There are football clubs who compete for trophies every season. These clubs generally have very large fan bases, very large incomes, very high wage bills, and very high transfer spending.
But there are also clubs who finish close to these clubs, with smaller wage bills, trading profits on transfers and relatively modest incomes.
These clubs are the clubs that lessons can be learned from. What makes them able to compete on a fraction of the income? How do they sustain a challenge in a climate where more money always seems to be the first demand? How do they always seem to avoid expensive mistakes in the transfer market?
We are not looking at clubs who have a good season due to either fortune, exceptional management or great individual performances but clubs who outperform their financial limitations time and time again.
Four key themes have emerged from studying these clubs. Some clubs will use just one theme, others will take elements from all but these are the factors that allow clubs to consistently overachieve.
Theme 1: Targeted recruitment
Example clubs: FSV Mainz 05 / Montpellier / Nimes / Everton (under Moyes) / US Sassuolo
Recruitment is arguably the key factor in improving a team. Very few managers have substantially improved a team without changing the personnel. However, recruitment is expensive and full of risks.
One way to reduce risk is to become focussed in your recruitment.
Instead of spreading resources thinly across a global scouting network these clubs have focussed on specific markets.
FSV Mainz have targeted France signing Jean-Phillipe Gbamin, Abdou Diallo, Moussa Niakhate and Jean-Phillipe Mateta. They identified the French leagues as the best source of affordable players with sufficient technical and physical skill needed for their system.
Montpellier and Nimes also have also reached the top half of the French league by concentrating almost all their recruitment on the domestic market, often targeting players within their own region.
Under David Moyes Everton recruited extensively from the Championship, bringing in Joleon Lescott, Phil Jagielka, and Leighton Baines. Each player was scouted on numerous occasions until the club was completely satisfied that they had sufficient quality to improve.
US Sassuolo have established themselves in Serie A with a clear transfer strategy. Sell players to large clubs but include promising youngsters as part of the transfer. They have taken Pelligrini, Politano, Mazzitelli, Marchizza and Frattesi from Roma as youngsters in exchange for more established players. Subsequently selling on Pelligrini and Politano for large profits. Similarly, they have taken players such as Pol Lirola and Domenico Berardi from Juventus and turned them into highly rated players. They have managed to improve the team even when running a negative net transfer spend.
Lesson: Become experts in your market.
Theme 2: Innovate
Example clubs: RB Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg, Watford, Brentford.
When Ralf Rangnick was appointed by Red Bull he was given a brief of creating clubs who could challenge the traditional hierarchy. He realised that if he competed on the same terms of bidding for established players and appointing established managers they would never succeed. Instead, he used the Red Bull model to create effectively a University style pathway. Going from FC Liefering (Salzburg’s feeder club) to Red Bull Salzburg to RB Leipzig. The group recruits from under-scouted regions such as West Africa and has a single style of play across all clubs. They also recruit the most promising coaches with Marco Rose, Ralph Hasenhuttl and now Julian Nagelsmann making them an even more attractive destination for young players.
The Pozzo family have operated a similar system for years with Udinese, and more recently Watford, as the club at the top of their scouting system. By targeting undervalued player markets and offering a clear player development pathway the Pozzos have been able to create consistently overachieving teams.
Brentford have used several clever techniques; heavily investing in data scouting, scrapping youth development in favour of a B team, and looking at player trading as the method for generating funds for reinvestment.
Lesson: Be innovative, think like a new small business competing with established brands.
For more about Ralf Rangnick I recommend the book Edge by Ben Lyttleton https://www.amazon.co.uk/Edge-What-Business-Learn-Football/dp/0008225877/ref=asc_df_0008225877/?tag=googshopuk-21&linkCode=df0&hvadid=310623486223&hvpos=1o3&hvnetw=g&hvrand=2064841664421188654&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=1006598&hvtargid=pla-565474829468&psc=1&th=1&psc=1
Theme 3: Development
Example clubs: Atalanta, Athletico Bilbao
Atalanta have reguarly reached the Europa League, and this season qualified for the Champions League ahead of Roma, AC Milan and Inter. And this on the budget of a midtable Championship team. How?
By creating their own pathway for players. Instead of investing money in first team players Atalanta invest in their youth system. In a similar way to Athletico Bilbao they use their regional amateur club system as an asset, training up local coaches, loaning players to clubs and trying to instill a style of play that develops the technically assured players suited to the first team. At any time Atalanta may have 70 players out on loan.
The implications of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) make such a strategy seem more difficult in the EFL. However, if Atalanta loses a promising player they see it as a sign they are succeeding, their reputation for development is so high that players are keener to join the system than to leave it.
Lesson: Commit to an idea of player development
Theme 4: Pragmatism
Example clubs: Spurs, Norwich, Huddersfield, Angers SCO, Freiburg and Eibar.
Pragmatism means dealing with things sensibly and realistically. In football, this means dealing with situations rationally and thinking in the medium and long term.
Norwich City had to reduce their wage bill, sell some of their better players and also try to return to the Premier League. By following a sensible, pragmatic plan they were able to achieve those aims. They recruited sensibly, mainly from undervalued markets, trusted their youth team graduates and worked together.
Spurs have reached a Champions League final and finished in the top 4 of the Premier League after a long period with little investment in new players. This has been achieved through having a consistent tactical approach and a clear sense of togetherness among the playing staff and management.
Huddersfield, Angers, Eibar, and Freiburg have made the top flight of their country over much better-financed teams by combining good scouting with a simple game plan not overly reliant on individual players or coaches. They just make consistent, sensible decisions.
Decision making can be helped by robust processes. The best surgeons still use checklists to ensure they are making the right choices. These clubs think clearly about each and every decision.
Lesson: Your current status is an aggregate of past decisions. The more good decisions you make now the better your future will be.