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Clubs too often get recruitment wrong, as January's window chaos showed. However much a manager knows, the judgment of an individual benefits from other voices and analytical input. The dust has now settled on what seemed a particularly chaotic January transfer window. Some of the moves reinforced views I've formed while working on player transfers over the years, including in the last window (and I readily acknowledge the influence from Soccernomics, Bill Gerrard and Moneyball).
Earlier this year London hosted the Sports Analytics Innovation summit; guests included representatives from Manchester United and Chelsea, but it's fair to say that the use of analytics in football remains in its nascent stage. In fact, analytical thought of any kind seemed in short supply at times in January. Of the many reasons for this: the absolute power of managers is foremost. At many football clubs, the manager is the key (often sole) decision maker over which players are to be bought and sold and this
model has obvious weaknesses.
The average tenure of a manager in English football is 20 months, and the average manager has just a couple of windows to buy success and keep his job. Decisions characterised by short-term thinking and panic-buying are almost inevitable, leading to failure, the appointment of a new manager and the cycle repeating.
Value judgements shaped by one dominant voice (however expert) will rarely match judgments formed by a diverse group. The decisions of a manager will be shaped by his own experiences, character traits, knowledge base and contacts. Input from at least one (and ideally more) senior individual, independent of the manager or owner, with diverse experiences and the authority to challenge the manager's thinking will generally produce better results. Think Clough and Taylor or Wenger and Dein. It doesn't need to be a partnership of equals – in fact it shouldn't be. Arsène Wenger has an almost unmatched level of knowledge and insight about football; it wasn't David Dein's judgement of players that was valuable to Arsenal, it was his ability to challenge, supplement or encourage Wenger's own conclusions.
Although the use of performance data has become almost universal in English football, particularly in relation to injury prediction and prevention, many mangers remain sceptical about using it for recruitment. John Coulson of the data analysts Opta says in Soccernomics that data plays a significant role in recruitment at just four or five Premier League clubs.
Liverpool's recruitment record while Damien Comolli was director of football does not help the argument and the complexity of the sport means that data will never dominate in football to the extent it does in baseball. Nevertheless, data can certainly address some of the inefficiencies in the market. The challenge is in identifying the right numbers, those that accurately correlate with success. Football needs to find its Bill James, the statistician who identified key overlooked statistics in baseball while working as a security guard, before it can find its Billy Beane, or its Daryl Morey. Once recruited, the structure of a player's contract often leaves much to be desired.
Premier League clubs spend 70% of their revenue on player salaries (it's over 90% in the Championship). Notwithstanding the huge sums involved, a player's remuneration is often calculated in very basic terms. We know that incentives are a powerful method of influencing behaviour (thank you Freakonomics) that players generally perform well in the months leading up to a contract negotiation is a good illustration. In football, however, player earnings are rarely linked to the success of the team. Some clubs, generally those closer to the top of the Premier League, do include clauses that depend on criteria such as Champions League qualification, retaining Premier League status or the player staying fit. The remuneration schedule of the player's contract has tremendous potential as a tool to better align interests between club and player (and to address other issues such as properly implemented image rights structures and unilateral termination by the player).
A couple of years ago I advised a player on a move to a newly promoted side paying a huge salary; the concept of a relegation clause wasn't even raised. It's true that players have considerable bargaining power and a small club would argue that it is much easier for a top-four club to include a relegation clause. But there will almost always be a price at which a relegation clause can be "bought". It will generally be worth paying: the odd additional £5k per week will look like very good value when compared to the prospect of having to pay Premier League salaries from Championship revenues.
A particularly egregious example of irrationality in player contracts is the goal bonus. Whilst incentivising goals may sound like a good idea, goal bonuses inevitably result in internal conflicts between team success (passing to an open player) and personal benefit (taking the low-percentage shot from outside the area). A more rational approach would see clubs incentivising behaviours that actually correlate with success: players maintaining a target weight, avoiding red cards or, more radically, incentivising your deadball specialist to hit in-swinging corners (statistically more successful than outswingers) and to mix up shooting and passing from direct free-kicks (more likely to result in a goal, unless you are Gareth Bale).
Some English clubs are already using a "best of both worlds" model to address the systemic recruitment issues in English football using a combination of statistical analysis and expert judgment. Ideally this includes input from the scouting and performance analysis departments with the strategy and individual decisions being made by a group consisting of, at least, the Manager and Director of Football/Head of Recruitment. This is moving closer to the model used in US sport with the key recruitment figure being the General Manager, often an executive without "expert knowledge" of the sport.
Ideally, the club's negotiator will be adept at using the player's contract to better align interests. But softer skills such as persuasiveness and negotiating ability are also important. I worked with Arsenal on transfers for a number of years during the David Dein era and it was an education to see him in action. Little things such as having a video of the player's best moments running in the eye-line of the representative from the other side, the squad's 30m sprint times "just happening" to be lying open on his desk during the negotiation of the sale of a quick winger or even just taking Cesc Fàbregas's granny out for lunch.
English clubs are becoming more and more sophisticated on the commercial side. It can't be long before the player recruitment process addresses its issues and takes similar steps forward.
First published in Guardian Sport Network