Roster-building and navigating the soccer transfer market is arguably the hardest part of the game. You sit in an office all day, eagerly awaiting scarce scouting reports of rising prodigies and well-known stars. When you finally land on a good player, you run it past practically everyone in the club; the manager, board of directors, and sometimes, even the locker room. You then have to handle transfer negotiations, contract negotiations, media rights, wage payments; all the behind-the-scenes details that are never recognized.
It’s the main reason why front offices become so starkly divided in their strategies to sign players. Some view signings as statistical; something that can be reduced to numbers and still work as fine as ever. Others rely on a gut feeling to decide between upcoming prospects.
It does not help that after signing players, the future of the player is seemingly randomized. Napoli attacker Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, signed for just 10 million euros, was originally meant to start behind North Macedonia’s Eljif Elmas. But after scoring four goals in the first five games of Serie A action, he’s become the face of Napoli as they face Frankfurt in the Champions League round of 16.
Yet, Joaquin Correa, who signed to Inter for 24 million euros and was touted to become the next big thing in Serie A, has largely flopped and stayed on the bench.
Even though the transfer market seems more like a lottery of increasing, pricey numbers rather than a fair bartering system, clubs have still consistently thrust themselves into the pool of big signings. The only problem? They might drown in their debt. Here’s how a few clever sides have avoided utter failure in the transfer market and what scouts have been looking for when it comes to players.
It would not be right to talk about signings players without mentioning Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. The main reason Liverpool launched their improbable run of success from 2018 to now was because of the smart signings they made by statistically analyzing unknown players.
Ian Graham, Liverpool’s previous director of research, masterminded some of Liverpool’s most successful, enterprising transfers. Using a statistical model that compared the probability of goals scored to everyday actions like passes, dribbles, and tackles, he brought Naby Keita, Mohamed Salah, and Andy Robertson for relatively shrewd prices.
Another underrated youngster, Phillippe Coutinho’s record-breaking sale to Liverpool helped fund the acquisitions of Virgil Van Dijk, Alisson, and more of Liverpools first team. After Liverpool’s success; winning the Premier League, the Champions League, the FA Cup, and the EFL Cup, more clubs have adopted that analytic approach to the game.
It’s favored because, as many statisicians say, numbers don’t lie. Unlike video reviewing, where innate biases could seep in, stats provide a crystal-clear prediction of how good someone is.
The only problem? You cannot break soccer down to such simple situations as you can in baseball. Moneyball, the book that Liverpool and Boston Red Sox owner John W. Henry took inspiration from, was so iconic because it sought to explain baseball’s primary goal(to get on base and to score a run) with numbers(on-base %, Runs Created, etc.) Based on those statistics, you could theoretically nab players with low salaries and high numbers to forge a winning team on a low payroll.
Numbers aren’t everything
Yet, soccer is not as simple as baseball. Where in baseball, things are structured and you can have a clear idea of what is happening, anything can happen in soccer. With a more complex format, as soccer offers, playing by the number gets harder and harder, leading to worse and worse transfers.
The other major problem is the fact that advanced stats are becoming more and more widespread, with FBREF and Soccerment all free to use on the internet. The downfall of the Oakland Athletics came when teams began to accept the rise of advanced statistics and valued players fairly, meaning that you could not succeed on a low payroll.
It looks like Liverpool have abandoned the process for that exact reason. Over these recent years, they spent a club-record 80 million euros on Darwin Nunez, 47 million on Luis Diaz, 40 million of Ibrahima Konate, 44 million on Diogo Jota, and 20 million on Thiago Alcantara. They have usually spent their money extravagantly, when they go cheap, it’s usually to find and stash away promising talents.
Spend, spend, spend
The chart above is arguably the most important stat in all of sports. It has not been graphed, measured, or even addressed in media conferences. Yet, it lurks in every boardroom, waiting to snatch the Champions League hopes of an aspiring club with a lot of cash to play around with.
The graph is a scatter plot comparing millions of euros spent and the points per game of every team in Europe’s top-five leagues. The absent trendline, which has a slope of somewhere around 0.001 and 0.01, shows how much points per game would increase as you spend more money. So theoretically, according to the graph, if you spent somewhere around $200 million on an average-squad, you would win all of your games, which of course is not true.
According to the chart above, you would have to spend around 50 million euros to get an average-level squad 42 points in 38 Premier League games. That’s good for 15th in last year’s Premier League table. To compare, 50 million euros is good for a Europa League spot in Spain, would secure a Conference League place in Germany, and it would get a top-half finish in Serie A.
Todd Boehly’s Chelsea team are currently tenth in the Premier League despite spending just under $300 million on summer transfer, but Fulham is just above them despite spending around $60 million. The pattern extends to the other top leagues as well. 5th-placed Athletic Club spent no money on transfers this summer, while 5th-placed Lorient, 2nd-placed Freiburg, and more have all gotten result while spending less than $20 million.
But, the graph is a great indicator over overachievement based on transfer budget. Teams above the slope have overachieved based on the money they’ve spent, while teams below the slope have underachieved.
For example, take this graph of the Bundesliga. Dortmund, plagued with contract hold-outs, injuries, and a down season, are relatively underachieving despite the large amount of money they spent in the summer.
In the far right corner is Bayern. Despite having a stellar season (they have just one loss in the Bundesliga), the slope says they are having somewhat of a disappointing year. With the disparity in money spent, the graph reasons Bayern should be leaving their German counterparts in the dust.
