Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Peter Crouch — the ultimate Moneyball footballer?

Peter Crouch has scored four times since his return to the Stoke City line-up just before Christmas, including his 100th Premier League goal (and his robot celebration), which isn’t bad for a 36-year-old. Crouch often strikes me as a Moneyball-type of player. There’s a great chapter in Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball where he sits in on a meeting of the Oakland A’s baseball scouts discussing whom to pick in the draft. The scouts make comments such as, “he’s got big thighs… it’s a soft body… a fleshy kind of body.” They dismiss players who look the wrong shape or have a unusual gait.

Lewis explains how Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager, deduces that traditional baseball scouts are subjective when judging players and have their own cosy language and culture. They reject players too quickly and the five “tools” of a baseball player are overvalued. Basically they pick players who they think look like baseball players. They project on to them what they think they should become. And the world of football is similar.

Peter Crouch is tall and gangly, standing at 6ft 7ins and just doesn’t look like a footballer. He’s had a peripatetic career via QPR, Aston Villa, Southampton, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Spurs and Stoke. Yet he’s scored once every two games for England (22 in 42 games), a comparable strike rate to Wayne Rooney, Bobby Charlton, and Gary Lineker.

Yes, he lacks pace, but the close control of Crouch is often underrated and he’s much more than an aerial presence. Had the volley he scored from 35 yards (after teeing up the ball with his thigh) for Stoke against Manchester City been scored by, say, Ryan Giggs, it would have bee billed as the goal of the century.

Another player dismissed as a big lump up front, West Ham’s Andy Carroll, recently expressed his admiration for Crouch. Carroll might be generally seen as unstoppable in the air, but the football world expressed astonishment when he scored a stupendous overhead kick against Crystal Palace — the sort of sublime effort that might have come from the departed Dimitri Payet. It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise as immobile old Andy has always been able to play a bit on the ground; witness the way he beat three defenders and stroked the ball into the top of the net against Swansea in 2015.

There are many more Moneyball players if you look for them. Crystal Palace sold striker Glenn Murray even though he returned from long-term injury to score seven goals at the end of the 2014-15 season. Murray looks a bit ungraceful, a journeyman striker. Yet he puts himself about and scores goals. Palace thought they could do better with Connor Wickham and ultimately Christian Benteke. But had they retained the honest Murray — who is still banging them in for Brighton — they might not have been facing up to a relegation scrap.

Football is still unscientific, coaches still back hunches and there are a lot of players out there who don’t look like A-list players. But as with Peter Crouch, a closer look at their stats might well reveal a severely undervalued resource.

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