Fix your weaknesses
In the 2012 Champions League semi finals, Barcelona faced Chelsea. Barcelona, managed by Pep Guardiola, were widely heralded as the best team in the world, perhaps even one of the best teams in history, whereas Chelsea were finishing their worst domestic campaign in a decade. However, Guardiola found himself out of options when trying to break down a 10-man Chelsea side who were sitting very deep in their own half. Barcelona had a lot of the best passers and dribblers in the world, but no one who could offer an aerial presence in the box to break down teams such as Chelsea. Chelsea went through to the final, and that match marked the end of the Guardiola era at Barcelona.
When that season started Barcelona already had the best passing midfielders and dribbling attackers in the world. Instead of finding a player who could offer something different, they doubled down on their strengths and signed a passer (Fàbregas) and a dribbler (Sánchez) for a total of €60m. A target man could have saved their season, and they would be able to find one for much less money. Improving our weaknesses is much easier – and cheaper – than trying to improve on what we already very good at.
A practical application of this principle is deciding whether we should invest in attack or defense. If our team is particularly strong in attack, we will get a higher marginal benefit from investing in defenders, and vice-versa. Borussia Dortmund and Atlético de Madrid are illustrative case studies. Both of them are among the 10 best teams in the world at the moment, but when it comes to balance between attack and defense, they are mirror images of each other: Dortmund are one of the most attacking teams in Europe, while Atlético are one of the most defensive.
Using 21st Club’s Player Contribution Model, we look at the average cost of players that would improve Atlético’s and Dortmund’s starting XI. Improving on Atlético’s defense would be very costly – the average cost of a defender who would improve on their starting lineup is £73m, whereas the similar cost for an attacker would be only £24m. Dortmund’s situation provides an even more striking contrast – they would have a much easier time finding a defender that can improve their first team, for an average price of £14m, than finding a better attacker than the ones they already have, which would cost them about £81m.
Helping us choose attack or defense is only one of the situations in which the principle of improving our weaknesses can be applied. We can use the same framework to inform us when deciding between youth and experience, quality and quantity, different playing styles, and different player profiles – the applications are many. What’s important is always making sure to understand the marginal cost and benefit of every signing.