Building a Better Football Club
Since I also do a lot of thinking about this type of thing, I wanted to write a companion piece to Richard Whittall’s 21st Club article on Directors of Football. I liked what Rich said a lot, but I wanted to put on my consultant's hat and discuss something beyond Rich’s focus on that specific role that I don’t think I’ve seen expressed.
Most football clubs are incredibly inefficient.
Take the job of the traditional English manager. On the surface, he needs to be an expert in player evaluation (picking the first 11), coaching players to improve, plus systemic tactics and adaptation. In short, he needs to be able to pick the players and choose the tactics that will get the most out of them on the pitch.
I haven’t done the manager’s job, but I have read a lot about it, and apparently just the roles listed above take a lot of time.
Now layer on the following additional roles that the traditional English manager would at least need to be able to have a conversation about:
Physiology and diet.
Youth Development (which actually differs significantly from first team management).
Anything else that teams somehow end up consulting the manager on.
That’s a lot of stuff. Like, multiple degrees at university amounts of stuff. Even a certified genius is going to have trouble adding value in every one of those areas, especially when the bulk of football managers spend 30 years of their lives focusing primarily on learning to play football.
We know from years of business research that having one person be an expert in everything is extremely inefficient. They usually act as a bottleneck inside of an organization, which makes everyone else do their job worse, and cause confusion and frustration up and down the line. Needing that same person to at least be familiar with all that stuff is also inefficient and in many cases just plain impossible.
Now take a step back for a second and ask another question with regard to football:
Where do teams spend the most money?
Transfers and player wages. By a massive amount.
If I’m consulting at a business that has this problem, this is where I focus to get the most gains. Let's make this area better first, then we can work on everything else.
So the real question then becomes: how do you make transfers and player wages more efficient?
Step 1) Add a director of football type role.
This is what Rich was talking about in his piece. Someone who brings together all the different aspects of running a football club and makes certain they comply with a coherent, long-term plan. This is especially true because changing plans is expensive. Managers in the current climate survive less than a year and a half. How the hell can you run a business with that type of turnover when you have to change plans every time you hire a new manager?
A Director of Football is a high level management role. On the other hand, football inherently has a lower wage structure outside of players and the best managers because people are desperate to work there. I would guess the cost is £80-200K per year, but a much wider variation would not surprise me.
Changing plans from one manager to another every 15 months is far more expensive than that.
Step 2) Hire an analytics department to help with both on-the-field stuff, but especially, to help with scouting and transfers.
If you spend the most money on transfers and player wages, you need to make them as efficient as possible. How do you eek the most performance per dollar from this area? Well, you could potentially spend more money on scouting. Orrrr… you could hire a team to crunch numbers from football leagues all over the world in an effort to find the best players possible for as little money as possible.
Even if you are sceptical about how big an impact stats can have in finding good players – and you shouldn’t be, because some of us have started proving this with public data in our spare time – the biggest single thing statistical scouting will help teams do is make fewer mistakes. And that’s massive.
I could build a strong analytics department with a manager, a programmer, and 3 solid stats guys for £150-200K a year plus data costs.
One bad transfer costs millions. One good transfer that you get on the cheap and then sell on a year or two later raises millions.
Step 3) Hire better managers.
This one is interesting, because manager hiring seems to be a total crapshoot. Reputations are built on mythology and shared belief more than results. Results themselves only tell one part of the picture for what is going with a team, and are at least in part driven by the players a manager had at their disposal.
So how do you cut through all the crap and find better managers?
This is why I started working on Statistical Fingerprints. We now know a ton about how players play, but how much do you really know about how managers coach their teams? Crunch the numbers and figure it out.
Because a manager has such a huge impact – even if you limit their responsibilities to just stuff that happens on the pitch – it is vital to have as much information as possible before hiring a new one. Great managers that everyone knows are hugely expensive to hire. Great managers dealing with lesser talent, but whose football teams are producing good numbers… those guys are a lot easier. Provided you have the data to do it.
At this point, teams that aren’t looking to stats to figure out how a manager operates are buying expensive lottery tickets and hoping it turns into their retirement plan.
You do not want to know how much money is spent paying off fired managers every single season. It's shocking.
Step 4) Develop Players Better.
I don’t have any advice on this one because it’s not my area of expertise. All I can say is that if the majority of money in your organization is spent on players, then you need to support them with the best coaching staff you can find.
Additionally, if you are trying to spend LESS money on players, developing them internally from the youth ranks up is the way to do it. It doesn’t cost you transfer money to buy them, no agent fees are involved, and you get players who have cheaper wages and presumably who fit with the organization’s plan. You might even be able to create a profitable player pipeline like Southampton did while they were slumming in the lower leagues.
Regardless of how much money they bring in, teams must become more efficient in how they operate, and in particular they have to become more efficient in getting the most out of their transfer budget and wage spending. Smaller teams that are trying to become more competitive almost can’t afford not to do this.
- Diversify the responsibility within a football club to actual subject matter experts.
- Spend more money on the staff that finds new players (by adding a statistical scouting and analysis department), and also money on the staff that develops new players. If spending on players is the greatest cost in your organization, you MUST make sure the money is used as efficiently as possible.
- Start using numbers across your organization to provide data points that put everyone on the same page.
Your football club will become more efficient. Your player scouting and development will as well. And the results will eventually show up on the field.
The only way it makes sense to just ignore this stuff is if you don’t view a football club as a business and instead view it as a rich person’s plaything.
Although incredibly, two of the biggest “rich person’s plaything” clubs in England (Chelsea and Manchester City) are also leaders in diversification of responsibility and using an analytical approach to all areas of their… business?