The Currency of "Goal Difference"
Align your operations with the goalposts
Welcome back. This is the second installment of Absolute Unit, a newsletter where we’ll be exploring an integrated front office player recruitment framework anchored in principles borrowed from corporate finance.
In the first installment, we set the scene of a general manager or sporting director wanting to wise up his player recruitment framework so that he could ensure all key decisions were moving his club in the right direction. In this case, the right direction was and is improving his team’s point total year over year by 10 points in order that they might qualify for the continental cup. The last post briefly previewed today’s topic, that he needed to identify an Absolute Unit with which to measure and support every key decision:
If what he needed was to improve his team’s performance, and if a team’s performance is primarily a function of their goal scoring and conceding, then from here on out, every important decision would be based on how much it was expected to improve (or worsen) his team’s baseline of +12 GD.
In future posts, we’re going to do the GM a favor and take this unit of goal difference, layer in some teachings from the financial world, and with them build a player evaluation framework that measures and articulates its findings in the language of soccer, but first…
In this episode, I want to pause and rewind to discuss the merits of the general manager’s choice to set what we might call “expected marginal goal difference contribution” or “marginal goal contribution,” or “marginal goal difference” as the critical decision making unit of account. Also, let’s table for a brief minute the fact that there are economic realities and objectives for any club. We will discuss their interaction with this process very soon. For now, the general manager wants to ensure that he’s making the right decisions to take his club closer to achieving 70 points next year, and the hypothesis is that he needs some sort of guiding benchmark with which to evaluate opportunities and their alternatives.
He could of course choose not to utilize such a thing - to just sort of shoot from the hip. If he is the greatest sporting director that has ever held the post, infallible in all aspects and omniscient, then in truth he may have no need for us. After all, what does God need with a starship? But if he is not that, then without a guiding benchmark, it becomes difficult to ensure he and his staff are aligned across the department, all in pursuit of the same objective: 10 more points. It’s hard to organize, plan, motivate, and hold the organization responsible.
He could also choose to use those 10 points themselves as the guiding light. He could ask his scouts, analysts, and coaches, “does signing this player bring us closer to or further away from a +10 points year over year improvement, and by how many points?” But, when scouts, analysts, and coaches watch football, talk about football, or think about football, do they think in terms of points? If he’s going to ask them to think that way, he’s asking them to do some unnecessary and unclear conversion math and focus away from the sport itself, or to pretend to do some unnecessary and unclear math and to just ignore him altogether in order to focus on the sport itself. And if they ignored him, when all was said and done, would he even feel confident that the sum total of all of these decisions matched or exceeded his objective of +10 points? As he cascaded his objective down the organization, he needed to charge his direct reports with objectives anchored in something with a direct relationship to points, but something that was more relevant and actionable for them in the day to day.
The next step down from a unit of points, is a unit of goal difference, which works better. While chance is pervasive in the sport, and while the timing of goal scoring and conceding impacts its precise relationship with points in a given match, there is an overall strong positive relationship there that should give the GM confidence. If he and his staff are making important decisions supported by a “marginal goal difference” expectation, than those decisions are at least logically aligned with his objective of accumulating more points, and who knows? Perhaps he could devise a way to specifically measure and plan for the impact of each decision…
Sure, late in a match the first team manager might make certain tactical choices, specifically focused on preserving a win (and 3 points), not on maximizing goal difference, but as we stand here today in the off-season, this nuance can be eliminated. Players, managers, scouts, analysts, and general managers are all aligned in the sense that next year they want to score goals and not concede them. They are also aligned that the degree by which they do the first and not the second (or some combination therein) will determine their place in the standings, directly impacting whether or not they achieve the consensus objective for the season.
In fact, when individual players make individual decisions, or perform individual actions, they are typically doing so with the specific intent to either increase their team’s chances of scoring a goal on the current possession or decrease their opponent’s chances of scoring a goal soon, or both. It is thus reasonable to talk about soccer in terms of goal difference. Goals themselves are rare, but the intentions to score in the near future and not to concede in the near future are not rare, nor are the actions attached to these intentions. These actions cover from end to end the entirety of any single game. For this reason, we can and should talk about individual actions and moments through the lens of their expected impacts on team goal difference.
The same goes for important front office decisions. We should use this same lens to debate the following: which players to sign, which players to release, which players to trade, whether to pay fees to other clubs to release players from their contracts so that we can sign them, and whether to accept fees from other clubs in exchange for the termination of current player contracts. So, the macro-level we have an organizational objective that can “easily” be transposed into goal difference, and conceptually we can trace intentions and expectations around goal difference down to the player level, and even down to the event level of matches.
And I should mention now, but we will return to it later, there is at least some evidence of a very successful football club thinking along similar lines at least within certain parts of the organization.
Boring but true
If you work at a company of any size, you are probably familiar with this concept of an overall organizational objective that is cascaded down through management by way of “SMART” goals (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Based) at each level of the workforce. Honestly, I don’t find this specific pillar of organizational theory and behavior particularly interesting because to me, it is both common sense and fundamentally true. In this sense, this episode of Absolute Unit should probably be the least controversial and the least provocative, but it is vitally important. In fact, the name of the thing is rooted here. The “absolute unit” for the soccer operations department should be “expected marginal goal difference.” You really didn’t need me to illustrate any difficult accounting or finance concepts to get on board with the idea that decision making should follow rubrics that align with the goals of the organization. Nonetheless, it is the foundation for what must now follow.
And what will follow in the coming weeks should be loads more fun to think about, because “how to do this” is a complex problem.
We will return to discussing units of account in the context of accounting and soccer event data in a later post, and we also need to check back in with the GM we met in the first newsletter.
He is finding this discussion persuasive, and he has just now decided to use a “marginal goal difference” framework for making key decisions, but he hasn’t implemented it yet, and to be honest he hasn’t really thought about how it’s all supposed to work. Unfortunately, agents don’t sleep. He can’t hit pause on the global transfer network and try to figure it out. There’s a knock on his door, and he remembers both his chief scout and his data analyst had scheduled meetings today to discuss a potential transfer target, a roaming central midfielder with an eye for arriving late in the box. We will eavesdrop on their conversations very soon.
But before we do that, there’s one more piece of theoretical blocking and tackling to knock out first: the budget. In the next post we’ll anchor our assumptions for this exercise around where the soccer operations activities sit in relation to the overall commercial enterprise (prominently, they sit prominently), and how the competitive plane of value we intend to measure in terms of goal difference interacts with the commercial plane of value, measured in dollars and cents, pounds, euros, yen, etc. Coming to a consensus on this context will allow us to move forward into the more exciting bits. You might think of it like filling up your tank with gas before reaching the city limits on a road trip. Although as we all know, pit-stops can be adventures in their own right.
Again, please subscribe for free if you haven’t done so and share this with your friends, family, and colleagues. I have been encouraged with the response to the launch so far. Looking forward to really getting into the meat of this framework soon. Thank you.