The commonly held takeout from Moneyball is that Billy Bean was a genius at recognising talented players that other managers missed. He was, but that wasn’t his key insight.
His key insight was that when putting together a baseball team, you have to focus on paying for the thing that you need to win games – runs – and not paying for anything else.
Now, baseball lends itself to detailed stats in a way that football doesn’t. Still, the core thinking remains useful: how do you put together a team that will generate enough goals that, on average over the season, will score more than you concede and thus win more games than you lose?
With that in mind, could Usain Bolt be good value?
That’s quite a different question to whether he is a good footballer.
Let’s start to answer that question with what his strengths are.
He’s quick (duh). More importantly, he’s quick over the sorts of distances footballers run. It’s true that Bolt was never the quickest over the first 30 metres on the track, but no matter – he was near enough that he could catch and thrash his opponents over the next 60 metres or so.
He’s tall, and he’s strong. I’d hazard a guess that his vertical leap is not too bad, either.
So, there’s definitely some strengths to work with, but they’re all physical, and while physical advantage is important, it’s far from definitive in football.
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How about weaknesses?
Not even his biggest boosters are expecting much from his touch. I’d hope for agricultural at best. He doesn’t have a career of matches either, so it’s safe to assume his positional play will be weak. There’s then the question of his cardio fitness – building short muscle for explosive sprints doesn’t leave you with a body good for tracking 12 kilometres over the course of a match.
Could someone with those strengths and weaknesses contribute to building the core metric for winning seasons: goals scored over goals conceded?
Safe to say Bolt’s not your man for keeping ‘goals conceded’ low. Being strong is important in defence, but positioning is everything, and Bolt won’t have that.
So, is there a way an enterprising manager could use his skills to add to the ‘goals scored’ side? Maybe. Someone 195 centimetres tall with a good leap has value as a set-piece target and decoy.
He’s not going to be gliding around defenders with the ball at his feet. You’d be looking for long releases in behind defences, so he can run on to the ball and leave defenders behind.
In essence, here’s the question: how many long balls on the break would you need for Bolt to get a decent-enough first touch; how many of those would he need to get a second to set for a shot; and how many times would he need to be one-on-one with a keeper for a bash to end up in the goal?
That doesn’t sound like pretty football, and it’s not new, but it could be effective. Long ball and hope is a perfectly legitimate tactic, especially if you’ve got someone on each end of the pass to reduce hope part.
Let’s say for every 12 long balls hit, he gets a touch toward goal on half. Let’s say he gets in a readying touch on half of those six. That gives him three decent cracks at the goal for every 12 long-balls forward. If you’re hitting eight of those long balls a game, how many goals will that get you?
How many goals would Bolt need to add in this way to be worth having? How much would any of those proportions need to be off, on average, to make the difference between a meaningful addition to goals scored and non-meaningful?
Sides would take steps to make this tactic as weak as possible, of course. You’d imagine the last line of defence would sit deep, and keepers stand up, to keep the run-on space shallow. That would reduce the effectiveness of the long-ball tactic, but has advantages of its own. There’s nothing wrong with forcing sides to adapt to your style of play, and space between the lines means opportunity for the midfield.
As long as the long ball to Bolt is adding to your scoring options, and not replacing them, is there enough added value?
If you can find a way to make Bolt’s strengths give you value against the only metric that counts, and that comes relatively cost-free because most of his salary is coming from the marquee fund, you’d take him and all the marketing boost that came with him in a blink, wouldn’t you?