Derek Llambias is unlikely ever to be played by Brad Pitt in a movie. But there are signs Newcastle United's early success this Premier League season owes something to the Oakland A's' stingy strategy currently being immortalized in a blockbuster movie starring Pitt, based on the book whose title made "Moneyball" an American word for winning big on a small budget in baseball and in life.
No one's written an insider book detailing Newcastle's scouting philosophy, so it's hard to know how United has been able to target apparent steals like Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux and Mehdi Abeid before other Premier League clubs. It's not hard, though, to see parallels between economic conditions in Major League Baseball and Premier League soccer that made such steals possible, and parallels between Oakland's and Newcastle's responses to those conditions.
Thanks to competition-balancing mechanisms like reverse-order-of-finish player drafts, salary caps, spending "taxes" and guaranteed contracts, rich clubs in baseball and other American professional sports have been unable to lock the upper floors of their leagues as tightly as in the Premier League. However, the rich Premier League clubs haven't been as successful at buying victory as it may seem at first glance. In researching the history of the Premier League table while trying to predict whether Newcastle's fast start to this season is for real, it struck me that while only five Premier League clubs are spending above the league average for players, eight or nine are still staying above the league average in points. The rich clubs are managing to win, but the overall table isn't as distorted as the budgets. As in baseball, much of the money going to big player salaries in the Premier League is wasted. That's because money isn't brains: every player has a price, but no amount will guarantee the player is worth it.
There being only so much space in the league for soccer players, big-name auctions create a depressed market for small names, and an opportunity for bargain hunting if scouting is sharp. That was Oakland's strategy in 2002; that's Newcastle's strategy in 2011. It's easy to dismiss it as mere cheapness borne of necessity, and there may be truth in that. On the other hand, where modestly financed clubs go most seriously wrong, in baseball and in soccer, is when they participate against richer clubs in marquee auctions. When big clubs buy the inevitable clunker in an auction, they go on to the next auction. Smaller clubs suffer the hangover for years.
So as loath as we may be to admit it, there's logic when a club like Newcastle, in its current stage of economic recovery, places what can feel like an overly strict quarantine between itself and spendy players. While the freer market of soccer means bargain-hunting is unlikely to get Newcastle to title contention as it did with Oakland in baseball, it seems like the right way to get to the door of the penthouse, where Newcastle stands right now.
Moneyball isn't easy, and it isn't always fun, especially for us fans, who tend to be impatient. It requires an eye for talent so sharp that Hollywood can make a movie out of it. But so long as Newcastle can identify and sign the Yohan Cabayes of the world, the club will continue making its thrift-hating supporters eat very sweet helpings of crow.