Of course, like all graphs, this one is somewhat unreliable as well. The graph assumes the club has an average quality squad. It does not account for relegation candidates. When a newly-promoted team enters the transfer window, its first focus is to beat relegation. So, if a relegation candidate spent over $150 million in transfers, success would be being average, not beating the slope and getting to the top of the table.
The analytical approach to targeting an exact amount of cash to blow is an approach taken to many of Europe’s elite; it’s almost like they aim to clear a single, big number. Manchester City’s buy-all approach to the transfer market(they haven’t spent below 75 million dollars in a decade) has helped them win a lot of trophies. Giants like PSG, Barca, Bayern, and Juventus have all taken a very aggressive approach to the transfer market, meaning they are always outfitted with statement players to bring in not only goals, but also money from merchandise and ticket sales.
The story of Barcelona
The only problem is: what happens when you run out of money? Teams that buy a lot rely not on their shrewdness to actively pick out underpriced players with data, but they rely on the deepness of their purse. When the purse dries out, like it did to Barcelona last season, it comes with drastic effects.
When Barca went on a spending spree in 2019, spending around $300 million on Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie de Jong, Neto, Junior Firpo, Martin Braithwaite, and more, their financial stability collapsed, leaving the club in a worrying state to this day.
Barca(along with Juventus, similarly mired in a financial crisis) made a controversial deal to swap Miralem Pjanic(for over $60 million) and Arthur Melo(for over $76 million) to disguise their disquieting situation. Despite the hefty price tags that was floated around in the deal, Juve only paid the $16 million difference.
Things only got messier with Lionel Messi’s departure, Josep Bartomeu’s resignation, and Barca’s frenzied attempts to reduce wages and sell players. The club’s results on the field also took a hit, as early exits from the Champions League have plagued the club’s recently.
The moral of Barca’s story to clubs looking to burn money? Always anticipate the worst. Barcelona’s big spending caught up to them, and the Barcelona leadership was unprepared.
The weird world of sporting directors
Largely in the shadows of club owners and managers, sporting directors are the backbone of coaching staffs around the world. A sporting director, also called a director of football or technical director, has the risky job of managing transfers to and from the club. But the director also has the responsibility of negotiating contracts and connecting banks to football clubs.
When sporting directors do their job well, their names are unknown. Most of the credit unfairly goes to the manager and owner. But when things go south, the sporting director is usually the one to blame. PSG sporting director Leonardo Araujo was singled out after PSG’s Champions League exit at the hands of Real.
I made mistakes, I have done things – on recruitment, management – that might have had an impact on our results. Everyone has an impact on the season, we have to take responsibility. The expectations were high and the disappointment is equally highLeonardo Araujo spoke to Canal+ after PSG clinched Ligue 1 with a 1-1 draw against Lens in April.
Oftentimes, the sporting director can play a heavy role tactically speaking. Barcelona sporting director and former Maccabi Tel Aviv manager Jordi Cruyff explained Xavi’s emphasis on a three-man midfield, while inputting his own advice in an interview with Mundo Deportivo.
Depending on the staff you have, the demands and needs of your midfield are different. Comparing the function of the average now with that of ten years ago is unfair because there was also a different attack than there was today and a different defence. It is somewhat more complicated than simply saying that there are the three midfielders that there are and that it is obsolete, it does not work like that because they are three great players.
But just like there are legendary managers, like Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, and Alex Ferguson, there are legendary sporting directors. Guiseppe Marotta was the mastermind behind Juve’s renowned midfield of Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, and Claudio Marchisio, all of whom were free. He also helped develop players like Joao Cancelo, Arturo Vidal, and Moise Kean while making big profits.
Just like shrewd, non-costly transfers are seen as big wins, so are the big transfers we know so well. PSG assistant Antero Henrique is renowned in the transfer world for signing big names like Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, and Dani Alves. RB Salzburg’s Christoph Freund is notorious in the transfer world for recruiting and making profits off Erling Haaland, Sadio Mane, Dayot Upamecano, and more.
As I have already confirmed in interviews, Chelsea have been interested in hiring me. When a big club like that shows interest, it is an honour not only for me and the work of FC Red Bull Salzburg, it is also a situation that requires a number of personal considerations. I came to the conclusion that I am in the best place at FC Red Bull Salzburg, and a move was out of the question for me.Freund talks about interest from Chelsea in a press conference after signing a four-year contract extension with Salzburg.
So what does it mean to be a sporting director? The definition of the position has always been contested, and it will become very important as the January transfer window gets underway.
The manager and owner play a big role in transfers, deciding which type of players they want, the budget they will work with, and even where the players come from. Sometimes the manager is the sporting director, taking players from past jobs custom-tailored to their tactics. Sometimes the manager and sporting director are completely isolated from each other; the manager gives a list of requirements, and the director of football goes and fills it out.
Just as there are aggressive and defensive football managers, the same is true for sporting directors in Europe’s leagues. Michael Edwards, Ian Graham, and the data-oriented team around Liverpool all look to pounce on other team’s mistakes, preying on the ever-changing values of players to make big profits and sneaky transfers.
Directors like City’s Txiki Begiristain, Spurs’ Fabio Paratici, and PSG’s Luis Campos all currently have the power and budget to make ground-breaking transfers. They’re three key figures to watch out for, as they have all proved their might in the mercato.
With a myriad of different approaches, definitions, and data to look at in the transfer world, transfers will be as important as ever in the soccer world. Don’t be surprised if sporting directors and data researchers rise to the mainstream in 2023.
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