Reverse engineering – the process of understanding how or why something works through deductive reasoning, in the hope of being able to recreate it.
Brighton and Hove Albion, a club that avoided relegation to non-league football as recently as 1997, who were without a permanent home for the following 14 seasons, and who reached the Premier League for the first time in 2017-18 are, at time of writing, 7th in the Premier League.
On the face of it this isn’t remarkable, there is usually a “surprise package” in the league, any team can go on a good run. Indeed Fulham, a newly promoted side are 6th.
However Brighton don’t seem to be a flash in the pan. This is their 6th consecutive top flight season. It is a story of stablisation then steady improvement.
If we look at their underlying performances using expected points (a measure that takes into account expected goals for and against) we can see a team that has improved by around 50% over the 6 seasons in the league.:
2017/18 – 40.85
2018/19 – 36.19
2019/20 – 48.02
2020/21 – 61.41
2021/22 – 54.18
2022/23 – 65.4 (pro rata)
Chris Houghton’s team did the difficult bit, surviving the first two seasons, this is a huge transition for clubs and he should be praised as an important figure in Brighton’s success.
It is from Potter’s arrival in 2019 that the Brighton story tends to be told, certainly the style of play changed and the underlying performances improved.
2022 saw the bigget challenge to this story of steady improvement.
Like all relatively small clubs who have success they have lost key staff to larger clubs.
Outgoing player sales in the last two years include Marc Cucarella, Ben White and Yves Bissouma.
Head Coach Graham Potter was taken by Chelsea, along with his coaching team and several key figures in the recruitment team including Paul Winstanley.
Even Director of Football Dan Ashworth was taken to Newcastle United.
Now normally if a club were to lose their director of football, their first team coaching team, and their senior recruitment staff we would predict a decline. Not necessarily an immediate crisis but almost certainly some difficult times ahead.
That may still happen, maybe “we’ll prove you wrong” has been enough of a short term boost to sustain performance. It is possible that the club is still enjoying the fruits of labour from previous good decisions and the impact of decisions made now will only manifest in future seasons of decline.
However it seems from the outside that solid decisions are still being made. De Zerbi was a great stylistic match, David Weir had worked alongside Dan Ashworth and was ready to step up when required. The recruitment staff who left were replaced by in-house staff who knew how Brighton played and recruited and were well prepared.
Whole Club Ethos
One of the big questions with any model (Manager led, Sporting Director led) of running a football club is how do you ensure the ethos and methodology used to run the club survives transitions. If the main person driving it goes then what is retained.
It is why we tend to recommend a club led approach. You get a critical mass of people who all have the same ambition and vision for the club. The reality is the person at the very top is the owner, they need to be logical and understand risk. They need to be demanding that process is followed and ensure that personal ambitions do not lead to suboptimal choices being made.
It is no surprise that the clubs who follow this mantra (Brighton, Brentford in the top divisions, and clubs like Plymouth Argyle in the EFL) are able to outperform clubs with much larger budgets. They are united in having owners with backgrounds in quantitative analysis, and in the case of the Premier League clubs, in professional gambling.
A successful gambler is the one who is better at gathering information that tilts the odds of success in their favour. These clubs are well known for their use of data. They have access to data used to inform their gambling businesses and use it within the football business.
A single Premier League transaction can cost between £10m and £100m+ in transfer fee and wage payments. If we take a typical total deal cost at £30m and estimate that 5 such deals are done by each club each year we see £150m of investment.
If the average Premier League club is successful in half these deals and the other half succeed we may think of a balance of £0.
Being even 5% more effective than average could shift that to a positive £7.5m annually.
If you can be even better then the effects multiply. Being better at assessing talent means you identify players who are undervalued meaning more points per pound spent and the ability to sell those players at a high rate.
Small bets spread well
Even with the best data analytics money can buy you won’t get every transfer right. In Brighton’s early Premier League days their record on big signings….wasn’t that good.
Locadia – £19m – released on a free transfer – 24 from Netherlands
Izquerido – £15m – released on a free transfer – 25 Belgium
Jahanbaksh – £19m – nominal fee – 25 Netherlands
Players were signed to be immediate first team players who never really established themselves as first teamers. They either didn’t settle into English football or struggled in a team that was changing playing identity.
This isn’t unusual but it did show great data doesn’t always translate into successful transfers.
Brighton have only spent over £20m on two signings, the unfortunate Enoch Mwepu who sadly had to retire soon after signing, and Adam Webster. Webster has played regularly and retains decent value.
The £12m-20m band is where Brighton have signed their more established players such as Maupay (23), Trossard (24) Cucurella (23) and Estupian (23). By buying players at 23 rather than 26 you can extract value from them whilst they retain resale value.
Maupay both recovered most of his initial cost and was the top scorer in each of his seasons at the club, Cucurella was sold for over three times his purchase price after just one season.
Trossard and Estupian are regulars in the current first team.
So far so smart, signing players on the up, selling whilst still at peak value after having extracted or added value.
Where Brighton differentiate themselves is in the next band down of transfers.
Gambles on high ceiling players
The £5m-12m band is where Brighton have really backed their model.
