino, 25.
Of course, Klopp deserves the credit for getting the best out of his players and has been instrumental in identifying the right type of player for his high-energy system.
Not every transfer has been a success, either. Dominic Solanke didn’t hit the heights hoped, although Liverpool were still able to shift him on to Bournemouth for a profit.
The club’s sound recruitment has been well documented, but the man responsible remains something of an enigma.
Edwards Moneyball approach
Edwards, 40, has ascended through the ranks quickly and is considered by FSG, who also own baseball’s Boston Red Sox, to be a huge asset due to his Moneyball-like, statistics-based approach.
He was reported to have had a strained relationship with Klopp’s predecessor Brendan Rodgers, but when results tailed off it was Rodgers who was let go while Edwards was promoted to technical director.
The University of Sheffield graduate established himself as FSG’s go-to-guy in England, sending them daily emails, analysing the team’s performances and providing key data on transfer targets.
“A sporting director needs to be independent of the head coach in order to offer a different point of view,” former senior advisor of football operations at Swansea City and founder of scouting platform smarterscout Dan Altman told City A.M.
“I’m sure [Liverpool’s] models are reminiscent of other models, but they are slightly more advanced in terms of their analytics and far more advanced in terms of integrating analytics in their decision processes. Analytics aren’t worth a damn if you don’t have a good decision process.”
Michael Edwards is more than a stats man, however. He studies targets live, seeks character references and has an understanding of the game, having played for Norwich City’s youth team before an unsuccessful stint at Peterborough United.
Rising the ranks
Clearly lacking the talent with his feet that he has developed for analysing the game, Southampton-born Edwards earned a degree in informatics before being recruited by Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth as an analyst. A year later he would become head of performance analysis when the department expanded.
In this role he analysed Portsmouth’s performances, held weekly meetings on opponents and studied transfer targets, using sports performance analytics software Prozone.
He would rejoin Redknapp in 2009 at Tottenham, where chairman Daniel Levy trusted Edwards to reshape the performance analysis department. It coincided with Tottenham’s first top-four finish in more than 20 years.
After two years at White Hart Lane he was headhunted by Damien Comolli, then sporting director of Liverpool.
Successive promotions saw him become technical director in 2015 and sporting director just over a year later, giving him a greater remit encompassing everything from scouting to contract negotiations. Earlier this month, Liverpool extended the deals of Klopp and James Milner.
It is not a one-man show, though. Edwards is aided by head of recruitment Dave Fallows and chief scout Barry Hunter, backed by FSG’s John Henry and Mike Gordon, and of course there is the man who brings it all together on the pitch. How well these players would fare without Klopp is debatable.
But with Edwards at the club, Liverpool have scaled the Premier League, claimed a sixth European Cup and just reported an increase in annual revenue to £533m.
His success may not be permanent and every transfer may not match that of Salah or Mane, but Edwards’ involvement and Liverpool’s success appears to be more than a coincidence.