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Building the Player Development Machine

Paul Grech Thursday, July 7, 2011 , ,
A $100M player development machine.

It is impossible to talk about the Boston Red Sox and their transformation into two time World Series winners without mentioning Theo Epstein.

When he was appointed as the franchise's General Manager he was, at 28, the youngest man ever to take on such a role. He was also a man with a deep fascination for sabermetrics - the search for objective knowledge about baseball largely through the use of statistics - and whose vision included incorporating this into the Red Sox's approach to scouting.

Often, it is on that aspect that most evaluations of Epstein's work tend to focus. Yet his vision, and that of the whole group running the franchise, has been much more far reaching then that. Their whole strategy has been based on looking at every aspect of the organisation, breaking it down and seeing how it could be improved. Sabermetrics was simply a tool that they could use to achieve that in one specific area.

Another area that also received such a treatment was that of player development. Before being taken over by FSG, the Red Sox had a long history of bad calls in the player draft and their strategy for the development of players was a haphazard one.

It was the desire to rectify this traditional failing that prompted Epstein into claiming that he wanted a "$100M player development machine" where the goal was to "develop a constant flow of impact talent". This wasn't some jumped-up comment from a manager eager just how much he wanted to win but formed part of an over-reaching plan that had carefully considered the potential benefits of acting in this manner.

In a 2003 interview with the Boston Dirt Dogs, Epstein would go on to list these benefits. Included among his reasons were the access to talented young players who were more likely to stay healthy and improve than older ones, access to inexpensive talent which would free up financial resources to strengthen in other areas and, poignantly, also the "added pride in the Red Sox uniform".

Lift those points out of a baseball context and they would easily slot into any vision aimed at improving Liverpool FC. How much money has been spent on squad players like Salif Diao, Diego Cavallieri and Philipe Degen - players with clear limitations but who were signed in the hope that they would give the squad added depth - could have been diverted to get one player of established class had there been faith in the players coming out of the academy to fill those squad padding roles?

That question isn't an original one; nor is it an overly imaginative one. Yet the faith quite simply hasn’t been there just as it wasn’t there for the Red Sox before FSG changed the set up.

What the Red Sox did to do so was to develop a plan for the identification and development of players throughout the whole organisation. There was to be a holistic approach to playing, a certain style that was to be reflected regardless of whether a player was in the major league roster or whether he was affiliated to one of their minor league teams. They cemented what is known as the Red Sox Way.

This is at odds with what Liverpool have done for the past two decades. Money, and huge amounts of it, were invested in the setting up of the academy but this was then left to operate in isolation. Those running the academy were at odds with the club’s senior management with nothing being done to fix this situation.

In this environment of conflict, players were being taught to play in style which didn’t fit with what the first team was looking for. The result was a system that was producing players that no one wanted and a first team that was asking for money to spend to get the players to fill the spots that should have really been taken up by the players coming through.

Resolving such a farcical situation would have been quite near the top of FSG’s priorities upon taking over Liverpool FC were it not for the simple fact that when they did take over the problem had already been solved.

The man to thank for this is Rafa Benitez. He was the one who had the vision to fight for control over the academy, who had the courage to sack a number of coaches he felt weren’t good enough and who brought in people like Pep Segura. It is Segura who, along with the likes of Frank McParland and Rodolfo Borell, has developed what within the academy is known as ‘The Plan’.

This, in essence, is a framework that includes the coaching and developmental steps that need to be undertaken for the players at the academy to improve. Almost twenty four months down the line, the initial results of this are more than apparent, with the good games that John Flanagan and Jack Robinson had in the first team more than underlining it.

It is impossible not to see these two as part of next season’s first team squad along with the likes of Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly. Indeed, Damien Comolli acknowledged that much when he claimed that “if there is a very good 18 or 19-year-old full-back we need to make sure that in two or three years they are in the first team and not sign another player in front of him from outside. That's the strong message I give to the staff at the academy and also to the scouts. I say don't push players in a position where we already have a talented player. If we did then we may as well shut down the academy."

With Liverpool now having a vision of how their teams should be playing the game – where Segura has often quoted the Liverpool Way of passing the ball as being the cornerstone of their systems – and also a plan of how players should progress from one stage to the next, all that remains is to put further meat on the bones.

For that, it is appropriate to look at what has happened at the Red Sox.

"We will work long and hard to get the best out our minor league players and turn out as many prospects as possible,” Epstein has promised. “We will be not be afraid to try new methods, nor will we abandon proven methods. If there's someone out there who will help us develop a player, we will hire him. If there's something out there that will help us develop a player, we will buy it. Period. It's that important."

And that is what is likely to happen next. People like Segura and Borrell have both been exceptional thanks largely to their background at Barcelona. Yet there is always plenty that can be learned not only from different academies across the world but also in what different sports do to help their players to fulfil their potential. It isn’t just about how many resources you put in, it is also about being clever and continuously learning so as to keep on improving.

It is what has happened at the Red Sox, just as Theo Epstein has promised. And, although no one has gone about promising to build a “€100M player development machine” it is what Liverpool are aiming to do.

This article was originally published in Issue 8 of Well Red magazine. Special thanks go to Albert Skorupa for his help in the preparation of this piece.


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Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer