Brexitball: Finding Value for English Clubs in the Top European Leagues

Andy Watson digs into the transfer data to mine insights into how to spend wisely within a Government Body Endorsement landscape.

In the most recent Brexitball article, I explored the landscape shaped by the UK Government Body Endorsement (GBE) regulations and looked at where value could be found within Bands 1-3. The suggestion was that by looking at recent imports into the Premier League, there may be some patterns that emerge. If these patterns do exist, then analysing them would furnish clubs with information that would help them structure their scouting for effectively. 

In the article itself, some headline trends were presented. However, there remained a whole lot more interesting information in the research. In this piece, I’ll run you through the broad brushstrokes of our findings and offer some key factors that could benefit a club’s scouting process.

By way of reminder, this is how Bands 1-3 are defined by GBE regulations:

The information in this piece has been collated using transfer data from summer 2018 up to, but not including, summer 2021. The reason that window was chosen was because the data is recent enough to be considered relevant but also it allows at least one full season to calculate minutes played over a decent sample size.

Since the original piece, transfers from the English Championship have been added to the sample. This gives an extra dimension to the debate. 

Which Leagues Have Provided The Most Players?

Unsurprisingly, the majority of spending on players from Bands 1-3 by clubs in England was carried out by Premier League clubs. Bearing that in mind, it is no surprise to see that it is the top European leagues that have been shopped more extensively than the lower-graded leagues. For example, between June 2018 and May 2021, clubs in the top two divisions of English football bought more players and spent more money in France’s Ligue 1 than any other foreign league.

Here’s how the spending breaks down across the three bands:

In the period that we are focusing on, the most expensive imports per player came from Germany. For many within the industry, German football is seen as something of a close cousin of the English game in terms of its physical output and pace. Potentially, then, clubs may think that they are bringing in a player who can make an impact straight away, hence the higher price paid. 

Our data includes signings like Timo Werner and Kai Havertz—players who were still young but were brought in to play in Chelsea’s first eleven straight away. But it’s not just the very top clubs who believe they can improve their first team from Germany: Sebastien Haller, Joelinton, Bernd Leno and Jannik Vestergaard were all big money transfers to non-Top 4 sides. 

The success of all of these transfers has been questioned. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not these transfers can be considered “successful” or not (with the exception of Haller who has moved on to join Ajax). But Germany is a trusted market. And there is enough here to raise the question if it should remain so.

Alternatively, there are markets that could be considered untapped. Interestingly, hardly any players were brought in directly from Band 3 leagues. This is something that was addressed in the previous piece but is certainly a potential opportunity for a point of difference in recruitment. Is this because there is no value there? Or simply that it is assumed that there is no value there?

Turkey—a Band 2 league—is also a good example of this undervaluing. There seems to be a prevailing opinion that the Super Lig is something of a retirement home, a place to rebuild careers, perhaps. But no doubt, there will be gems there that aren’t being mined by British clubs.

Key learning points:

  • Go back and reassess each of the leagues within the top three bands of the GBE regulations to ensure that you’re not missing out on potentially fruitful markets.

Which Leagues Have Been Most Successfully Shopped In?

One simple heuristic for measuring the success of transfers is looking at how many minutes those players make at their new club. Here is the minutes played data of the signings in our dataset: 

Interestingly, the Bundesliga stands out. No doubt the fact that a lot of high-value Bundesliga players were signed accounts for a decent number of them playing over 50% of available minutes. You cannot afford to keep big money signings on the bench, after all.

However, if you are expecting to be signing players who are going to be integral to your first team then you would hope more than 8% of these signings would have played more than 70% of the available minutes. The aforementioned Timo Werner is the only outfield player to manage this magic number and most would suggest that his Chelsea career has yet to be considered successful.

It should be mentioned that including Championship data in the graphic above does bring the successful numbers down in general. We will touch on this more later but it does leave La Liga as the only league where the incomings into the top two divisions of English football end up playing over half the possible minutes on average. This just highlights how difficult recruitment can be in football.

Certainly this has been the case for English clubs shopping in the Eredivisie of late. The Dutch top division is a well known developer of talent but either that talent is not being successfully identified by English recruitment teams or the circumstances just aren’t right for the players that come here because hardly any signings have made a positive impact. 

