Loan Pathways: the Multi-Club Model

Jon Mackenzie and Josh Hobbs explore the loan systems used in the modern game and assess how clubs have created different pathway models for their players. Most of these models focus on player development in some way but each have a very different methodology and some have very different end goals.   

In this series so far, we have looked at the Academy Model (typified by Chelsea) and the Portfolio Model (typified by Manchester City)

This week, we’re going to look at the third of our three models: the Multi-Club Model. We will then explore an iteration of this model as it emerged from the Red Bull Group’s entry into the world of football.

The Multi-Club Model

Throughout this series, we have seen how clubs such as Manchester City and Chelsea utilise loan deals in order to develop their young players. The ideal plan for them is to loan players to lower leagues initially to gain experience, before giving them future loans at higher standards. As the players improve, they are sent to increasingly higher-level clubs until they reach a point at which their value is raised to the point where they can be sold for a good fee or possibly even break into the first team. 

However, due to the elite level of these clubs, it’s extremely rare for any of these developing players to ever make a lasting breakthrough at their parent club. Instead, they tend to sign fully-developed elite players, ready to compete in the latter stages of the Champions League.

The Red Bull Group takes a very different approach. Although Red Bull and their clubs are strongly disliked by many football fans due to the perception that they exist solely to build Red Bull’s brand as an energy drinks company through the group’s aggressive takeover and re-brand of old clubs, they are highly respected for their player development model. 

The logic is simple. Picking up young talent, Red Bull can then send them to an appropriately-leveled club lower down their network, instill them with a playing style that suits their multi-club model, and then, should these players excel, move them up the pyramid to the next level. The goal is to slowly develop these youngsters to the highest point in the pyramid. 

Primarily, Red Bull do this by moving players between the clubs in their network. Currently, the energy drinks company owns five teams across the world: New York Red Bulls, Red Bull Salzburg, RB Leipzig, Red Bull Bragantino and FC Liefering. There was another club set up in Ghana, intended to be used as an uptake academy, but it was closed and much of its function has been moved to Liefering. By moving players throughout this network, Red Bull are able to develop their youngsters to a level where they can eventually arrive in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig.

Let’s look at this process in greater detail.

A Clearly-Defined Play Style

At the heart of the Red Bull Group’s approach is the decision to adopt a play-style—based on ultra-high pressing and lightning-fast transitions—which would be employed by all of their clubs. By doing so, they have been able to develop a network of players across world football who are accustomed to playing in the same way and who are ready to move up the league hierarchy with minimal disruption.

For example, new Leipzig coach Jesse Marsch was brought in from Salzburg, where he was head coach. Before this, he had spells as assistant manager at Leipzig and head coach at New York Red Bulls. Marco Rose—the Borussia Dortmund head coach—and Rene Maric—his assistant—both made their way through the youth teams up to the first team at Salzburg. Thomas Letsch, the coach that Rose succeeded with Salzburg under 18s, left the club to join the staff at Liefering.

This is the multi-club model in action. Whilst Red Bull Salzburg and the New York Red Bulls are teams who have had successes in their own right, they have been used to help further the success of RB Leipzig. Although SSV Markranstädt were in the fifth tier of German football when RB Leipzig bought their licence, the German club was always earmarked to be the flagship team in the group. It was believed that they could climb the leagues and become established as an elite club. 

This proved to be the case as RB Leipzig made it to the Bundesliga by the 16/17 season, finishing second and recording three more top-three finishes since then. 

With Leipzig firmly established as a Champions League side and competing for high-level trophies, it’s been common practice for Red Bull to move players from Salzburg to the German club. Since 14/15, when Leipzig first made it into the 2. Bundesliga, which is a level considered similar to the Austrian Bundesliga, players have been moved from Salzburg to Leipzig once they are deemed to be at a level where they can improve the German side. 

Here is a list of players that have moved from Salzburg to Leipzig between 14/15 and this summer, presented in chronological order: 

  • Georg Treigl (Free)
  • Yordy Reyna (Free)
  • Rodnei (Free)
  • Stefan Hierländer (Free)
  • Thomas Dähne (Free)
  • Peter Gulasci (€3.15m)
  • Stefan Ilsanker (€3.15m)
  • Benno Schmitz (€1m)
  • Bernardo (€6.3m)
  • Dayot Upamecano (€19.43)
  • Naby Keita (€31.25)
  • Konrad Laimer (€7.3m)
  • Amadou Haidara (€19.5m)
  • Hannes Wolf (€12.6m)
  • Hwang Hee-Chan (€9.45m)
  • Dominik Szoboszlai (€21m)

There are only two players to have moved from the NY Red Bulls to Leipzig and these have come in recent years as the club have begun to develop higher-quality young players of their own. Tyler Adams (€2.76m) moved in 18/19 and has since become a regular starter and Caden Clark (€1.9m), who arrived this summer, has been loaned back to the MLS side to continue his development. 

However, Salzburg and Leipzig have both used the New York side as a destination to loan players with seven players moving there temporarily from the European clubs.

Focus on Szoboszlai

The most recent player to make the step from Salzburg to Leipzig is Dominik Szoboszlai. The Hungarian attacking midfielder had a superb season in 19/20, as shown by his TransferLab profile below: 

As you can see, Szoboszlai ranked very highly in the vast majority of the key metrics in his position and particularly for progressive short passing, passes into the box, and touches in the final third. 

Szoboszlai was one of the most dangerous players in the league both from a creative standpoint but also as a goal scorer in his own right—and a spectacular one at that. He racked up 13 goals and 11 assists in all competitions at a rate of 0.39 and 0.33 per 90 respectively. These are league-breaking sorts of numbers and Red Bull knew they needed to act to keep the player within their system as he began to be linked heavily with big moves elsewhere. 

