Brexitball: How To Shop Well Under GBE Regulations (Bands 1-3)

Andy Watson continues his series exploring the impact of Government Body Endorsement (GBE) regulations on the football market in the UK. You can read the first piece in the series here.

At the recent Statsbomb Conference in Stamford Bridge, the conference organisers convened a panel of Directors of Football to talk about the state of the game. Victor Orta from Leeds United, James Cryne from Barnsley, and Will Kuntz from Los Angeles FC were asked about their experiences working within the football industry. Inevitably, the discussion turned to the effect of the Government Body Endorsement (GBE) rules that UK football teams now have to adhere to when signing EU players.

Victor Orta declared that the GBE rules “penalise creativity”. James Cryne agreed, adding that the rules themselves are “a bit random” and that they “are built for people that can sign top players from teams that are doing well…they are not built for people who look for little gaps.”

I outlined some of the problems with the GBE rules in the opening piece in this series, including the example given by Orta of Erling Haaland and Jens Petter Hauge having to go to Germany and Italy before a Premier League club could purchase them. In their cases, this has added perhaps £100 million and £10 million to their price tags, respectively.  

In an industry where your ability to operate more efficiently than your rivals can give you an edge, this raises the question: how should clubs shop well under GBE regulations? We will seek to answer this question in the next two pieces in this series, focusing on two different “bandings” of GBE regulations in each piece. In the remainder of this article, we will look at Bands 1-3—comprising the 15 leagues identified as being the highest-ranked—and look at how value can be found there. In the next piece, we shall look beyond these top three bands to determine how to spend effectively there.

Before we get to Bands 1-3, though, let’s just have a look at what impact the implementation of GBE rules has had on these bands, assessing the scope of the problem faced by clubs in the UK.

The Scope of the Problem 

In his StatsBomb appearance, Victor Orta referenced a smaller pool of players that are now available to British clubs in the transfer market. We didn’t quantify this reduction in our last Brexitball article, so let’s dig into the data now to see just how much of a reduction there has been.

Previous to January 2021, any footballer playing in the EU or Schengen area (which includes some non-EU member states such as Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein) was a potential target for recruitment into the UK without requiring an additional visa or work permit. This meant that scouting networks could cover hundreds of leagues and tens of thousands of players within them without worrying about the players’ ability to work in the UK. When one considers the youth and reserve leagues as well, the possibilities were almost endless.

With the implementation of GBE from 1st January 2021, the market was suddenly reduced significantly. In Band 1 leagues—the “Big 5” European Leagues—all players who make a first-team squad appearance domestically are eligible for a GBE. For UK shoppers in Band 2 (Eredivisie, Juplier Pro, Primeira Liga, Turkish Super Lig), players need to have played 40% of domestic minutes to be sure of attaining a GBE. This differs slightly for clubs who are playing in Europe but more on this later. For players in Band 3 (Mexican Liga MX, Brazilian Serie A, Argentinian Primera, Russian Premier), UK clubs will generally require 80% domestic minutes to have been played.

Add into those categories any player who has played a consistent number of minutes for an international team ranked in the world’s top 50 and then some players who are playing for clubs outside Bands 1-3 but have reached the latter stages of continental competition and you have your entire worldwide transfer market for UK clubs.

Using TransferLab and the GBE calculator tools developed by Analytics FC, we can see a breakdown of where available players actually are and how few are actually eligible to play in the UK after GBE rules. Below is a table that concentrates on Bands 1-3 and the number of players in each league who should get through the process without requiring an appeal:

To go from a situation where it was estimated that around 60,000 professional players were playing in Europe, the vast majority of whom were available to British clubs, to only 3,300 available players is an eye-watering change. 

So how should clubs in the UK adapt to shopping in this new environment? In the rest of this article, I’m going to detail some answers to this question.

Try to Use the New Rules to Your Advantage

For any club hoping to do smart recruitment, the baseline approach never changes. You survey the market and look at ways that you think the market is inefficient before devising ways to exploit these inefficiencies. While the GBE rules may have narrowed the market down considerably, making life harder for everyone, there are certain things that smart clubs can do to give themselves an advantage by adapting more effectively to these impositions than their competitors.

