Lee Mooney: Why Union Saint-Gilloise performance v cost is ridiculous
Written by Training Ground Guru — December 13, 2023
WHEN Lee Mooney carried out in-depth analysis of performance versus budget in the Belgian Pro League, one team left him scratching his head.
“Union (Saint-Gilloise) are just the stars in this competition,” Mooney, the former Manchester City Director of Data Insights and co-founder of MUD Analytics, told TGG’s Big Data 2023 Webinar.
You can watch the whole of Lee Mooney's presentation at the Big Data 2023 Webinar by clicking the button below. There are a total of eight presentations:
- Giles Lindsay: Squad Building In The IPL.
- Lee Mooney: Managing Decision Risk In Football.
- Jon Manuel: Using Shape To Identify Inverted Full-Backs.
- Tom Goodall: Developing Data-Driven High-Performance Workflows.
- George Gallagher: Structuring A Data Analytics Department.
- Sarah Rudd: Supervised v Unsupervised Learning With Tracking Data.
- Issa Tall: How Columbus Crew Use Analytics To Sign Players.
- Johann Windt: Aiding Decision-Making Across Performance Domains With Analytics.
“What they are achieving relative to their budget is ridiculous, really ridiculous. Their bang for buck is high and their impact versus the quality of the players they have is also high.
“So they have found value I’m not seeing. We are modelling their squad in a lot of detail and even though we are doing that, they are still over performing it. So there is something they are seeing in their squad design that I’m not seeing.”
Union are the upstarts of the Belgian Pro League, managing to outgun clubs with more money and more illustrious recent histories to top the table. Although Union have won 11 league titles, the last was in 1935, and their art deco stadium has a capacity of just 9,400.
Last season, having been promoted the year before, Union were champions-elect until the 89th minute of their final game against Club Brugge, before calamitously conceding three times. Antwerp were then crowned champions.
They also reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League, going out to Bayer Leverkusen, and are in the competition again this season, with a faint chance of progressing from the group stage if they can beat Liverpool at home tomorrow.
Tony Bloom is a minority shareholder in the Brussels-based club, having reduced his stake in the summer, which has led to inevitable comparisons with his other club, Brighton.
Mooney, who co-founded MUD Analytics with Burnley manager Vincent Kompany and Klaas Jan Gaublomme, said: “They (Union) have a very high utilisation and the money they are spending on their recruitment is also having a huge impact on a per-pound basis.
“I find Brighton very similar - every pound you give Brighton is like giving two pounds to to everyone else. They are just fantastic with the impact of their money.”
At the Big Data 2023 Webinar, Mooney took attendees through a series of slides to explain just how impressively Union are performing in comparison to their budget.
1. UTILISATION OF TALENT COST
Lee Mooney: “These are all estimates, but they’re actually really accurate. When I tested these with my client, we were within 1% of the actuals with that client.
“Let’s say you’ve put €100m in, have €100m of annual costs, how much of that annual cost is on the field? Low levels of utilisation are generally an indicator of something being wrong - you’ve overpaid for a player, you’ve over-valued them, you’ve put too much money down on a guy that’s not robust, so they’re not on the field enough, you’ve made a tactical change or switched something that makes players redundant.
“All of this affects the amount of money you get on the pitch. In the Belgian League in 2022/23, you have Anderlecht at one extreme and Union at the other end. Union will be a consistent thread for us.
“Union in that year and the year before and this year are just the stars in this competition. What they are achieving relative to their budget is ridiculous, really ridiculous.
“They have a very high utilisation and the money they are spending on their recruitment is also having a huge impact on a per-pound basis. I find Brighton very similar - every pound you give Brighton is like giving two pounds to everyone else.
“They are just fantastic with the impact of their money.”
2. BUDGET & SQUAD EXPECTATION v OUTCOME
Lee Mooney: “There is a points variance versus cost on the bottom, and a points variance versus squad expectation up the vertical.
“And then there are four generic segments - top left is squads that over-perform their quality but under-perform their budget - that might be an indicator of recruitment efficiency, an opportunity to get more value from their money.
“Bottom left you can see the guys who are underperforming their quality and budget. These are clubs that are in a difficult phase - it might be a coaching change, an ownership change, just a very difficult period.
“In the bottom right corner you might see under-perform squad quality but over-perform budget. This is where the budget is low, but they built a good squad and didn’t do as well as they could.
“Top right are the guys who over perform on both dimensions - their bang for buck is high and their impact versus the quality of the players they have is also high. So they have found value I’m not seeing.
“We are modelling their squad in a lot of detail and even though we are doing that, they are still over performing it. So there is something they are seeing in their squad design that I’m not seeing.
“And Union, by far, is the club that does that really really well.”
HOW DO THEY DO IT?
Lee Mooney: “Then it begs the question how are they doing that and then you can start to unpack that a little bit more?
“What are their constraints? A lot of football clubs are very identity led, and I think that’s right actually - ‘what are we as a club, let’s build that kind of football, let’s train for it, let’s develop for it.’ It’s very philosophically led. You start with a kind of religion almost.
“Other clubs don’t do that. They say, ‘Look, what’s the most cost effective way to win,’ and they double down on that until that advantage disappears and they go and find another one. It might be set pieces, a particular type of tactics that are really undervalued in the market that you can go and execute.
“And I have that feeling with Union, it’s very much like I felt about Leicester when they won the league - every player has one special move and a load of stuff missing, but as long as you point them all in the right direction you only see their special move.
“Then you take a Championship team and essentially go and pump at the very top of the Premier League. I feel a bit like that with them. It sort of resonates with what Giles (Lindsay) was saying earlier, that in some sports, analytics is there to find a way to win based on inefficiencies in how tactics are valued and so on.”