The next season, the Hungarian reached 10 goals and 10 assists by the halfway stage, which saw Red Bull make the decision to move him to Leipzig on a contract ending in 2026. The player was clearly ready for the step to the Bundesliga but this contract best protected the club due to the interest from elsewhere. Unfortunately, he spent the majority of the second half of 20/21 injured but big things are expected of him in the new season. 

This shows how the Red Bull Group use their system to ensure that players develop through the increasing quality of competition. Rather than sending them on loan to clubs where they are relying on coaches of other clubs utilising their players in the way the parent club wants—something which doesn’t always happen as coaches are often making short-term decisions that benefit their own team and their own career first-and-foremost—they primarily keep their development internal and this has led to incredible success. 

It should be noted that many of these players have been bought from elsewhere rather than coming through academies. However, their scouting network is something the group pours a lot of investment into and places huge importance on. 

From the Bottom Up

Clearly, the Red Bull Group don’t utilise loans in the same way that clubs like Chelsea or Manchester City do. However, this doesn’t mean that they don’t still loan out players. In fact, they loan out players extremely often—particularly from Salzburg. 

This is where FC Liefering comes in. Liefering operate in the second tier of Austrian football, having been established in 2012 as Red Bull acquired and merged FC Pasching and USK Anif, and put one of their youth team coaches in charge. 

Since then, the group have signed young players largely from African countries who go directly into the Liefering squad. Enock Mwepu, who arrived from Kafue Celtic in Zambia, is a good example of this. He subsequently progressed to Salzburg where he starred for several seasons before Brighton & Hove Albion paid a fee of over £20m to take him to the Premier League. 

As you can see in his TransferLab profile above, Mwepu had developed into one of the best midfielders at the level by the time Brighton came calling.

Another player to have moved directly to Liefering from the same club was Patson Daka. He also progressed to Salzburg where he scored 68 goals and assisted 27 in 125 competitive appearances. This sustained level of goal scoring caused Leicester City to pay €31.5m for his services. 

His TransferLab profile from last season shows a striker completely dominant at the level.

Additionally, many players have been signed by Salzburg and then sent on loan to Liefering to give them their first step of playing competitively within the Red Bull system. In fact, Salzburg have loaned 23 players to FC Liefering since 12/13. These include:

  • Karim Adeyemi – spent a season on loan immediately after being bought for over €3m and now a German under 21 who’s stepping up to replace the departed Patson Daka.
  • Mergim Berisha – now an important first-team player after a few loans. Liefering was his first.
  • Benjamin Sesko – stepping into Salzburg first team this season after 21 goals in 27 games for Liefering last season.
  • Hannes Wolf – spent two seasons at Liefering before playing 88 times for Salzburg over 3 seasons. Then moved ‘up the ladder’ to Leipzig before being sold to Borussia Monchengladbach. 

As you can see, Red Bull have had some real success with Liefering as their feeder club. They have used the Austrian second-tier side in the same way that Chelsea or Manchester City have used lower EFL clubs or Eredivisie teams for first-loans. However, due to the fact that Liefering tie into the Red Bull system perfectly, they know their players are getting controlled education and development within their own way of playing, making them ready to step up to Salzburg and Leipzig in the future. 

External Loans

Mergim Berisha is a good example of a player who needed a little more time to develop in other areas, despite doing well at Liefering, where the forward scored 14 goals in 30 games. 

In his case, Salzburg decided to send him on loan within the Austrian Bundesliga where he played for LASK and Altach before finally getting his chance at Salzburg. The 23-year-old was brought slowly into the Salzburg fold in 19/20 before being trusted with 1,898 minutes in 20/21, a season in which he returned 14 goals and 10 assists in the league. 

The club still does utilise loans outside of their network: they had 14 players out on loan last season to non-Red Bull clubs. However, these players are more likely to be players that leave the system in the future. In previous years, most players loaned outside of the system have eventually left. 

Conclusion

In the other two player development models we’ve considered so far, one of the primary goals of the model seemed to be generating revenue for the club rather than developing players to make a contribution for the first team. Obviously, Manchester City and Chelsea want to develop stars but the facts are that the overwhelming majority of players within their teams are developed elsewhere. 

Of course, the Red Bull Group does make significant revenue through its player development model. As has been mentioned earlier, Mwepu and Daka left Salzburg for a combined €50m, whilst Dayot Upamecano recently moved to Bayern for a fee of around €40m. 

However, Red Bull players don’t tend to move for big money unless they’ve contributed well to teams within the group. In the case of Chelsea and Manchester City, there have been players who have moved for high fees who have never made it at the club or only been given very limited chances before the powers that be decided to cash in. 

As seems to be the case with these models, there are some downsides. This is not an easy model for anybody to implement. It helps that the Red Bull Group had the financial might of the global brand of Red Bull behind the project in the first place or it might never have even worked. The brand has poured money into acquiring the clubs required to successfully pull off their plan. It was necessary to own at least 3 or 4 clubs to make the model succeed. They’ve also had to invest a large amount into their scouting operation to identify the players in the first place—particularly in Africa. However, this is surely a better use of funds than paying over the odds for players in more competitive markets. 

It has also taken a number of years for the model to produce the fruit that it does today. In modern football, fans and owners alike tend to be looking for a quick fix so would be unlikely to be patient to wait for success like this. 

Finally, there is the question of whether Red Bull’s model has ultimately been good for football. Fans of the clubs that were run roughshod over in the takeovers by Red Bull are unlikely to agree along with many of the fans of other clubs in the respective leagues. For many, this simply isn’t how football should work. 

One thing is for sure though, the model has brought extraordinary results.

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