Why the real work starts after deadline day
The January transfer window is now closed, the rolling Sky Sports tickers stopped, the rumour mill shuttered (for the next 48 hours anyway). All that is left for us to do is watch and see whether any of the myriad new signings across European football will have an impact.
The reality is however that while some new players will be good enough to immediately enter the first team, an alarmingly high number will watch from the bench, or worse. As 21st Club’s Omar Chaudhuri told Sean Ingle for the Guardian last week, “[about half] of new signings [in the January window] are no more utilised on the pitch than players already at the club, despite being brought in specifically to improve the team in the short run…Meanwhile, a quarter of these new players fail to play 20% of minutes.”
With all the millions of pounds and euros splashed around every January on new recruits, how could this be? Ingle points to several possible reasons, including “…difficulties of integrating a new member halfway through the season.”
Which raises the question: is this a failing on the part of the signed player, or the fault of the club doing the integrating?
Currently, the popular conception of the transfer market reflects the video game world of Football Manager. Here, players are finished products. They may get homesick or fail to get along with the coaching staff, manager, technical director etc. But in terms of on-field performance, they are as good as they’re going to get. If they fail to adapt to their new club, it simply wasn’t meant to be.
In the real world however, football players are human beings, capable of learning, vast improvement, sudden dips in form, regret, laziness, hard work, adapting to new circumstances, suffering crises of confidence etc. One would think professional football clubs, considering the investment they make in their playing staff, would take this into account and do everything in their power to ensure the success of new recruits. That means setting clear goals for expected performance, helping players find accommodation, working on team-building exercises to welcome new players to the team, and establishing contingency plans should things go very wrong etc. All of these should be part of a clear, repeatable process.
A club executive might view this process as one aspect of basic asset management. North Yard Analytics founder Daniel Altman emphasises this approach in a powerpoint presentation he wrote for MLS last October. Under the title “Players as Capital Assets,” Altman gives a snapshot of how this works:
How do players fit into a portfolio?
- They create revenue for a club on an annual basis
- They can be bought and sold for capital gains or losses
- They can appreciate with value added through training and experience
- They can depreciate through age, expiring contracts, and other factors
- All of these contributors to players’ value carry risk
If a club expects their assets to increase in value, their investment shouldn’t end as soon as a player contract is signed and a transfer fee agreed on. Instead, the club has a financial responsibility to ensure its players succeed throughout their time in the team.
The “asset management” approach also underlines the importance of doing due diligence on potential signings ahead of time, including using performance and data analysis, to help ensure a good fit. If a player is added as “depth” or “insurance” then the cost of adding them to the team in salary and transfer fees should be weighed against their expected value as a bench-warmer. If a new signing doesn’t match expectations on the training pitch, the club should do everything in its power to see what can be done to better settle them in. All of these processes should be in place well ahead of any transfer window activity.
This approach also requires strong accountability should these “assets” depreciate in value. This is why giving sole responsibility for new signings to the manager, a vulnerable position at the best of times, is often a bad idea. Not only are managers overburdened with daily responsibilities like choosing the first team, tactical planning etc., they have little incentive to do the kind of planning required to ensure new signings are successful over the long term. If however player recruitment is a shared responsibility under the auspices of a more permanent position (like technical director) however, the club is better positioned overall to help recruits achieve their goals.
The transfer window may be shut for now, but for forward-thinking clubs with a will to win that extends beyond next week or next month or even next season, the hard work starts right now.