Money’s tight in Spain, and outside the big two that’s very true in La Liga so when a side which has to be careful with its cash splashes out, it’s important they know exactly what they’re getting. You’d think Granada’s purchase this week of Yacine Brahimi for €4 million is a good example of this: it’s a tidy sum for them to spend, but as he’s been on loan with them all season, surely they’ve had a good chance to work him out. Somehow I doubt whether they’ve been able to draw any firm conclusions on his value though. Brahimi defies quantification; he is the most quixotic, quicksilver player in Spanish football.
The Algerian has fascinated me all season. He’s the sort of player that catches the eye, but also the kind which the modish way of evaluating football talent tells us to leave well alone.
Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball”, the fascinating story of how the Oakland As over-performed by embracing sabremetrics, a statistical way to analyse the sport, has had a huge knock-on effect on other sports. Football, a game which doesn’t lend itself naturally to such evaluation, has been fascinated with Moneyball’s theories for a few years now, without being able to work out how to apply its logical decision-making processes to the game. The person who solves that conundrum will be able to name their price.
There are clear areas of the Moneyball philosophy which can be easily applied to football though, and scouting is one of them. A section in the book puts a finger on the flaws inherent in the traditional way of scouting for players:
A young player is not what he looks like, or what he might become, but what he has done. As elementary as that might sound to someone who knows nothing about professional baseball, it counts as heresy [in traditional baseball scouting circles].
The scouts even have a catch phrase for what Billy and Paul are up to: “performance scouting.” “Performance scouting”, in scouting circles, is an insult. It directly contradicts the baseball man’s view that a young player is what you can see him doing in your mind’s eye. It argues that most of what’s important about a baseball player, maybe even including his character, can be found in his statistics.
So scouts look at the aesthetic but fail to quantify the essential quality a player needs to bring to a side: the ability to produce. They might see a hitter with the perfect swing, and dazzled by his technique neglect to notice that he never actually makes contact with the ball, recommending him on the basis of his potential ahead of the ugly batter who scores consistently.
Brahimi seems to be a perfect illustration of this conundrum. Since a very young age he has been touted as the next big thing. The highly-rated French youth system has brought him through, and he has always been expected to be one of its star graduates as he’s worked his way through the various levels. He played for them at Under-17, -19 and -21 levels, starring in the Under-19 European Championship, and turned down an opportunity to jump ship and play in the 2010 World Cup for Algeria.
Yet now he finds himself at Granada, unwanted by Rennes. Not exactly a stellar trajectory. Yet he can dazzle. He regularly leaves you with at least one moment where you feel he has an extra level of class his team mates don’t possess.
His touch is excellent, he can carry the ball at speed and beat people, and he can see the incisive pass. It’s not as if he’s one of those insouciant players who can’t been bothered to work for the team either, as he’s a little ball of energy.
But there’s no end product. He didn’t score in his 27 appearances last season. For a player who is used in the second line, behind the striker, that isn’t good enough. That’s why, although he can look sensational, he’s at Granada, not Real Madrid.
In Round 34 he put in a performance which would have had the scouts purring. The chips were down, not only for his team but perhaps himself as he played for next season’s contract, and he delivered.
Granada’s showdown with Osasuna was huge for both sides: victory would essentially guarantee survival; defeat would lead to a nervous final three matches. Throughout the game, he looked to be the one class act on the pitch. Playing in an unfamiliar role, cutting in from the right for the first time all season, he was a constant threat, unusually able to cut in on the diagonal despite being right-footed. He won the penalty and attendant red card which essentially secured victory, an opportunity on goal made possible by an absolutely superb first touch as a through ball dropped over his shoulder. It was probably a good job he was fouled though, as his record suggests he wouldn’t have scored the one-on-one!
Brahimi was substituted just before full time with the points safe and received a well deserved thunderous round of applause. He’d been outstanding, and had made a key contribution to the decisive moment in the match.
But there’s another side to his performance, of course. His sublime skill in winning the penalty was magnificent, but incredibly it was his only assist of the season. No goals and one assist from a creative player are surely the stats of a complete disaster of a season, Yet Granada have seen enough to tie him down permanently.
Any watching scout at the Osasuna match might have thought he was the real thing and recommended a big money offer for him. Maybe that scout would be right; it’ll be fascinating to see if he delivers next season. The principles of Moneyball suggest he’s a luxury that most clubs can’t afford, let alone Granada.