In summary they sign the best young players from countries where other Premier League clubs rarely sign directly from.
Every Premier League club would take a player from any country in the world. However most would want that player to have “proven” their ability in a European league before signing them.
What Brighton have done is realise that if you wait for a player to prove themselves you will pay three times the price.
Do you back your coaches, and loan pathway (Brighton have a club under the same ownership in Belgium) to do a better job of developing the player to be ready for your first team than a random club somewhere in Europe?
If so go in early and be prepared to wait.
Take Alexis Mac Allister – he was known as a talent in Argentina – Brighton paid £8m for him in 2019 when he was just 20 years old. It was January 2021 before he started three consecutive games for Brighton.
Brighton have since returned to South America to sign Ensico (£11m from Paraguay, 18 years old), Caicedo (£4.5m from Ecuador, 19 years old), Buonanotte (£6m from Argentina, 18 years old)
They have also purchased players from Poland (Moder and Karbonik), Czechia (Sima), Denmark (Andriga) and Japan (Mitoma).
Not every signing will become a Brighton regular,however all those signed have high ability and will do well elsewhere. In most cases Brighton will benefit from this. Well chosen loans turned Ostigard from a £100k signing into a £5m sale without playing for Brighton. Others like Gyokeres will earn large sell ons.
Experience without fees
You don’t win anything with kids may not be entirely true but very few teams don’t at least have a few experienced players in there. Brighton have not paid a significant fee for a player older than 25. Yet their team contains Adam Lallana, and Danny Welbeck, both experienced England internationals with Champions League experience.
As a club they don’t believe in paying fees for peak or post peak players. That doesn’t mean they don’t sign quality if it is available.
Brighton are not traditionally a team associated with developing young players. Their better academy prospects like Gareth Barry tended to leave before playing.
After establishing themselves in the Championship, and then the Premier League players have stayed with Brighton and seen a pathway.
Players are still going to be sold, such as Ben White for £50m, however first team regulars Lewis Dunk, Solly March and Robert Sanchez were produced locally.
The academy signings from Ireland of Molumby, Connolly, and Ferguson show the strength of recruitment at youth level.
There are plenty of youth products on loan in EFL who are highly regarded too.
An interesting exercise with football clubs is to say whether on not they create value.
To measure this we need to look at:
The amount spent assembling the squad, outgoing player profit/loss, the value of the current players in the squad.
A positive figure indicates that you are increasing the value of players through the work you do within the club.
Our figures indicate a total investment of around £362m in outgoing transfer fees, with £204m in fees received, and £360m of current squad value. This only includes players purchased or debuting since 2017/18 so would be even higher with Dunk/March included.
A net value add of £202m over the last 6 years (+£33m a season).
The club at the other extreme have seen around a £300m decrease in value to players in the same time period (-£50m a season).
The difference between a well run, and a badly run midtable Premier League club can be a swing of £83m in player value.
Can Brighton and Hove Albion go higher? Will Champions League football be coming to the Amex?
To investigate this we have looked at the number of points required to reach different finishing positions taking an average over a 13+ year period.
We have then looked at the salaries paid by the clubs who finished in those positions. To adjust for inflation we have standardised on a percentage difference from the median wages paid. So paying three times what the 10th/11th placed team paid would give a score of 300%.
As we can see the most expensive thing to do is to finish top of the table. Each point for the first placed team typically costs around £3.7m in 2023 wages.
At the other end of the table the teams in 20th position find points hard to come by, so even though their wages are often lowest each point actually costs them around £3.3m
Midtable is where we see the most efficient conversion of £ into points.
Right where Brighton are now.
We’ve seen teams in this position before, Moyes’ Everton being a good example. Always 5-8th.
As Manchester City and Tottenham established themselves and turned the big 4 into the big 6 clubs like Everton and Leicester City (post-title, the title win remains the most remarkable achievement in football and will always be an asterix in reports involving financial data) increased their spending significantly to try and join them.
This came at the cost of unsustainable losses and probable long term damage.
Is it worth Brighton trying to do the same? Or can they rely on just being smarter, keep doing what they are doing and hoping for the occasional cup run or 6th place finish if one of the big clubs has a terrible year?
Plus financially, it really shows what a mess things are when a club as well run as Brighton still requires massive financial backing. Tony Bloom has invested £427m into the club, they lose significant money in each and every season.
Brighton are innovative, calculate risk really well, add value to players better than everyone else around, and yet are still hitting the same glass ceiling as everyone else and are still entirely reliant on an investor spending way more than the club makes every year.
Lessons to be learned
You don’t have to copy Brighton to do well, there are many ways to do well. But you need something that differentiates you and you do better than anyone else.
Risk assessment.- calculate the risks involved in transfers. A very simple model is better than no model at all.
Back your coaching staff and development pathways -If you can get three players of high potential for the cost of one established player then the question is can you wait for the young players to develop?
The cost of adding skills like player development coaching and data analysis are a drop in the ocean compared to a player transaction. Don’t scrimp on these skills in your business, an £83m a year difference in value added to playing squads could be achieved by doing this well.