Part I: The January Transfer Window is Here – So Sit Back and Relax
This post is by Blake Wooster, Business Development Director at Prozone Sports. Blake is one of football’s foremost experts in the area of performance analysis, talent identification, player development and recruitment. Since joining Prozone in 2004, Blake has achieved the highest industry accreditation in performance analysis and become a consultant and trusted advisor to a number of leading organisations worldwide, including Chelsea FC, UEFA, FIFA and the English Premier League. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeyGW, and Prozone Sports @ProzoneSports.
I haven’t read the morning papers, but I imagine the back pages are filled with speculation around Messrs Walcott, Villa, Lampard and Ronaldo and awash with clichés of ‘possible movers and shakers’ and clubs posed to ‘break open the war chest’ of funds.
Despite the media’s best efforts to whip up a transfer gossip frenzy, history tells us that the majority of deals don’t happen until the final day of the window (60% of the £225m spent in January 2011) and only 8% (21 of the 253 transfer predictions) of last year’s transfer gossip reported by the BBC actually materialised.
For this reason, one cliché that does seem appropriate is Sir Alex Ferguson’s dubbing of this time of year as “silly season”.
So we can all just rest easy for a few weeks until Jim White whips up the Sky Sports ‘deadline day’ crescendo? Well, not quite. Away from the hype of the window, the relatively new subculture of ‘Technical Scouts’ – who now exist to enhance the due diligence process surrounding the more traditional scouting process – will be working around the clock to advise football clubs’ decision-makers. There’s already been much written on the ‘new’ role of the Technical Scout I’ll skip the explanation and instead focus on the challenges inherent with recruiting players during the January window and offer some suggestions around how the application data can enhance the task.
The January window has a different feel than its summer counterpart; whereas pre-season recruitment is generally more focused on a fresh start and teams thinking proactively about which players would best fit their system, mid-season transfer activity tends to be more reactive and centred around quick-fixes. To use an analogy, for the summer window; think sniper-rifle (picking off the player you’ve been targeting), while for the January window; think shotgun (panic buying). Some of the smarter work over recent times has seen teams striving to exploit inefficiencies in the transfer market, with football taking inspiration from the Oakland A’s in baseball (for those rolling their eyes at yet another Moneyball reference, I’ll give you two football examples of identifying talent that others overlook and building over-achieving teams; Brian Clough’s Derby County (1967-73) and the Wimbledon’s cup-winning ‘crazy gang’ (1988)). And it’s for this reason that the January window represents a number of paradoxical challenges.
Firstly, teams near the relegation places or the European spots invariably feel they need that extra something to give them the impetus they need. However, impactful ‘shotgun’ transfers generally don’t happen – at least not ones that yield an immediate improvement in results. Fernando Torres’ £50m transfer from Liverpool to Chelsea in January 2011 – and the subsequent inflated transfer fee secured by Newcastle from Liverpool for Andy Carroll – is the most widely discussed example, although in my recent post on ‘Player Archaeology‘, I included a more subtle example of the time it takes for players to adapt to a new club. James Milner’s ‘offensive efficiency’ (definition – a player’s crossing, passing, shooting output per pass received) initially decreased by 15% when he moved from Aston Villa to Manchester City in 2010, before increasing by 7% the following season – therefore highlighting the time it takes players to become comfortable with their new surroundings. And, contrary to popular focus on isolating an individual’s performance, this is a vital point: how well a player performs is largely a result of the teams’ contribution, and not the player himself. To make the point, contrary to media reports, the Prozone data suggests that Torres has actually met goal-scoring expectations – according to the chances he’s had – since moving to Chelsea.
I digress – that’s another story. But take a minute to consider what January window signings have actually had an immediate positive impact on a teams fortunes? Papiss Cissé and Nikica Jelavic are two obvious recent mid-season transfer success stories, but the incidences of finding quick-fix solutions in the January window are few and far between.
Secondly, successful quick-fixes often come in the shape of established players, which in turn come at a cost as the selling club have the negotiating advantage of ‘supplier power’ (Newcastle were arguably the biggest beneficiaries from the Torres/Carroll domino dealings, although Liverpool would be justified in pointing out that ‘trading’ Andy Carroll, Luis Suarez and £10m for Torres was decent business). With teams under more pressure to manage their finances in the wake of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations, this clearly creates a dilemma for teams who feel they need new blood to assist with their current plight.
Faced with the unenviable decision of either rolling the dice and over-spending on a new player who might (just might) provide the impetus required, versus focusing instead on retention (read Alan Pardew’s recent comments around Demba Ba) and extracting the maximum performance output from the existing squad, then Sir Alex Ferguson’s apparent decision to not get embroiled in “silly season” seems like a good option. Then again, it’s perhaps easier to not get involved in the January frenzy when you’re sitting seven points clear at the top of the table – safe in the knowledge that your team usually ‘kick-on’ during the second half of the season.
So considering the inherent challenges with shopping in the ‘January sales’ – and against the prevailing backdrop of increased governance – what strategies can teams adopt to mitigate the risks and bring in the talent that gives them the best chance of achieving their end of season goals?