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Sep 3, 2011

A revolution in red

Twelve months ago - before his friend and business partner Joe Januszewski emailed him about the plight of his favourite club - John W Henry knew very little about football, let alone Liverpool FC.

The contrast with Kenny Dalglish, a man who has had a passion for the Anfield club running through his veins ever since he arrived as a player in 1977 (and a love for football much longer than that) could hardly be starker. Yet together, in a partnership forged as much through coincidence as judgment, the two have been instrumental in reviving one of the England's most successful sides.

From the darkest days of Tom Hicks, George Gillett, and Roy Hodgson, Henry and Dalglish have yanked the club out of reverse to such an extent the fans that once feared oblivion now believe Champions League football, or even a title challenge, could be back in the offing.

Early performances this season have only bolstered expectations and anticipation. An opening draw with Sunderland (1-1) was a disappointment, but subsequent victories away to Arsenal (2-0) and then at home to Bolton Wanderers (3-1, in swaggering fashion) have sparked hopes that a return to the top four is a genuine prospect for this season, after two years in the relative wilderness.

To an extent, some of that revival cannot be credited to much more than the mere fact the old regime was kicked out. The way Hicks and Gillett ran the club, with Hodgson also out of his depth, almost any change would have been an improvement.

But Henry has gone further than that, impressing with his sensible observations in the press and unifying the club in pursuit of a common goal (a return to former glories), while also showing no reluctance to invest in the playing staff in the pursuit of that target. Charlie Adam (£7 million), Jordan Henderson (£16 million), Stewart Downing (£20 million), Jose Enrique (£6 million) and Sebastian Coates (£8 million) have all been added to the squad, building on the combined £55 million purchases of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll that Henry sanctioned in January.

Henry made his personal fortune by exploiting the imbalances in the futures market for soya beans and followed similar principles to turn around his Major League Baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, into a perennial contender once again.

It was the later overhaul, noted in Michael Lewis' book Moneyball, that led predictions of similar activity - exploiting statistical areas that other clubs undervalue to pick bargains in the market and turn the club around without breaking the bank - in his new venture on Merseyside. After two completed transfer windows, however, that evidently has not been the case.

Indeed, much has been made of Henry's arrival and overhaul of the fabled Red Sox, but before that he actually owned another MLB franchise, the rather less storied or successful Florida Marlins. Interestingly, he was a devout follower of the Moneyballprinciples even then - using them to great effect in his fantasy leagues with friends - but never really had the courage to implement them on the team he now owned.

"For a man who had never played professional baseball to impose upon even a pathetic major league franchise an entirely new way of doing things meant alienating the baseball insiders he employed," Lewis noted in his tome. "In the end, he would have been ostracized by his own organisation. And what was the point of being in baseball if you weren't in baseball?"

Having made little impact, Henry soon flipped the Marlins in a swap deal that eventually saw him own Boston's storied franchise in 2002. Determined not to make the same mistake, he recruited the forefathers of the 'sabermetrics' principle as advisors and hired a 28-year-old Yale graduate with a view of the game that chimed with his own, Theo Epstein, as general manager. Two years later, the Red Sox won their first World Series in nearly 100 years.

Some might fear that we are witnessing a repeat of the failed Marlins experience and not the Red Sox revolution, with Henry reluctant to stamp his authority in a sporting world he knows little about - but in reality he appears simply to be tempering his approach to suit the particular intricacies of football.

"I want to know why we are doing what we are doing on the pitch and with regard to player acquisition," he told the Telegraph recently. "I wouldn't be doing my job in allocating resources if I wasn't able to make sense of the individual steps we are taking within the context of our overall philosophy."

Dalglish, partly through good fortune, and Damien Comolli, after calculated research, are at the core of that. The board have had nothing but praise for Dalglish - perhaps originally out of a quick realisation that to do otherwise would not endear them to the fans, but more recently out of genuine admiration - but it is perhaps revealing that they have focused more on his leadership skills and football brain than his transfer market acumen.

"I can't think of somebody who embodies the relentlessness and the drive and the attitude of excellence better than Kenny," Tom Werner, a part owner in both Liverpool and the Red Sox, said recently. "I think he is a natural leader. I think he's been able to instil a sense of purpose into the club; and when he says something, I think people listen."

When Hodgson received his P45 in January, a host of young managers (notably Andre Villas-Boas) were linked by the media, but they would have wanted control over aspects of the club Henry had already commandeered.

Dalglish, out of the game's sharp end for a decade, could be trusted to marshal the first team but perhaps persuaded to leave some aspects of recruitment and transfer policy to others.

That primary 'other' has become Comolli. The Frenchman's appointment - first as director of football strategy, then simply director of football - was even recommended to Henry by the primary subject of Moneyball, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. Despite the sporting divide, the two are friends.

"He [Beane] loves football as I love baseball," Comolli said back in 2010, of the relationship he shares with the man who made the As a MLB heavyweight on a fraction of the budget of his rivals. "Everything I have been doing has come from what the As have been doing in terms of collecting and using data."

