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Using Moneyball to Assess Joelinton’s Transfer

What the book and movie tell us about the flawed mechanics that led to the record signing of the Brazilian

Newcastle United Press Conference - Newcastle United Training Centre Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

I hate to bring up Moneyball at all just because the concept is so overused these days. But Billy Beane’s experiences as a player exposed how flawed the evaluation system was in baseball and all of sports. The transfer of Joelinton is also a topic that is over discussed because of the $48.4 million that Newcastle United paid in 2019 to Hoffenheim. But I wanted to examine what exactly went wrong and what motivated the move.

Let’s go back to Billy Beane. The now-former general manager of the Oakland Athletics in Major League Baseball was once one of the hottest baseball prospects in the world in the 1980s as a high schooler. He was renowned for his physical attributes, good looks and other intangibles that scouts loved. But his numbers didn’t back up the hype. In his senior season of high school his batting average dipped severely, but the New York Mets didn’t care and selected him in the first round.

They were so convinced by his talent they prioritized him over other prospects who were selected higher in the draft. Beane ended up having a mediocre career, bouncing between the major and minor leagues with several teams before he quit playing to become a scout.

Beane’s experience later convinced him that baseball scouts had no idea whether a prospect would become a star or a bust. This led to the Moneyball revolution and subsequent book and film. These days advanced analytics rule the sport of baseball while soccer has been slower to adapt.

Joelinton in 2019 was a 22-year-old, Brazilian striker who had netted seven goals (9.3 xG) and 5 assists (4.2 xA) the previous season with Bundesliga side Hoffenheim. At 6’1”, with decent pace and dribbling, he looks the part. In many ways, Joelinton is soccer’s version of Billy Beane, or at least he was to Newcastle United.

The Magpie hierarchy were looking to replace Salomon Rondon who had 11 goals (11 xG) and seven assists (3.3 xA) for Newcastle in 2018/19. West Bromwich Albion wanted a transfer fee around $20 million for the then 29-year-old striker, causing Newcastle to pass on making the loan permanent. It’s understandable that Newcastle would pass considering that Rondon would likely have little sell-on value in the future. But the old adage that it is cheaper to keep existing employees rather than hiring new ones certainly holds water in this case. Football particularly is a fickle job. Changing clubs, leagues, and countries adds a dimension of unpredictability to a transfer’s outcome. For such a risk-averse club like Newcastle who supposedly prides itself on being frugal, the lower risk option was to retain Rondon.

Newcastle’s head of recruitment, Steve Nickson, probably saw Joelinton as a player with high potential. That’s fair considering the Brazilian was in the 95th percentile in Europe on expected goals in 2018/19.

But the other issue is that you can’t necessarily expect a player coming into a new club, who just hired a new coach, in a new country to develop linearly from the previous season. Especially considering that Newcastle scored 42 goals and Hoffenheim scored 70 goals in 2018/19. Joelinton accounted for 13% of Hoffenheim’s expected goals and 10% of their goals while Rondon accounted for 28% of Newcastle’s xG and 26% of their goals. Joelinton wasn’t the main man at Hoffenheim and it was unrealistic to expect him to become that player in England.

TSG 1899 Hoffenheim v 1. FC Nuernberg - Bundesliga
Joelinton was by no means a dominant force at Hoffenheim, but flashes of his potential were certainly exciting to Newcastle
Photo by Simon Hofmann/Getty Images

Also, Joelinton’s previous manager was Julian Nagelsmann who is well-known for his specialized and intense pressing system. Joelinton was likely well ingrained into this style of play and the system may have boosted his opportunities to score and assist. As we all have seen, Steve Bruce hasn’t had a clear philosophy or system. Bruce’s shifting of tactics and where he plays Joelinton hasn’t helped either.

The biggest sticking point is the fee that was paid. Going off the 2018/19 season and the transfer fees paid for Joelinton and Rondon according to Transfermarkt, Newcastle United paid close to $7 million for every goal that Joelinton scored in the previous season. If Newcastle chose to stick with Rondon and paid what Dalian Yifang later did ($20.4 million) they would have shelled out just under $2 million for every goal scored the previous season.

This is completely the opposite of what it should be. Newcastle’s hierarchy valued Joelinton’s experience at a different club in a different league by nearly four times as much as their own former player.

They had a definitive record showing what Rondon would do at their club, which was better than Joelinton’s record in a worse league and thought what the hell let’s spend more money than we ever have, on a player who isn’t as prolific as the man he’s supposed to replace and did we mention that it’s always a roll-of-the-dice moving leagues?

I suspect that Newcastle’s hierarchy were tempted by the opportunity to make a big splash in the transfer market by bringing in a young, Brazilian player to take the number nine shirt which would distract the fans from Rafa Benitez’ departure. Even if the intentions behind the decision were good, the process wasn’t. If you’re going to spend $48.4 million on a single player, you have to have some outstanding numbers to back it up. Joelinton’s numbers were good but it was naive to expect a one-to-one transition between the Bundesliga and Premier League. As we also saw with Sebastien Haller who scored 15 goals in 2018/19 in Bundesliga with Frankfurt his production dipped to 7 goals in the Premier League with West Ham.

The warning sign for Billy Beane was his dip in batting average in high school. For Newcastle United’s scouts it should have been the difference between the style of plays of Newcastle and Hoffenheim and Joelinton’s lack of experience with just a single season in the Bundesliga under his belt.

Newcastle United v Rochdale AFC - FA Cup Third Round: Replay
It seems every time Joelinton scores it is a rarity, so every time he scores is a cause for massive celebration
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

I want to stress that none of this is to disparage Joelinton. He had no hand in the transfer fee and has performed better than some think despite being played out of position and often without service. I think we have yet to see the best out of him and hopefully he can get back on track in terms of his development as a player.

The point is if Newcastle United want to remain in the Premier League for the foreseeable future then they have to be smarter about how they evaluate and value players. Baseball’s scouting failures have parallels to the world of soccer. Billy Beane understood that scouting high schoolers was a shot in the dark. Here, Newcastle’s scouts saw the player they wanted Joelinton to be, not what he actually was. Stats require context because soccer is such a team sport.

The Magpie’s recruitment team had better quality information than the Mets did and still committed too much money to the wrong player. Of course, in life there is no such thing as a sure bet, but when tens of millions of dollars are on the line, it’s best to play the odds right.