Taking a deeper look at Ian Ayre

Nashville’s CEO hire for the MLS side happened at the top of a very busy time for the USL team, and while I dippedinto some analysis at the time, there’s finally a minute to breathe and re-focus.

Fortunately, several other outlets have spoken about Ian Ayre (or the Liverpool side he helped form on its way to the Champions League final) in the interim. While my initial take – primarily based upon speaking to Liverpool-supporting friends here in the States – was on the negative side, I think there’s plenty of positive, as well. With a bit more analysis (and, importantly, an understanding of the differences between the tasks Merseyside and in Music City), I’ve warmed up in a major way, though still with some concerns to keep an eye on.

A good place to start would be Grant Wahl’s podcast, as it sits down with Ayre. Thankfully, you don’t have to listen to every word to get to the meat of the matter: Wahl transcribed some of the best parts.

I think what we’ll do is over a reasonably short period of time, we’ll start to develop a playing style we expect, to look at the type of football we want to play, look at the budget. … I think our coach will come through that process once we define the type of style and type of players we want to have and everything else. Then obviously the coach needs to fit within that.

That’s sort of a non-answer, but it is interesting in that it sort of clarifies (or at worst reiterates) that the coach will be hired as a result of the style desired and players desired for that style, rather than any other causal order.

You could find Ayre quotes from his introductory presser anywhere and everywhere (including here) a few Mondays ago. There’s still a point I didn’t touch on. From the Tennessean:

“I think if you look at MLS, particularly over the last five years, its trajectory has always been upward,” Ayre said. “I think watching from afar and living in the U.K., everybody’s got one eye on them because it’s really coming into its own. … The opportunity to build something and be a part of that was a big attraction for me.”

The positioning of Major League Soccer in the sport internationally has obviously been a major talking point recently, whether in the USSF presidential election, discussion of the failure to qualify for World Cup 2018, or elsewhere. Obviously Ayre’s perspective doesn’t apply within the framework of MLS’s position in developing MNT talent, but his view of it as a league on the rise is important nonetheless.

Liverpool’s run to the Champions League Final – though it comes a couple years after Ayre’s departure – is still a line on his resume. Some of the important players on the Reds’ roster were acquisitions in Ayre’s tenure as CEO. That’s not interesting in itself, given that any squad is going to have some holdovers and some new signings with each season (and will be reluctant to give up on the guys who turn into established stars).

A willingness to take a statistical angle is definitely something that catches my eye, though.

They needed attackers who could play anywhere in the front line. To find these key pieces, the team turned to analytics….

Over the last three years, very few young players have put up big numbers in xG and xA per 90 minutes while playing on smaller clubs and getting the majority of their minutes from outside the center forward role. Liverpool found three of them.

Like I said when examining Earnie Stewart’s qualifications for the USMNT general manager position, it’s less about “this guy used xG, I like this guy,” and more about a willingness to use methods both conventional and advanced, and not shying away from an evaluation just because it’s outside-the-box.

One thing that I’ve seen as a criticism of Liverpool under Ayre, of course, is an unwillingness to spend, an unwillingness to have the coach take the reins when it comes to signing (friction with Klopp was reportedly one reason he departed), and the establishment of a “transfer council.” That said, the results – aside from being unable to spend enough to hold onto Coutinho – haven’t been half-bad.

As well as overseeing the successful $160 million stadium expansion of Anfield during his time with Liverpool, Ayre was directly responsible for all player transfers, including contract negotiations. He helped acquire the likes of Phillipe Coutinho, Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Manè during his time with the Reds. While also working with top-class coaches such as Rafa Benitez, Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp.

How much of that is Ayre – “directly responsible for all player transactions” seems a bit of a stretch, except inasmuch as he established a body that was directly responsible – and how much is attributable to others in the organization is up for debate, of course.

Overall, it’s easy to understand why Liverpool fans have reservations about him, while still maintaining a view that those particular concerns won’t be directly ported to a very different job in Music City. We’re still eagerly anticipating Ayre’s first moves as CEO, and seeing how he approaches though will be more telling about the future than anything in his past.

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