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Is Jokanovic right to rail against analytics?

Slavisa isn’t getting what he wants and is looking to place blame, is he right or misguided?

Jacksonville Jaguars v Houston Texans
Tony Khan has brought numbers to Fulham, for better or worse.
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

After the draw to Cardiff City, Slavisa Jokanovic talked to BBC Radio London about the transfer policy that is in place at the club. His statements were rather harsh, and almost broke the Fulham twitter, with vitriol coming from everywhere.

You can understand the frustration that Salvisa has. He wants to sign new players, but they aren’t coming fast enough. He feels that he has identified a good list, but some of them are vetoed.

How recruitment works

Before we jump to conclusions, let’s talk a bit about how transfers work in the new analytic era. Keep in mind, this is how most teams in the entire world operate. The manager identifies holes in the squad. In Fulham’s case, you’d say they still probably exist at fullback or center back, in the defensive midfield, and at striker (we can argue about the exact team needs, but that’s really beyond the scope for this exercise). Once the need is identified, the budget is set by someone (At Fulham it is probably Mike Rigg). Then a list is developed of all the possible targets that could fill the hole and fit into the budget. It’s only at this point that scouting starts.

Slavisa is frustrated because he believes players he has scouted, or others have scouted are being rejected. However, there are players on the list that are probably being rejected by the scouts before they even get to an analytics department. It’s quite possible the numbers would love some of those guys. But if the scouts don’t like him, why even run the numbers?

Once the scouts winnow the list down, almost every team on earth has a statistical model they use to evaluate the targets before signing. It could be as simple as looking for obvious red flags. Has this kind of player succeeded in the Championship? Does he have some sort problem that has kept other from succeeding? His the asking price very much above similar transfers that were recently done? Some teams get even more in depth. The model their team and can plug in the new player and see how he would effect the performance.

All of that should be a good thing. No one should be recruiting players based on just analytics. No one should be recruiting players based on just scouting. If the scouts don’t love a numbers darling you get Sakari Mattila. If the numbers don’t love someone the scouts do, you might get a Stekelenburg, Mitroglou, or Bryan Ruiz.

The black box of analytics

In my opinion one of the biggest areas of consternation to the entire issue is that the analytic process is a giant black box.

That’s an issue that’s tough to solve. If Kline or Tony Khan gave an interview and laid out the way their model works, gave us the kind of red flags it looks for, and let us know how it decided if a player was over or underpriced; we could kind of discuss it rationally. However, teams want to keep that stuff as hidden as possible. It’s not that they want to keep the fans in the dark. It’s that if your model is good, it gives you a competitive advantage that you don’t want other teams to steal.

How should a manager spend his time?

Slavisa probably doesn’t have the kind of background to make learning the ins and outs of analytics easy. Even if he did (and I have no doubt he could do it if he wanted to), is that a valid use of his time?

Slavisa has to run training. Work on a game plan for the next opponent. Juggle injuries. Talk to the training staff about player fitness levels. Does he truly have time to do all that and watch enough film on a player to make a rational decision about him? I’d argue that he doesn’t and that’s why you are seeing the trend in the modern football of breaking up the duties between multiple people.

We don’t know who the manager that Slavisa talked to is, but if he’s like Slavisa he also has a full time job, and also probably doesn’t have the time to do an in depth analysis of the player. Sure, the guy could be awesome. The analytics could be wrong on him. There are also probably hundreds of players who statistics love but the scouts hate who could also be great. What you’re trying to do is maximize your chance of success. If the scouts and stats agree, you’re gambling that both parties have to be wrong. The odds of that are much more in your favor than if only one of them has to be wrong for it to fail.

Fulham’s transfer success

We’re never going to know how Fulham are using the analytics to help with transfers exactly. We’re never going to know which players the scouts like that the numbers don’t. But we can look at the players that have been brought in. We’ll set the cutoff at the winter window last year, because we know that Kline became much more involved at that point. Here are the players that have come in since that time: Michael Madl, Rohan Ince, Zakaria Labyad, Chris Baird, Floyd Ayite, Sone Aluko, Denis Odoi, Scott Malone, David Button, Kevin McDonald, Tomas Kalas, and Jozabed. That’s a pretty hard list to argue with. Now if you’re a scout, you’re saying, “All the guys I suggested are working out, we don’t need numbers.” However, that doesn’t mean these were the only players you liked. Perhaps the numbers disliked some of your other players for a reason.

Let’s not choose sides just yet

We all want Slavisa to succeed. Most of us realize there are still a few more players that are needed. We also need to understand that getting transfers done is hard. Sometimes the team doesn’t want to sell. Sometimes the team isn’t asking a fair price. Sometimes another team is outbidding you. Sometimes the selling team wants to wait until they find a replacement. There are a lot of moving parts, and getting it all done isn’t as easy as in Football Manager of FIFA. So far though, the strategy seems to be working. I’m pretty happy with the players brought in this year, aren’t you?

What I don’t want to see is this festering. I hope that Slavisa, the scouts, Rigg, Kline, and everyone else can come to an understanding and things don’t become toxic. It’s actually good that they don’t always agree. Having a bunch of yes man around doesn’t do anyone any favors. But it has to stay a positive work environment. It especially can’t spill over onto the fans where we feel that we have to choose sides.

I still think Fulham get Slavisa the help they need. If their recent transfer history continues, the players will be good. Then this will all blow over. But until that point, let's try to keep a level head. Let’s not demonize anyone. Let’s not choose sides. We’re Fulham fans, and want the team to succeed. Right now, they succeeding. Let’s root for that to continue.