Coventry City’s Gustavo Hamer is the only player to have managed over 70% of the available minutes for his club with an honourable mention also going to Joel Veltman. Brighton brought Veltman in for less than a million pounds but he has played a lot of Premier League minutes, bucking the general trend.

Touching on La Liga players moving specifically in the Championship, it is little surprise that a player coming from a Spanish top flight club should be successful for a second tier English side. That doesn’t mean it can’t go wrong, of course. However, Emiliano Buendia, Mathias Jensen and Ivan Sanchez have done enough to make a positive impact on their clubs after their signings.

Key learning points: 

  • Do due diligence on players from the Eredivisie and the Jupiler Pro League as the track record of those signings is particularly poor.

Which Positions Are Most Successfully Recruited From Bands 1-3?

You might be interested in how the data for successful transfers breaks down per position. In this graphic, the players have been broken down into goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and forwards:

Let us start by visiting the curious world of goalkeeping. Obviously, for any team, there is only one space for a goalkeeper at any one time. It would appear that when English clubs go looking in foreign leagues to sign a goalkeeper, they do so with the main intention of signing a first choice option. Signings like Edouard Mendy, Thomas Kaminski, Rui Patricio and Alisson Becker are the stand-out examples here. However, goalkeeping is the position of extremes: players like Lovre Kalinic, Fabri and Runar Alex Runarsson never got a chance to establish themselves so have a very low percentage of minutes.

It is intriguing to speculate as to why midfielders tend to get more minutes than defenders and forwards. When looking for an answer here, it pays to look at it backwards, asking “Why do imported defenders and forwards not play more often?”

Looking at the list of defenders that had zero or very few minutes in the sample is instructive here:

A large number of these defenders were brought into clubs as young players. Many of them have subsequently been loaned out for experience, and therefore, have no registered minutes for their parent club. 

Underlying this approach is the assumption that defenders need to have a high level of physicality to be successful. On top of this, there are a number of things that can go wrong with development. Given the fact that there are immediate and obvious repercussions for defenders who make mistakes—often their errors can lead directly to goals—this may also play a part in clubs not wanting to risk defenders if they aren’t as confident in them.

In the case of forwards: scoring goals is the most important and arguably the most difficult part of the game. As a result, clubs are constantly searching for sources of goals which means forwards will always be a position in which clubs will take risks more often. This will often result in failure and the list below shows some of the biggest flops from the last few years:

Diallo can be excused as a very young player who is still developing, and will almost certainly get future chances. However, it would be fair to say that the combined total of goals from the remainder of players for their parent clubs hasn’t been stellar. 

It is often said that ‘getting an early goal’ settles down new forwards in their clubs and we have seen players struggle spectacularly if that doesn’t happen. Rarely are they given much chance to rectify the situation either which then begins a spiraling lack of confidence.

Key learning points: 

  • Consider the adaptability of defenders coming into the league and assess the development track of young defenders to ensure that they have the best chance of success.
  • Consider a bit more psychological scouting or psychological support for forwards in anticipation of a start with no or few goals.

Which Clubs Have A Good Track Record Of Recruiting From Bands 1-3?

When it comes to recruitment, a successful window has to be considered by comparing all the transfers a club makes. So who are the clubs that stand out in our dataset?

The top and bottom of the “success” table are dominated by Championship clubs (highlighted in blue). This is largely because of the small sample size as some clubs have only made one successful or one unsuccessful signing. 

On top of this, the numbers do lack a little nuance because they include all permanent signings and there is no weighting towards fees of players. For instance, Ruben Dias is considered alongside Phillipe Sandler despite one being signed for a small fee and one for a huge fee. But obviously, clubs will be more pressured to play big money signings which could skew the numbers.

Fulham are a team who stand out in this graphic. They are handicapped somewhat by their recent yoyo-ing between the Premier League and the Championship. This had led to them sending out players like Andre Zambo Anguissa and Jean Michael Seri on loan rather than playing in a relegation struggle or in the Championship.

