Brexitball: How Should WSL and Championship Clubs Handle GBE?

Andy Watson takes a look at the way that WSL and Championship clubs should respond to the GBE regulations post-Brexit.

Our last article brought to light the Governing Body Exemption (GBE) regulations for the women’s game in England. As always, whenever new legislation is brought into effect, there is some value in analysing the impact of these rules and how to best tackle them to benefit your situation.

Since January 2020, the FA has introduced a points-based system for non-UK nationals who are coming into the country to play football. In the women’s case, imported players will need to attain 24 points within the specified criteria in order to earn a GBE which then entitles them to a work permit through the Home Office. The criteria are examined in detail in the last Analytics FC Brexitball blog piece but are briefly repeated here:

Firstly, there are players who are eligible for an auto-pass. These are players who will be granted an endorsement off the back of their international record. 

For players who don’t fall into this category the points are earned via:

  • The league that they play in
  • The percentage of minutes they play
  • The finishing position in the league of the club they last played for 
  • Club participation in continental competition
  • Club progress in continental competition
  • Percentage of minutes played in continental competition

One of the key aspects here is the division of leagues into the appropriate bands. In a number of places in the legislation, it refers to a “Top League”. In these instances, the term refers to Band 1 leagues. The banding breakdown is displayed below:

There are real questions to be asked about the format of the banding and the leagues that made it into Band 1. The women’s game is obviously very different to the men’s game but just to compare the FA’s strategy across the two, here is the banding for the men’s game:

When it comes to women’s football, it feels a little extreme to just lump every league in the world into two bands if you are going down the banding route. That said, there are far fewer professional players and leagues at the moment in women’s football so, on the face of it, keeping it simple with an in/out Band 1/Band 2 system does have some merit as a concept.

The tricky part comes when classifying the leagues and which ones “deserve” inclusion in Band 1. The FA seem to have based their selection purely on including the top five leagues from the UEFA coefficients plus the top US and Australian leagues. However, it is interesting to consider the effect that it may cause to the clubs in England. 

Below is a chart demonstrating where transfers into the WSL have come from in previous seasons:

As you can see, some of the most impactful players in the WSL in recent times have been brought in from countries that now have Band 2 status. For example, to be denying a well-established route into England from the likes of Norway and the Netherlands feels somewhat problematic.

Guro Reiten was signed by Chelsea from Norwegian club LSK Kvinner in 2019 and has since played a key role in Chelsea’s squad, no more so than this season’s title win in which she scored seven goals and provided four assists for the champions. 

Inessa Kaagman has played almost 6,000 WSL minutes since being brought in from AFC Ajax by Everton in 2018. She moved to Brighton in 2020 but is a firmly established WSL player again brought in from a league that doesn’t have Band 1 status. Neither Reiten nor Kaagman would’ve been guaranteed a GBE as neither would’ve auto-passed through international recognition.

Have the imports been successful?

Reiten and Kaagman are good examples of successful recruitment from overseas. Research conducted for the first Brexitball piece on the women’s game revealed the amount of overseas recruitment that has come into the WSL since Summer 2018.

The numbers clearly demonstrate that overseas recruitment was growing until Brexit regulations were implemented in January 2021. The regulations do appear to have had an impact on recruitment, so it would be very useful for clubs in WSL to understand the market and what has happened in the recent past in overseas recruitment.

Having taken the 109 transfers into the league from the four seasons outlined above, we have been able to observe the percentage of minutes that the imports have played. Minutes played is a key indicator of success for a transfer, as explained by Josh Hobbs in his piece interpreting Ian Graham’s theory presented at the 2021 Statsbomb conference. Put simply, if a player is being used, then they are deemed to be of value. As a result, a high minutes-played percentage is a positive for a transfer.

Dividing the overseas transfers in by club we can observe which clubs seem to be able to be successful in bringing in players from abroad and using them:

There’s a really wide spectrum here within clubs that have brought players in. Some clubs have a broad scouting network that has identified a great number of foreign players and built their squad with them, whereas a number of clubs pepper their homegrown talent with a select few foreign players.

That latter approach has worked well for Tottenham Hotspur. Since their promotion to WSL, they have shown steady improvement and key to that has been their use of the foreign players they have identified. To get an average of over 70% minutes played out of their imports is quite staggering.

Although this comes off a small sample size, they are probably unfortunate that it isn’t higher with Alex Morgan’s big move hampered by lack of fitness. However, their use of former NWSL players has been a success story with Alanna Kennedy and Shelina Zadorsky being regulars in the Tottenham lineup.

