The more that I have met people working in football the more curious I have become about the ability for smart clubs to exploit the seemingly inefficient way football seems to deal with player recruitment.

I can understand at the money no object end of the game with multi-million-pound decisions and a limited pool of absolutely top end players that secrecy is key.

This is probably also true for most clubs at “big 5” league level. If it comes out that Everton are desperate for a new right back then the price goes up by a few million at every selling club, along with the wage demands.

Small pool of good enough players + high levels of competition for these players = high transfer fees and high wage demands.

My working theory is that talent is approximately normally distributed among professional footballers.

Image from https://www.mathsisfun.com/data/standard-normal-distribution.html

If my assumption is correct (and it is a big IF) then Messi would be at the very far right side of the curve. Players like him are exceptionally rare and easily identified. In academic terms, these would be the 12-year-olds who have their own research group at NASA.


The top 0.1% and next 0.5% ability bands represent established “good” top-flight players in major leagues. These are your worldwide elite of players, the undeniably good players. The ones who will make it regardless, fitness permitting. These are your kids from remote villages in rural Asia who end up graduating from MIT or Cambridge.


Then things start to get really interesting, because the pool of “very, very, very good” players is much, much, much, larger at 1.7%. To continue with our academic theme; think of the top 5 euro leagues as Oxford and Cambridge University. You are going to have the world’s elite academic talent studying there, but you are also going to have a lot of other people who owe their place to circumstance and chance of birth over pure talent. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t get in if you aren’t exceptionally good, but every year thousands of people are not chosen for a place who would do just as well as those chosen above them. 


The pool of “only just worse” players is then twice as large as the pool of at least very, very, very good players, and then there are the players just below that level which increases the volume hugely. Pretty soon you reach the median player who makes money out of playing the game. And this pool is huge.
The thing is we can’t honestly say there isn’t a single better player in Senegal or Chile than currently plays for Chievo or Huddersfield despite the wage and prestige differences. So, therefore, we have to say even if the individual talent is distributed on a bell curve those most talented players aren’t all perfectly distributed into the highest paid contracts in the most prestigious leagues.

So, even if this is correct, what use is it to football clubs?


It teaches us that clubs who aren’t in the tiny elite of mega-rich clubs need to operate differently. 


If you are looking to recruit the BEST chef for your New York hotel you would scour the finest three-star restaurants in the world, trying all their food, before sliding over a name your price offer to the chef’s agent then negotiating the release with their employer.
But what if you just wanted someone to cook in your local pub? 


It would be crazy to try the same tactics. 


You would be far better to clearly set out your budget, the expectations of the job and then choose the best available applicant. 


With football, the incentive for smaller clubs to actually publicly let people know they want players, and what they pay is surely even greater?


Negotiation is only possible if there is flexibility. If you have £1000 a week for wages and can only offer a 1-year deal then that is all you have. You want the absolute best player you can get for that money.
The traditional way of recruiting at the lower levels would be through contracts, scouting, and agents recommendations. These are all perfectly valid ways of operating. But I think there is a better way.
Just be public about what you want!


If you need a striker you need a striker. Decide what the most you can afford to pay is. Decide on the qualities you want from that player. Then let people prepared to work for that money and with those skills apply for the job.


The pool of available players prepared to work for that money, with the appropriate skills is probably way bigger than you think. Between released players from bigger clubs, ambitious semi-pro players, free agents from financially ruined clubs there are probably hundreds who could do a job in the lower professional tiers. 


You may find an Ian Wright or Jamie Vardy. The French lower divisions are full of semi-pro players on £25k a year who may jump at the chance of a full-time contract on twice the money at a higher level. Those late developers and players who were overlooked might come to the surface. 


MRKT Insights are working with clubs to develop these strategies.

Categories: MRKT Insights

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