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Liverpool are about to lose a transfer genius but Jürgen Klopp and FSG don’t need new direction

Liverpool are undergoing a period of change and with Julian Ward set to leave his sporting director role at the end of the season, Ian Graham is now set to follow.

 

Liverpool have reclaimed their place at the table of Europe’s heavyweight football clubs over the past seven years, reaching four European finals and accumulating over 90 points in the Premier League on three separate occasions. A whole host of saviours have been credited with restoring success to Anfield, from Jürgen Klopp to Michael Edwards to Pep Lijnders to Mohamed Salah to Virgil van Dijk.

 

Ian Graham’s name, however, is rarely muttered among supporters. In fact, even the most obsessive Reds would walk right past him on the street, without ever realising his almost unrivalled level of contribution to Fenway Sports Group’s operation over the past decade.

 

He was appointed on Merseyside in 2012, but no announcement was made about his arrival. Since, he’s refused interview requests while constructing Liverpool’s data science department from scratch, employing his own team of PhDs to nurture efficiency and inform the club’s decision-making processes.

 

An advocate of using data to gain an edge, John W. Henry was destined to apply and empower the same evidence-based principles in football, and Graham took note from afar while contracted to Decision Technology, a firm founded to assess consumer behaviour across different industries, providing forecasts and predictions using data modelling.

 

The Welshman was appointed after the UK-based company branched out to begin offering their services in football. Graham provided numerical expertise for a weekly column in The Times, started his own blog in an attempt to debunk common myths surrounding the sport using data, and worked as a consultant for Tottenham Hotspur.

 

He was a trailblazer as one of the first of his kind to enter the space, as a scientist working in football. While in contact with Spurs, the Cambridge physicist developed a working relationship with Edwards and Damien Comolli, both of whom would later combine to bring him to Anfield after Henry failed with a bid to buy Decision Technology outright.

 

Once Graham began working for Liverpool — the club he’d supported his whole life — he spent his entire first year building recruitment applications to assess players and their performances. He’d previously generated models to evaluate players strictly in accordance with their impact on points and goal difference, and it was time for him to refine his work within a club environment.

 

“Any analyst not working on recruitment is literally wasting their time,” he told an audience of listeners at the annual StatsBomb football conference in 2021, also claiming that ’50 per cent of transfers fail’ during his fascinating talk, detailing his findings that certain players deliver points over the course of a season, whereas others cost points.

 

As early as 2006, he was judging players based on their influence on their team’s points tally, claiming that Danny Gabbidon was worth 8.45 points per season to Alan Pardew’s West Ham United side, compared to Paul Konchesky, who actually cost his team 7.64 points per season. “There are players who shine through in the data, but don’t naturally shine through for your typical football fan or even your typical scout,” he once said.

 

Recruitment was the reason he was brought in by FSG, he claims. As Liverpool climbed from mid-table mediocrity to the summit of the Premier League under Klopp, it was the insights harvested by Graham’s department which guided Edwards as the club’s sporting director through the turbulent waters of the transfer market. His appointment wasn’t just a box-ticking exercise as is often the case in football, he was actually being listened to by the people who mattered.

 

The likes of Salah, Naby Keïta, Alisson Becker and Andy Robertson in particular are recognised as signings that were initially powered by analytics, with the latter named by Graham as one of his favourite captures due to the Scot’s under-the-radar profile and his struggles as a gifted offensive full-back playing in a poor defensive team.

 

It is perhaps no surprise that after 10 years of working on Merseyside — filtering data throughout the fabric of the club — Liverpool are commonly ranked among the shrewdest operators on the continent. And whoever succeeds Graham, that approach does not need to change as long as numbers continue to be appreciated by those with authority.

 

Edwards left his role as sporting director in the summer and his heir, Julian Ward, has already made the curious decision to follow suit after just six months at the helm. He will depart at the end of the campaign as FSG explore the prospect of a sale, with the Reds undergoing what appears to be a shift in personnel behind the scenes.

 

With the face of Liverpool’s modern resurgence, Klopp, remaining in place until at least 2026, the data-driven culture that has been fostered to support him is changing. Football is packed full of noise, but the Reds have proved to be masters at finding the signal over the years — thanks largely to Graham’s presence — and even without him, the system is in place for that to continue.

 

He is the Jürgen Klopp of the data sphere, and the fact his time at Anfield is coming to an end is a concern. But Liverpool have generated much success from their analytical approach, and the club will hope that is not going to change.

 

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