Aston Villa and Norwich are an interesting case study here as both clubs came up from the Championship in 2019. Often clubs face a predicament when getting promoted from the Championship: those players signed to help in the promotion push aren’t used as much in the Premier League. Frederic Guilbert and Moritz Leitner fall into that category. This requires clubs to be smart in their recruitment, moving out the right players and bringing the right players in. When it comes to Villa and Norwich, though, the two clubs took starkly different approaches to spending in Bands 1-3. 

Villa are perhaps guilty of spending money unwisely. Morgan Sanson, Aly Samatta and Bjorn Engels all failed to establish themselves even as useful squad players. Rocky Bushiri and Josip Drmic haven’t made an impression for Norwich either but they cost considerably less money. At the moment, both clubs remain in the Premier League but Norwich have certainly opened the chequebook more in summer 2021. A revisit of their business may be worth considering next year but early indications do not look good.

Chelsea, Wolves and Liverpool are the only clubs whose recruitment in these leagues has resulted in the signings playing more than 50% of the possible minutes. Chelsea have had the budget to buy established players but then, so have Manchester United. The difference is, Chelsea have played their recruits for the most part. 

Wolves signed the most players (14) but this has worked out for most of the players and the club as well. Rui Patricio, Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves are the stand-outs in terms of minutes played.

Finally, a word on Manchester City and Brighton: it may appear as though both clubs have recruited poorly from the Bands 1-3 leagues. However, both clubs have a slightly different model in terms of the way that they are building to most others.

As Jon Mackenzie and Josh Hobbs found in their Loan Pathways pieces on Brighton and Manchester City, there are clubs who recruit young players and send them out on loan to provide them with tailored match experience and development. So whilst players such as Angelino and Issa Kabore appear as failures on paper, both were on loan for most of the minutes in the sample.

Key learning points:

  • 50% of minutes played from new signings really is a good benchmark to aim at.
  • Spending a large amount of money doesn’t guarantee a positive impact on your team but if directed effectively, it can make a difference.
  • Just because one signing isn’t effective doesn’t mean that future signings won’t be. Championship clubs who make good decisions shouldn’t feel burned by one poor transfer.

Examples of Best Practice

To finish off the study, I have tried to pull out the examples of best practice from over the previous three seasons. I’ve divided this section per position, picking out the ten best performers in the “minutes played” metric. The colour coding follows the schematic used above: blue = Band 1, red = Band 2, purple = Band 3.

Defenders

Leicester’s recruitment of defenders really stands up here. Caglar Soyuncu isn’t far behind the three in this list either so clearly, Leicester have understood what they needed in defence and gave it a chance to work as well. 

It should be noted that six of the ten also had only one season of data. Perhaps it is more difficult to sustain a consistent level of minutes over a longer period of time, in which case, Lucas Digne has a case to be one of the most successful signings of the whole period. 

Midfielders

Leicester also impressed here with their signing of Youri Tielemans. Despite the high cost, he has repaid that fee in spades and could potentially earn the club much more than that if sold.

Eight of the ten players here would be described as central or holding midfielders. It is perhaps unsurprising that these players would play more minutes as they are often integral to the structure of the team. 

A couple of Championship signings make it in here as well with Hamer and Mathias Jensen playing key roles in that division. It just goes to show it is possible to make a really effective signing in these bands for Championship clubs. It just takes due diligence to do so.

Forwards

There are some surprising names in this list. Despite a perceived lack of success Werner, Ryan Babel and Joelinton were heavily used in the time at their club during the sample size. Time is still on the side of Werner and Joelinton, whereas Babel was a rare example of an import from the Turkish league. He was unable to help Fulham stay up in his time there but he provides evidence of the potential of bringing players in from that league.

Arguably the best pieces of recruitment here were from the Championship. Said Benrahma and Emiliano Buendia were snapped up from less fashionable clubs in Ligue 1 and La Liga respectively for comparatively low fees. Both have now left their original English clubs but at vastly inflated figures from their original purchase. This is probably a key lesson for Championship clubs in this piece: these players are still accessible even within the GBE regulations. 

Key learning points:

  • Championship clubs are attractive as landing grounds for talented foreign players. The market is still there in the Bands 1-3 for smart second tier clubs. 
  • If possible, assess Leicester’s methods in the market, especially for defenders.
  • There is not one magic bullet that can be followed to guarantee success.

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