Aston Villa and Brighton are the other clubs to creep over the magical 50% barrier. Villa deserve a lot of credit as none of their overseas signings can really be described as flops. Most achieve significant minutes for the club and they have shopped in different areas such as France (Stine Larsen and Lisa Weiss), Germany (Caroline Siems), and Sweden (Emily Gielnik). 

Interestingly, Villa have also previously shopped in Band 2 leagues with Mana Iwabuchi (Japan), Ramona Petzelberger (Netherlands), and Diana Silva (Portugal) coming in. Only Iwabuchi was agreed after Brexit regulations came in, but Iwabuchi qualified via her international achievements. Silva is the only Villa import that has played less than 30% minutes for the club so far.

Much of Brighton’s success can be laid at the feet of the imports from Sweden: defenders Emma Koivisto and Emma Kullberg. Brought in in consecutive winter windows, the two Emmas have both played almost every minute since their transfers in. Brighton are developing a reputation in the men’s game for their recruitment models and it will be interesting to see if this is mirrored in the women’s game as well.

Teams that don’t fare so well in the analysis are Manchester City and Bristol City. Manchester City have a strong core of domestic players that have been present within the squad for a long time but their supplementation of overseas players hasn’t generally worked as well as they might have hoped. Abby Dahlkemper and Samantha Mewis from NWSL have worked out ok but European and wider global recruitment hasn’t been as successful. 

Bristol City are no longer in the WSL and potentially their recruitment may have contributed to that. None of the players that they brought in from overseas played over 50% of possible minutes.

West Ham United and their recruitment plan

West Ham deserve their own little section here. More than any other club, they have been committed to the model of importing talent and they have done it well. They have had remarkably few real flops. Every import except Filippa Wallen and Jacynta Galabadaarachchi, have played a decent number of minutes for the club.

In addition, there is a long list of players that have become a huge part of the Hammers’ WSL experience. Alisha Lehmann and Mackenzie Arnold have played over 3000 minutes each, with Emily van Egmond playing over 90% of minutes in her season at the club. Katerina Svitkova, Kenza Dali, Laura Vetterlein, Dagny Brynarsdottir, and Cecile Kvamme have all played over 60% of possible minutes as well.

The recruitment team deserve credit for bringing the talent in from a variety of leagues; from Australia to NWSL, and the only Iceland and Czech league imports in the WSL so far. West Ham have gone about their business in an ambitious manner and given their players a chance to prove themselves in the first team. Given their impressive 6th place finish in the 2021/22 season just finished, their brand of recruitment and football under current manager Paul Konchesky is serving them well.

In terms of whether other clubs can learn something from West Ham, it’s worth questioning how much of their success in attracting foreign players is connected to their London base. Arsenal have also brought in a lot of players from overseas and obviously have that same London pull. It may not be as easy for the likes of Leicester City or Aston Villa to employ similar methods.

Where do the most successful imports come from?

Just switching up the view here, can we learn anything from where the players are coming from and which leagues have proven successful to bring players in from?

Ignoring the countries in which only one or two players have been brought in there are one or two interesting threads to pull out here.

Sweden has been the most popular shopping league for WSL sides over the last four years but their success rate in terms of minutes played is quite poor. For every Emma Kullberg, there are two players who didn’t make an impression in the league.

The three players from the Spanish league have given a good impression but a larger sample size is required. The fact that the Primera Division is in Band 1 will mean that we will probably see more players from that league come over in time.

The NWSL imports have done very well for their clubs in the WSL. This is perhaps unsurprising as the standard of football in the NWSL is still very high indeed and, of course, there are no language and fewer cultural barriers to overcome in the settling in process. 

And this is another piece of evidence as to why the Norwegian league maybe deserves a place in Band 1. The players brought over from that league tend to be successful in the WSL. The aforementioned Reitan (Chelsea) and Kvamme (West Ham) have been successful and also Amalie Eikeland of Reading has now played over 4000 minutes in the WSL.

The Championship

Unfortunately, the Championship isn’t covered in as much detail in any of the easily available resources so it isn’t quite possible to perform as rigorous analysis on transfers into the second tier of English football.

However, it was still possible to conduct an analysis of transfers in from overseas.

As can be seen in the data above, the English Championship isn’t a league in which many transfers come from overseas. There are plenty of players picked up—usually at the end of contracts—but only a small percentage of them are brought in from a foreign league.

Interestingly, there has been a higher percentage of foreign transfers made post-Brexit. This isn’t something that we would attribute to Brexit, though. The increasing professionalisation of the women’s game means that all aspects of the game are leveling up. The standard of play— and players—is increasing. The standard of infrastructure is too and this means that recruitment teams in the clubs are becoming bigger and more professional.

