Challenges and Opportunities: Evaluating strategies for mid-season recruitment
An important milestone in the European season, not only does January mark the halfway point of the campaign, it also brings the opening of the transfer window and a number of significant recruitment decisions for elite clubs.
The Changing Recruitment Landscape
The source of a huge amount of hype and speculation, the brevity of the window can be a challenge for clubs looking to recruit successfully in such a short space of time. Given the implementation of new legislation such as UEFA Financial Fair Play (FFP) and the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), intelligent scouting and recruitment has arguably never been more important.
In light of these recent jurisdictive changes, the functions of performance analysis and role of the Technical Scout
have risen to a far greater prominence. With technology driving the development of more comprehensive and efficient scouting networks, many clubs are now using their resources to improve due diligence in the area of player trading through the application of data.
Speaking about January recruitment, Barry McNeill, Prozone’s Managing Director, said, “The January window has a different feel to its summer counterpart. Whereas pre-season recruitment is generally geared towards more proactive, considered thinking around which players would best fit the system, mid-season activity tends to be more reactive and centred around finding quick-fixes to problems.”
“A good analogy for the summer window is the sniper rifle,” adds Blake Wooster, the company’s Business Development Director. “With more time to recruit, clubs are able to focus in on the players they’ve been targeting and, as far as is possible, ensure that they are a good fit for the team.
“Some of the smarter work in recent times has been by teams striving to exploit inefficiencies in the transfer market by looking at aspects of performance that have traditionally been overlooked in the scouting process. However, the January window has a habit of inducing more of a ‘shotgun’ approach, with some clubs panic buying under pressure.”
Risk Versus Reward
While mid-season recruitment poses a challenge to all clubs, each team has its own unique set of contexts and obstacles to overcome. For example, sides just outside the European places or just above the relegation zone invariably feel that they need signings for added impetus, while clubs in very real danger of relegation may want to make a raft of changes in the hope of quickly turning things around. However, as the history of January recruitment shows, such rapid solutions are few and far between.
As Wooster says, “Papiss Cisse and Nikica Jelavic are two recent January success stories, but when you look at the historic relationship between amount spent in January and league position it’s very hit-and-miss. Faced with either gambling – and possibly over-spending – on a new player who might provide the required impetus, or focusing on extracting the maximum level of performance from the existing squad, January can cause clubs several dilemmas.”
Considering the inherent challenges of recruiting in the January window, clubs are increasingly striving to mitigate the risks associated with adding players mid-season. Although teams are faced with a range of potential pitfalls, there are a number of strategies that can be adopted to give them the best possible chance of achieving their seasonal ambitions.
Widening the Net
With data and technology enabling clubs to cast the recruitment net wider, McNeill explains how Prozone is helping teams to improve the efficiency of their scouting operations.
platform is able to scour the globe and suggest players with characteristics similar to those desired in potential transfer targets. This is particularly useful for clubs with smaller budgets, giving them the ability to identify players in their own price range who may share certain attributes with the game’s superstars.”
While approaches to recruitment based purely on statistics have their limitations, it is possible, through the use of data in combination with an understanding of the additional factors that need to be considered, for teams to discover talent that others overlook.
One of those additional factors to bear in mind is the influence of the team as a whole on the integration of new signings. It’s vital that clubs go to great lengths to ensure that the right background checks have been completed before signings are committed to, and that incoming players are given the very best chance to succeed in the right environment – what Sir Clive Woodward calls ‘the critical non-essentials’.
The chart below plots actual goals scored by Premier League attackers against expected goals (a formula that takes into account chance quality, including shot type and pitch location) over the last two seasons. While ‘known stars’ appear in the upper right quadrant, Players A, B and C were amongst the top scorers in the league, yet were not expected to be as prolific as they were.
As Wooster explains, “Those players were over-achieving with regards to the chances they were presented with. In other words, they will significantly contribute to winning if the team dynamic is right for them to blossom. From the buyer’s perspective this is perfect, as these are the players that are likely to be undervalued by the market.”
Give Youth a Chance
The default recruitment strategy in the January window seems to be to bring in experienced players, but it is perhaps worth challenging that received wisdom. While tried-and-tested players are undoubtedly valuable, recent developments in age-group football may increase the influence younger players are able to bring to bear on the first team.
One of the major ambitions of EPPP
is to make English U21 football one of the most competitive competitions in Europe, and recent Prozone analysis has shown that the demands in the U21 league are increasingly similar to those of the Premier League. Indeed, the meteoric rise of players such as Raheem Sterling demonstrates that, the injection of youth can make a significant difference to a team’s fortunes if introduced in the appropriate manner.
Of course, given that academy products cost nothing other than their wages, the promotion of young players to the first team at this stage of the season can be an excellent option for clubs that struggle to finance their transfer dealings.
Use the Loan Market
James Skelland, a player representative for James Grant Sport Management, was quoted this week as saying, “We would anticipate that there will be more loan moves [in January]…which tend to suit all parties better.”
Prozone have previously presented analysis on the proportion of loan moves in January
, findings which have shown that teams already recognise both the financial risk and the unknown around how the player will adapt to their new clubs by favouring loans in mid-season.
“When we look at the dynamics of loan deals, we see that the lending club is probably taking the bigger risk with such moves,” says Wooster. “The benefit of temporarily reducing the wage bill will pale into insignificance if they don’t have adequate cover.
“These clubs must consider the ‘value at risk’, which requires the technical assessment of the probability that the player will be needed during the loan spell owing to injuries and suspensions.”
Daniel Sturridge’s loan move to Bolton Wanderers in January 2011, during which he scored 8 goals in 12 games, is an example of the benefits loan deals can bring. Arguably hungrier as they look to demonstrate their abilities to their parent club, loan deals are an affordable and often convenient solution to mid-season recruitment issues.
Diligence and Caution
The temptation to spend during the January window can be great, but a pragmatic, cautious approach can often be the wisest strategy. Arsene Wenger recently said, “If we find a player who will give us something specifically we will [make the signing] – but that in January isn’t easy.” While there has been a degree of public frustration around Arsenal’s transfer policy, Wenger’s pragmatism makes sense considering football’s current economic climate.
In line with Wenger’s approach, Prozone data suggests that there is a general trend towards January recruitment having a negative influence on Premier League team performance
. This doesn’t automatically mean that teams should let the window pass them by (there is evidence that teams battling against relegation benefit from the signing of three or four new players
), but spending for spending’s sake is, statistically speaking, rarely constructive. Instead, it is possible that the solutions could lie within the existing squad and academy set-up.
As football continues to shift towards a more objective approach to recruitment, the establishment of more intelligent player trading frameworks is becoming increasingly viable and widespread. As the January transfer window continues to build towards its conclusion, Technical Scouts throughout Europe will be attempting to apply those techniques over the coming weeks to implement the best possible strategies for their clubs.
Pioneers in performance analysis, Prozone is committed to delivering analytical insights that go far beyond the traditional gauges of performance. Pushing the boundaries of what can be done with performance information, we are helping to drive the evolution of football analytics and change the way we look at football data.