Toulouse playing ‘Moneyball’ to survive in French league

PARIS (AP) — Operating with a small budget and no star player, Toulouse has found a way to survive in the French league.

It all started in July 2020 when American investment firm RedBird Capital Partners acquired a majority stake in Toulouse and appointed Damien Comolli as president.

“We work with companies that provide us with data,” Comolli told the French league’s website, “and then we have statisticians, our own software, our own algorithms, which help us in all the decisions we make in the management of the club.”

The compilation and interpretation of data have helped Toulouse find value in a tough market. Toulouse has a budget of 40 million euros ($43 million) for this season compared to 700 million euros ($754 million) for French league leader Paris Saint-Germain and 250 million euros ($270 million) for Marseille. Only Auxerre, Clermont and Ajaccio have a smaller budget than Toulouse in the league.

Promoted last year, Toulouse exploits data not just to recruit players, improve performance, limit injuries and analyze opponents, but also to make decisions about financial matters like the transfer budget, payroll and contract extensions.

This “Moneyball” approach has contributed to Toulouse’s good season. The club is in in 12th place, 11 points above the relegation zone. By contrast, the other promoted teams, Ajaccio and Auxerre, are in the relegation zone.

Written by Michael Lewis, the book Moneyball explores the success of the Oakland Athletics baseball team under general manager Billy Beane, showing how an emphasis on sabermetrics over more traditional methods helped them sign underrated players and outfox richer competitors.

A former aeronautical engineer, Toulouse head of data Julien Demeaux and his staff analyze more than 60 leagues around the world. Toulouse also hired Brendan MacFarlane as head of recruitment in March 2021 to better assess things like technique and personality that are not picked up by data. MacFarlane was previously the lead scout in France for English club Brentford.

Toulouse has relied on its analytical edge to build a smart squad. It gambled on players from the lower leagues in Western Europe, hoping that they would make the step up.

The club signed English striker Rhys Healey from third-division club Milton Keynes Dons and Dutch playmaker Branco Van den Boomen from second-divison club De Graafschap in 2020. Both Healey and Van den Boomen proved instrumental in Toulouse’s promotion as Healey was the top scorer in the second division last season while Van den Boomen led that league in assists. Healey has only played three games this season because of a serious knee injury. On the other hand, Van den Boomen has had a tremendous impact with five goals and seven assists.

Thijs Dallinga looked like a safe bet when Toulouse signed him last year. Dallinga scored 36 goals in all competitions for second-division club Excelsior Rotterdam last season. The Dutch striker initially struggled to adapt to a new environment, notching only two goals from his first 13 league games. But Dallinga has improved lately, scoring five goals in his last eight league games.

A large database has also led Toulouse to snatch players from small, overlooked leagues in Eastern Europe. It signed midfielder Stijn Spierings from Bulgarian club Levski Sofia in 2020 and forward Said Hamulic from Polish club Stal Mielec last month.

Toulouse prefers to sign players before they peak so that the transfer fee is still affordable. But it can also recruit more established players to bring a winning mentality and find a good mix between youth and experience. Danish center back Rasmus Nicolaisen, Belgian midfielder Brecht Dejaegere and Chilean left back Gabriel Suazo helped Midtjylland, Gent and Colo Colo, respectively, win trophies before joining Toulouse.

Developing talent in its youth system is another way for Toulouse to keep costs down. Anthony Rouault, who graduated from the club’s academy, has started every league game this season and is already one of the best center backs in France at 21. Meanwhile, midfielder Fares Chaibi is having a breakthrough season at 20. The academy product has scored four goals and has four assists in the league.

Toulouse has the sixth best academy in France behind PSG, Lyon, Rennes, Monaco and Lens, according to the International Center for Sports Studies, a research and education organization.

Toulouse is still far from its glory days when it knocked out a Diego Maradona-led Napoli in the first round of the UEFA Cup in 1986 and finished third in the French league a year later, its best ever result.

But the club’s rebirth feels like redemption for Comolli, whose reputation took a hit after Liverpool fired him as director of football in 2012 because of the huge amount of money spent on flops like Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Sebastian Coates. Even successful signings like Luis Suarez and Jordan Henderson couldn’t help Comolli save his job.

Toulouse beat Reims 3-1 on Wednesday to reach the quarterfinals of the French Cup and will host Rennes in the league on Sunday.

Toulouse is one of the three clubs owned by Americans in the French league. John Textor’s Eagle Football Holdings acquired Lyon last December and American billionaire Frank McCourt has been the owner of Marseille since 2016.


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