Comolli has clearly been pegged as Liverpool's own Epstein - himself the Sox's answer to Beane. Comparisons with two revolutionary thinkers may confuse any Spurs fans that remember Comolli's time at the club (although he was crucial in the signings of Gareth Bale and Luka Modric), but those who have worked with both insist they are incredibly similar.

"There is no question that Damien Comolli is cut from the same cloth as Theo Epstein," Werner noted recently. Football, however, is harder to statistically analyse with any great insight than baseball. "Determining what goes into a goal is much more complicated than determining what goes into a home run," Henry himself recently told the Wall Street Journal. But, while the data acquired can never be as easily applied as in baseball, basic assessments can still be made.

From their initial research, it seems the club have employed a two-fold approach - using statistics as an indicator of which players to target, and the level of 'risk' involved as a barometer for who they should actually go ahead and buy.

Beane may be the subject of Moneyball but most of his ideas were adopted from others. But one of his strictest rules was never to draft a player out of high school, but instead to always go for those with a few seasons of college experience under their belt.

Regular college action produced trustworthy data for each player, data that Beane could then sort for the particular statistical strengths he coveted. High school action only hinted at potential - and potential to Beane was just another word for 'risk'.

That is one example that Liverpool seem to be following. It's interesting to see the sums they paid for Adam, Downing and Henderson - all players with impressive (and recent) full seasons in the Premier League under their belt - while avoiding entering the race for Football League (and high school age) starlets like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (£12 million to Arsenal) or Connor Wickham (£7 million to Sunderland).

"Everyone seemed to think that Liverpool was over-valuing British players this summer. But when there is a substantial homegrown rule, British players are going to be highly valued," Henry told the Telegraph. "Look at the prices paid this year for Wickham and Oxlade-Chamberlain. At Liverpool we have purchased each player for a different reason."

That reason appears to be based predominantly on chance creation. If stats are being employed, this is the area they are first being followed. There is a clear correlation between the top scoring teams and the highest finishing teams each season in the Premier League, so goals clearly are the game's most valuable commodity (a fundamentally obvious point, perhaps, but nevertheless one that is worth being reminded in an era where teams have trended towards being more defensive).

Goals are created from opportunities; so it's logical that the more the team can create each match, the better the chance they have of winning games.

In that light, the midfield buys suddenly don't appear to be any coincidence. All three were in the top eight chance-creators of last season, according to Opta, and all had healthy assist totals for the season. Indeed, only four players have provided more chances than Downing in the Premier League in the last six years ("the stats prove he is much more than a winger," says Comolli).

This is a risky strategy in many ways - many 'experts' remain to be convinced that any of the three are truly top level players, while if Carroll was bought to finish all those created chances then the fact Suarez, a mercurial talent with a genuine X-Factor, is currently keeping him out of the side might be an early warning that you can't try and analyse everything in football.

Similarly, all three midfield buys also took a great number of their previous side's set pieces last season, a stats-inflating benefit that self-evidently not all will be able to experience this season - not to mention the fact that putting all three in one midfield leaves a lot of defensive work for one man (so far, Lucas Leiva) that could be exploited by better or more tactically savvy sides.

Yet, the Enrique and Coates signings are an attempt to counter that weakness by reinforcing the backline - again signing players of notable pedigree for a very reasonable price - while other players, from David Ngog to Alberto Aquilani, have been offloaded. Craig Bellamy's late addition is cost-effective, while the last-minute departure of Raul Meireles was by no means a blow - considering the sum received (a fee rising to £15 million) and midfield options that still remain.

Henry, for all his cheque-signing so far, is adamant the club will not "deficit spend". The American has been a vocal campaigner in favour of UEFA's proposed Financial Fair Play rules, making clear at every opportunity how important it is for the European game's governing body to enforce their rules to the maximum. This is grandstanding to an extent - Henry is too savvy to realistically expect hard-line implementation - but he wants to ensure rules are not allowed to be so lax that certain clubs can run riot.

That is the environment Henry is used to, after all. MLB doesn't have a salary cap but a luxury tax, meaning wealthy clubs are penalised for spending beyond a set amount but not prohibited from doing so - curbing differences in spending but not completely restricting it.

That's the scenario Henry needs again. If Liverpool can then increase revenues as the Red Sox did to a point where they are at least in the same ball-park as the New York Yankee-esque clubs like Manchester United and Manchester City, then they hope a more attuned transfer policy can make the difference on the pitch.

"We need time to build the football operation and we need to build our revenues," Henry acknowledges. "We did that in Boston and we still cannot come close to matching the revenues of the Yankees. But we match them competitively."

Prices will rise at Anfield - just as they did at Fenway Park - but fans will find it easier to stomach if the club are achieving two things; winning, and playing attractive football. That's where Dalglish comes back in.

"The way he wants us to play is pass and move and with a high tempo," defender Daniel Agger said after the Bolton display. "It is not just one thing - it is a combination: a strong squad, a good manager, good coaches around him. Results are the most important thing, but if you can get them playing like this, that is a bonus."

With Dalglish energising the team, Comolli searching for advantages in the statistics and Henry masterminding the business, Liverpool are rightly setting their sights on a return to football's top table.


• You can follow Alex dimond on twitter @alexdimond

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