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Part II: The January Transfer Window is Here – So Sit Back and Relax

3 January 2013
Landon Donovan twice proved to be a successful loan signing for Everton (image: Flickr/Ryan Healy)

Landon Donovan twice proved to be a successful loan signing for Everton (image: Flickr/Ryan Healy)

This post is by Blake Wooster, Business Development Director at Prozone Sports, with support from Prozone Sports’ and 5 Added Minutes’ Omar Chaudhuri. 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

In Part I, I outlined some of the challenges inherent to recruiting players during the January window, and promised to offer some suggestions around how the application of data can enhance the task.

So here are a few ideas, and perhaps an insight into some of the work already being undertaken by the Technical Scouts. Of course, every transfer situation will be different and multi-faceted, but the underlying principles should be relevant if applied in the right context:

1) Widen the net

Owing to numerous logistical (e.g. travel) and human limitations (research tells us that coaches can only recollect around 60% of critical incidents in a match), teams can use data and technology to cast the metaphorical net wider and bring player information to their fingertips. Not only is this process more efficient (reducing costs along the way), but it could also help teams unearth unknown talent.

As an example, let’s assume for a moment that the media hype around Frank Lampard is true and the midfielder is available during the current January transfer window. The majority of teams in the Premier League would likely bite Chelsea’s arm off for the ‘quick-fix’ experience and quality that Lampard would offer, but are likely to find the high demand and financial terms too prohibitive to entice the player. Using similar algorithms to those used by online commerce leaders Amazon, Prozone RECRUITER is able to scour the globe and suggest players who have similar characteristics to the desired player – “if you like Lampard, you may also like [Player Y]”. Here you can see a pool of players who have similar characteristics to Lampard when it comes to finishing and distribution:

RECRUITER: Frank Lampard

Notwithstanding the limitations of adopting a purely statistical approach, and recognising the additional factors that would need to be considered (see point 4 below), it’s possible that this method could help teams discover talent that others overlook (or didn’t even know existed).

2) There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’

A cliché, yes, but it’s an important point; don’t overlook the contribution of the team when recruiting new talent. I touched on this in Part I (how the performance of Torres and Milner is arguably as much about the team dynamic as their own performance), and here’s another example:

Goals by Premier League attackers

The chart plots actual goals scored by Premier League attackers versus expected goals over the last two seasons (the expected goals metric essentially uses a formula that takes into account the quality of the chance – including type and pitch location). Unsurprisingly, the likes of Van Persie, Rooney and Aguero are in the top-right quadrant – these players are ‘known stars’, but they are also expected to perform given the quality of chances their teammates will create for them (notwithstanding their individual talent of course). Incidentally these players will also come at a premium and so hence unattainable for most teams (certainly not under-valued). Now take a look at Players A, B and C, who are also amongst the top goal-scorers in the league, but, crucially, were not expected to score as many goals as they have. In other words, these players are arguably over-achieving and will contribute significantly to winning – if the team dynamic is right for them to blossom. Of course, they’re also likely to be under-valued.

3) Give Youth a Chance

The default criterion for most January targets seems to be the need to bring experience into the squad (especially for those teams around the relegation zone who tend to attribute their plight to a ‘lack of experience’). Whereas tried-and-tested assets are no doubt invaluable, perhaps it’s worth challenging this assumption. With the recent introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan, the Premier League is arguably on course to make the U21s league one of the ‘toughest playgrounds in the world’ and recent Prozone analysis shows that the game demands in the U21s league are increasingly similar to Premier League. If Raheem Sterling’s meteoric rise to prominence this season is anything to go by, then perhaps a fearless injection of youth from the U21s could potentially make a difference this time of year if given a chance by the manager. Not to mention, of course, that these players cost nothing.

Here’s an example of how the U21s matches up to some of the game demands in the Premier League:

Under-21s v Premier League: 1st time passes

4) Do your due diligence

The resistance I get when explaining the merits of an objective recruitment approach invariably comes from the assumption that the audience think that I believe data to have all the answers. Well I don’t, and it doesn’t. Mike Forde, Director of Football Operations at Chelsea, has been quoted as saying “99% of player recruitment is who you don’t buy” and it’s vital that clubs go to great lengths to ensure that the right background checks have been completed before they commit to the signing and that they give incoming players every chance of succeeding at the club by creating the right environment for the player to perform – what Sir Clive Woodward refers to as the ‘critical non-essentials’ (CNEs).

Richard Fairbank, CEO at Capital One, has been quoted as saying “At most companies, people spend 2% of their time recruiting and 75% managing their recruiting mistakes”. So football is not the only industry lacking in this area, but when millions are being spent on identifying talent and – somewhat uniquely – buying player assets then proper due diligence becomes even more critical.

5) Take out a loan

James Skelland, a player representative for James Grant Sport Management was quoted this week as saying that “We would anticipate that there will be more loan moves… which tend to suit all parties better”. Prozone have previously presented analysis on the proportion of loan moves in January, which has shown that teams already recognise both the financial risk and the unknown around how the player will adapt to the new club by favouring loan moves in January.

In fact, the bigger risk with loan moves is probably for the lending club; the benefit of temporarily reducing the wage bill will pale into insignificance if they don’t have adequate cover. These clubs must therefore consider the ‘value at risk’, which requires a technical assessment of the probability that the player will be needed during the loan spell owing to injuries and suspensions.

Loan players are also, arguably, hungrier, as they attempt to put themselves in the shop window and show the loaning club what they’re missing. Take Daniel Sturridge as an example; 8 goals in 12 games for Bolton following his loan move in January 2011, which – although wasn’t enough to earn him a regular place at Chelsea – was arguably the form that Liverpool believed justified the reported £12m fee.

6) Do nothing

“If we find a player who will give us something specifically, we will do it – but that in January isn’t easy” is the most recent quote I could find from Arsène Wenger on this topic. While this policy may frustrate some Arsenal fans, for me Wenger’s pragmatism absolutely makes sense considering the economic climate in football – especially when the historical data suggest that general trend towards January recruitment having a negative influence on [EPL] team performance.

When you remove all the media noise and look at it objectively, Arsenal rank 3rd (with 67 points) over the last 38 games – a decent return considering their net spends relative to some of their closest rivals.

I’m not saying that all teams should do nothing; Prozone also have data that suggests that teams near the relegation zone should consider bringing some fresh legs in (3 or 4 new bodies has historically proved to be an optimum number for the struggling teams) to provide new impetus. What I’m saying is that they shouldn’t necessary turn up the heat just because someone left the window open. The solution could lie within the existing squads (including U21s), or a change in playing tactics perhaps.

As the football world continues to shift the decision-making dynamic from “what we think” to “what we know”, the above suggestions hopefully provide a framework for a more intelligent approach to recruitment – not just in football, but for any organisation looking to identify and retain its best talent.

Technical Scouts across the top European leagues will be busy applying similar techniques in an attempt to make the player trading process more efficient. For the rest of us, we can just sit back and relax until Deadline Day.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy E permalink
    5 January 2013 11:05 am

    Shouldn’t ‘turn up the heat because someone left the window open.’

    Great quote and certainly applies to the top teams in the league. Also ties in nicely with the relegation fight where some teams can benefit from letting in a bit of fresh air from that same open window.

    Great article.


  1. Part I: The January Transfer Window is Here – So Sit Back and Relax « 5 Added Minutes
  2. Part I: The January Transfer Window is Here – So Sit Back and Relax | touchline2boardroom

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