Bearing in mind that we are now talking about a dataset of fewer than 4,000 players, it is eminently possible—especially in the era of “big data”—to keep track of every player available. Rather than bemoaning the increased difficulty of their task, smart clubs will be reassessing the market and redesigning their recruitment process to fit the new landscape.

The examples of Norwich and Brentford are instructive here. Across the last few seasons, both clubs have cherry-picked from European leagues. They have continued to do so this summer even under GBE regulations. As a result, because of their preparatory work through the season and their overarching philosophy, they were still able to bring in players that they wanted within this new environment.

Of course, both clubs took a while to achieve positions that they are currently in. Brentford were building from a low base and used the data advantage that their owner Matthew Benham and his betting company, Smartodds, were able to provide to begin a player trading model that was ultra successful and allowed them to scale up as they progressed through the leagues. With the restrictions now in place, this seems like a very tough ask for any club trying to replicate this model.

The table below shows how Brentford built their current squad in terms of the players coming into the club over the last seven seasons. They have been divided into the current bands to illustrate how this would look in the modern day.

Brentford’s intelligent recruitment from leagues such as the Danish league and 2.Bundesliga has definitely helped them to achieve their goal. Henrik Dalsgaard, Emiliano Marcondes and Vitaly Janelt were key members of their promotion-winning squad last term. Even players like Lasse Vibe and Yoann Barbet helped Brentford build towards the end goal. All of these players are now more difficult to sign for clubs aspiring towards ‘the Brentford model’.

However, as the table demonstrates, less than 10% of all Brentford’s expenditure over the last seven seasons has been spent on Band 4-6 players. The vast majority of their investment came domestically and on players that are, mostly, eligible for GBE. This does offer a ray of hope to clubs that it is still possible to build using players from Europe. 

Track Market Values

Another way that clubs can get a head start in a market upheaval is by keeping abreast of changes of value within the market. This way, they will be able to avoid mis-spending on player fees and wages but also may be able to pick up players at value as an when the opportunity arises.

Using Josh Hobbs’s interpretation of Ian Graham’s idea of minutes played being a successful barometer of transfer success, I have looked into the transfers arrivals to the Premier League from Bands 1-3 since summer 2018 to determine historical transfer success. Here are the findings:

The Iberian peninsula appears to have been a successful place to shop within Bands 1-3 for Premier League clubs within the last three seasons. Players brought in from La Liga generally play more minutes in the league for their Premier League clubs than those brought in from anywhere else. A golden set of transfers in the 18/19 season including Lucas Digne, Jefferson Lerma and Vicente Guaita certainly helped to contribute to this.

Their closest rivals to this impressive record is their neighbours Portugal. Far fewer players have been signed (11 compared to 26) but success stories such as Ruben Dias, Bruno Fernandes and Matheus Pereira means that the Primeira Liga is by far the shining light of Band 2.

There are worrying signs from the other leagues in Band 2, however. Signings into the Premier League from both the Eredivisie and the Jupiler League have quite a poor success rate in terms of minutes played, at least for their parent clubs. Signings such as Rocky Bushiri, Phillipe Sandler and, of course, Donny van de Beek haven’t helped the minutes pile up for the imports from the Low Countries.

It is interesting to note that over the last three seasons, only five players have made the trip from Band 3 leagues into the Premier League. Of those, only Joao Pedro at Watford has played over 50% of possible minutes, the vast majority of which were actually in the Championship.

Using Analytics FC’s TransferLab tool alongside my research into transfer success, a player such as Sporting’s Pedro Goncalves might fit the bill for a Premier League team looking to shop in Bands 1-3:

As you can see in the image, Goncalves is eligible for a GBE, and like other players brought in from Portugal in the recent past, he has been a high achiever in that league. Sporting have a good recent history of providing players that have gone on to become integral players for their Premier League clubs as well, with Bruno Fernandes and Ruben Dias the most obvious examples. Nuno Mendes also left Sporting to play 72% of PSG Champions League minutes this season.

Scout South America

Of course, one area that has been opened up by the GBE regulations is South America. So far, though, this hasn’t caused a massive influx of Brazilian or Argentinian talent to head into the UK. One of the reasons for this is undoubtedly a lack of infrastructure and knowledge currently within UK teams covering these markets.

