I've been wanting to talk to Ian Graham for years, but I couldn't find him.
As the head of research at Liverpool, he helped rebuild a once-great club into, once again, one of the great clubs in Europe. Among those who work for the richest teams in the world, Graham might be the only head of analysis who had a genuine impact on the players his club signed. I can say for sure that data played a role in driving the acquisitions of the majority of the players who went on to win every trophy possible with Liverpool over the past half-decade.
As such, Graham (along with the rest of his team of six other analysts) became something of a state secret at Anfield. He wasn't locked away in an office somewhere, building models that everyone ignored. Instead, he was locked away from the wider world because there was nothing to gain, and pretty much everything to lose, from him ever talking to people like me.
I was left to piece together inferences from the occasional public appearance. There was the Freakonomics podcast, where he mentioned building a model that values every action a player attempts in a match and how that ultimately led the club to sign a little-known fullback from a relegated Hull City team named Andy Robertson.
Then Graham popped up in a New York Times Magazine story before the 2019 Champions League final. He talked about a conversation with Jurgen Klopp, in which he told the then-new coach of Liverpool that he didn't watch Klopp's final season at Dortmund, but that the data suggested the team was quite good but unlucky. This, the story suggests, is what got Klopp to buy into the club's data-driven decision-making process.
But that was it. Everything else needed to be assumed or gathered from outside sources. I saw that the team kept signing players of a certain age range and with fantastic underlying numbers. I saw how everyone else was engaged in protracted transfer sagas, while Liverpool would suddenly sign players without any prior rumors. And, well, I saw how they went from a team that couldn't even qualify for the Champions League to a team that made the final every other year. Clearly, they were doing things differently. How else do you sign Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah, each for less than €42 million, all in consecutive summers?
And then Graham suddenly quit last November during Liverpool's worst season of the Klopp era. A couple months later, he launched, along with his old boss and Liverpool's former sporting director, Michael Edwards, a consultancy called Ludonautics.
Finally, we could talk. But the fact that we could finally talk suddenly raised another question entirely: Why the heck hasn't someone else hired Ian Graham?