The data and video companies are also beginning to take an interest and provide more information for clubs that use their platforms. This will only continue to increase, and regardless of Brexit, it seems likely that we will see a further increase in overseas transfers into the second tier as money continues to (hopefully) come into the women’s game.

As there are so few transfers, we can actually view them individually. Post-Brexit transfers are highlighted in light red, with the Band 1 of the league of origin in green and Band 2 in red:

The striking element of this data is the change between pre-Brexit and post-Brexit transfers. Four out of five of the transfers before Brexit were from leagues that would now be classed as Band 2 and probably unattainable. However, since January 2021, five of the six transfers into the Championship come from Band 1 leagues. 

It is very difficult to understand as well how Katie Stengel got her work permit. Going by calculations from information in the public domain, Stengel doesn’t qualify for a GBE having come from a Band 2 league in Norway.

Not only does this change highlight once again the effect of the regulations. It also further emphasizes the point made earlier about professionalism. Players from Band 1 leagues wouldn’t have seen the second tier as a move that they would’ve wanted to make. However, in the last few years, that has changed and a Championship club can attract good talent. Liverpool showed this with their work in the market and now they are back in WSL for the 2022/23 season.

Band 2 Transfers In

Taking the Katie Stengel example from the Championship, a small investigation is required into how the players from Band 2 leagues were able to get into the country to work. The following transfers were imported into the WSL since the Brexit regulations were brought in.

The vast majority of the players in the list are eligible for auto-passes based on their international record.

From the data that we have seen, it would seem as though Emma Snerle would qualify for a GBE, mainly through her presence in Fortuna Hjørring’s Champions League run.

The main player who is more difficult to work out here is Deanne Rose. Despite being a Canadian international, she doesn’t appear to hit the minutes threshold for an auto-pass. She has played over 50% of available minutes in 2021 for Canada but only in friendlies. It may well be that these minutes have been allowed to stand in the GBE process. The club that she was signed from is not in a Band 1 league, so she wouldn’t receive the points required for a GBE either.

As usual, there doesn’t appear to be any information out there on the process of signing Rose, from Reading, Florida Gators, the FA or anywhere else. As a result, it is very difficult to actually get any answers to these questions and it is difficult to ratify the rules.

So where should WSL teams look to shop?

From the analysis, it would appear as though in the main the WSL teams should concentrate their recruitment strategy on Band 1 leagues. At this stage of the development of the women’s game worldwide, the majority of international players for top 20 ranked countries are also good possibilities.

Specifically, within the Band 1 leagues, it is worth clubs committing some resources to watching the Spanish and Italian leagues. These are leagues that don’t appear to be as traditionally heavily used by the majority of WSL clubs but the few players that have come over from the Spanish league have done very well. Italians don’t follow this trend but it could be a work in progress. 

For a more secure chance of success, clubs should look towards the NWSL. There hasn’t been a player that has come from this league who hasn’t played a significant amount of minutes for their WSL club.

Finally, it will be worth recruitment teams from the WSL looking closely at the European Champions League qualifiers. Whilst it is similar to the men’s competition in that the teams in the latter stages are tough to recruit from for most WSL teams, the smaller clubs from Band 2 leagues will have players that become eligible as a result of their run that could be assets and could be open to the opportunity to play in the WSL.

No Band 2 clubs qualified for the knockout rounds in 2021/22 but Servette, Zhytlobud-1 Kharkiv, Breiðablik, Køge, Benfica, and BK Hacken were all in the group stages and picked up good GBE points for their players.

Should Championship clubs look elsewhere?

Championship clubs have started to be open to bringing in talent from abroad. The same restrictions apply, of course, and with the less appealing nature of playing second tier football, it will be harder to be proactive.

However, there are lots of edge cases that could be useful for Championship clubs. Squad players for Band 1 clubs are entitled to the points that the club gets for their league performance and also continental progression. The less-developed leagues that are in Band 1—or the poorer clubs within those leagues—will have players that are within reach and could significantly improve the Championship club.

Band 2 leagues, though more attainable, are practically off-limits. The other avenue which could prove fruitful is checking which international players from lower-ranked countries will be available via auto-passes. There will be untapped talent from relatively obscure locations that are now available thanks to the expansion of the auto-pass criteria for lower-ranked nations.

Using some of the tools available from data providers and some video that is out there, a pool of players can be put together that may be of use to Championship clubs. 

Header image copyright IMAGO/Eibner

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