Expect this to be a growth area in recruitment over the coming years. As we showed earlier in this piece, around 600 players are available to come to the UK from South America. So why not cast a glance in that direction to see if there are any players in that market that fit your game model?

TransferLab is certainly useful in this regard in terms of identifying possible players to fit certain systems. The modern full back certainly needs to have some attacking weapons at their disposal, especially with the variety that a lot of managers like to use now with tactical plans involving back 4s/back 5s. Bearing this in mind, Guilherme Arana is a player that will undoubtedly be on many radars as an attacking outlet from left back:

Arana is currently starring for runaway leaders of Serie A, Atletico Mineiro, and qualifies for a GBE based on minutes played. He is a player who, as is traditional, went to Spain and Italy as a young player, but now, under the GBE regulations, he can move directly to the UK. Whilst his time with Sevilla and Atalanta may have been disappointing, he seems to have grown as a player since then. Now, at 24, performing well and with those experiences under his belt, he could be ripe for a shot in Europe again.

Develop New Scouting Ideas

Directors of Football like Victor Orta and James Cryne may be concerned about creativity being stifled but perhaps there is a little bit of room for ingenuity within the new GBE regulations. Whilst scouting has changed considerably in the recent past, it’s possible that there are yet more dimensions to look into that might be able to shave a few more percentage points off Ian Graham’s “unsuccessful signings” matrix.

When looking at where signings might fail, Graham identified seven key areas, most of which can be mitigated, to a degree, using quite traditional and well-known scouting, data, coaching and management techniques:

Whilst most of the mitigation here will proceed through traditional scouting channels, the final option on this list—players having personal issues—presents itself as an areas where scouts might use data to get a better handle on a player.

As things stand, most recruitment teams will rely on word of mouth, talking to the player and their representatives when the transfer gets close and then when the player does arrive, most clubs have an onboarding procedure to look after new signings. On top of this, many clubs and recruitment experts already look into aspects of players’ mental and psychological capacity.

In my opinion, though, there is still room for gains to be made here. For example, the way that a player responds to big games, their treatment on the pitch, a run of poor form can be analysed, not only through traditional, visual scouting but also through the data that they produce in these scenarios. Using that level of detail can be helpful in this case.

If approaches like these are added into the existing scouting/recruitment framework, then it may produce slightly different targets or maybe narrow down a shortlist even further. 

Budget Better for the New Normal

Throughout this series, we have seen that the way that the transfer market is working is changing rather dramatically. Over the previous five years, the number of transfers involving a fee between clubs has reduced, the total fees spent across the top two leagues have reduced and the number of players that are being signed by clubs during transfer windows has reduced as well.

With less money being spent on fees, it makes the contract negotiations all the more important. With fewer options in the marketplace, the supply and demand forces have shifted markedly too. Players performing well within an appealing age range are going to be more valuable simply for their scarcity and the agents who know their jobs well will know this tool. Change and difficulty also breeds opportunity.

Based on this new evidence, clubs may want to plan and structure differently. An example of how clubs may want to look at their squad structure and planning is produced below. This has been drawn up to suit a particular manager’s playing style, but can be adapted for any style accordingly:

It is a reality that, whenever the strictures that are placed upon an industry are tightened, they encourage better planning for the future. While the GBE rules are adding unnecessary hurdles in the way of UK clubs, they should accelerate this sort of careful planning which, in the long run, could see clubs budget much more smartly in the future.

Conclusion

The research and theories discussed above all lead to the same conclusion: clubs in the UK need to employ key decision makers and stakeholders who are smart, adaptable, but most importantly, working towards the same goal via a shared methodology.

With the vastly decreased pool of players, it will be the very smart and very rich that are able to continue to prosper. In order to achieve a point of difference to your competition, the loss of “creativity” that James Cryne is mourning needs to either be replaced with ruthless efficiency or it needs to be funnelled in even more outside-the-box thinking and pushing of boundaries.

We will publish a fuller discussion of the study of value within the Bands 1-3 leagues which will shed further light on the leagues and types of players to target. However, I’m sure that clubs are doing this kind of work already and, hopefully, giving themselves the best chance of success in this new marketplace. 

At Analytics FC, we provide software and data services to entities within football looking to realise the gains possible from analytical thinking.

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