Investment in European football is of great interest to many groups around the world. But the question of where to invest is difficult to answer. Each country has positives and negatives. The legacy of debt, the ownership of infrastructures, the stability and length of media contracts must all be considered. And that is without even considering the implications of a global pandemic.
This article aims to give a quick overview of Italy, mainly from the point of view of building a team who are sustainable in Serie A.
The Italian League system comprises two national leagues, Serie A (20 clubs) and Serie B (20 clubs), and a regionalised third tier, Serie C made up of 60 teams split into 3 divisions.
Churn of clubs in Serie A/B
Whilst Serie A is similar to the Premier League with a consistent core of around 10 clubs, and some “yo-yo” clubs regularly moving between the top two divisions, there is far more volatility within the makeup of the second division.
In the past 10 full seasons:
12 clubs have played in the Premier League, the Championship, and in the divisions below (Norwich, Southampton, etc).
31 clubs in England have played in the Championship and the third division.
17 clubs have played in Serie A, Serie B, and in the divisions below.
52 clubs in Italy have played in Serie B and the third division.
This churn of clubs in Italy is both due to, and the cause of, financial instability.
With clubs facing sanction for failing to meet financial obligations clubs are regularly demoted. This means smaller, but financially stable, clubs are able to rise up through the leagues replacing larger, but chaotically run clubs.
However, this also has an impact on the attendances in the second division (averaging 6k) as teams with very small fan bases replace the larger clubs.
A number of “phoenix” clubs have emerged in Italy over the last decade, very large clubs demoted to lower levels who have quickly progressed back through the leagues to Serie A; examples include Fiorentina, Napoli, Parma, and Torino.
Squad sizes and consistency
In England we have found a positive correlation between the stability of a line up and the points won. This strengthens the lower down the leagues you go.
However, it may be that using fewer players means you get better results, or it may be that getting better results means you use fewer players.
We calculate this by looking at the number of players used and the points won. We have also drilled into the “core” and looked at players playing at least 70% of available minutes. Again you will find that a stable core of players who are fit and available for selection every week is a positive factor in winning games.
There are of course exceptions. Teams can brute force promotion by constantly buying good players. Monza for example signed Danny Mota, a Portuguese international from Juventus, whilst in the third tier.
In Serie B, the teams who gained promotion in 2018/19 were Brescia, Lecce, and Verona who used 22-24 players. This figure is fairly consistent for “stable” clubs across European leagues.
In Serie C, a far less stable set of leagues, teams ranged from 16 to 31 used players. Monza used the most and Pro Piacenza (who went out of business part way through the season) used the fewest.
The data we have gathered can be manipulated to answer any deeper questions you may have about squad composition. Our general belief though is that any ownership group is best served by having a preferred style of play and recruiting players and managers with that style in mind. Although it is necessary to be pragmatic and find the best way to win each game, recruiting to a positional profile creates a leaner squad.
If we examine total transfer spending in Serie B vs finishing position over the last three seasons we can see there isn’t a clear correlation between the two.
However, we need to consider why this might be.
Firstly spending in any window individually does not tell you about the existing value in the squad. Liverpool won the league without spending on transfer fees in 2019/20 but in reality already had built a title winning squad in the 5 years before.
Secondly spending may be to replace players. We like to look at “played minutes lost” as a concept. We are currently working to see if we can correlate the churn of minutes played to the subsequent performance; and whether turnover in certain positions has more impact.
The promoted teams to Serie A from B in the last 3 seasons are; Benevento, Crotone, Brescia, Lecce, Hellas Verona, Empoli, Parma, and Frosione. All of them have appeared in Serie A in recent years and so are likely to have had a legacy of previous spending within their squads.
29 managerial changes in Serie B in 2016/17 (22 clubs)
32 managerial changes in Serie B in 2017/18 (22 clubs)
35 managerial changes in Serie B in 2018/19 (19 clubs)
In contrast the English Championship averages 22 managerial changes per season with 24 clubs over the last 5 seasons.
Serie A is more stable than Serie B, with an average of around 20 changes of coach per season, with 20 teams.
Again we need to consider why this may be. Clubs in the top division are likely to have the best managers, and have entered into longer contracts. In lower leagues, particularly Serie B with the play-off system for promotion clubs are continually looking for a short term boost (whether backed up or not by research) of a managerial change. The best performing coaches are also likely to be targeted by other clubs.
Only 5 Serie A coaches have been in charge for more than 2 years, and only 4 in Serie B.
Does this matter though? The promoted coaches at Benevento and Crotone have only been in charge for a little over 12 months.
When no clubs are run with a consistent approach to management, tactics and recruitment it is hard to tell whether this means these elements are not important, or if there is a huge opportunity for a club showing these attributes to succeed.
Italy is famous for the high tactical level of the coaches. However, does the high turnover of coaching staff actually allow coaches sufficient time to implement and perfect a system.
Plus we have the continual debate around what a formation actually is. Whilst nominaly lining up in a 4-3-3 formation there is a big difference between how Liverpool and Barcelona play football.
At MRKT Insights we have two solutions to analysing how teams play.
The first is an interactive dashboard that allows us to monitor the key performance indicators of any team in the world.
We can then find the closest matches between teams across attacking, defending, and passing metrics which we use to produce a team and manager similarity model.
Our historic data allows us to look back through seasons and train our model to identify the characteristics that translate to higher levels. For example Roberto De Zerbi showed up early in our model as a talent whilst managing Foggia; he is currently the manager of Sassuolo.
The other way we identify playing style is by advanced analysis using the Wyscout API. This allows us access to every ball related action on the pitch. This is what we use to produce performance and opposition analysis for clubs.
It is here we go into granular detail. For example in a 4-3-3 as played by Manchester City the wide attackers typically cut the ball back. In a Liverpool 4-3-3 the fullbacks cross into the box. Overall the amount of crosses may be similar but the build up style is very different.
Over time this information builds up into player profiles. We can use these to create quick overviews of the functioning of a team. Producing event data based scores for players depending on the role they are being asked to perform.
Does squad age matter?
In order to calculate this we took the performance details of every manager in Italy in Serie A and B for the past 4 seasons. We have a database of all managerial performances that we use for our model that includes a combination of performance and squad building information.
We calculated the weighted average age of their teams over their time in charge.
We calculated their points per game.
The results correlated at 0.11, slightly older teams won very slightly more points but not at a significant level.
From a player trading point of view having a younger squad full of assets will outweigh any benefit from having an older squad.
As a company who specialises in player recruitment we pay particular attention to market trends.
We have a database containing every transfer made in the last decade and have developed a methodology to assess transfer success based on the subsequent minutes played by the signing.
We can categorise signings by age, country of origin, position, etc to get granular details on the success rate. We can look at individual team or league levels.
We also consider both sold players and players still on the payroll measuring the change in their transfer value as measured by TransferMarkt – imperfect but the only source we have to use.
There are huge clubs who have a history of success, large fan bases, top-class stadiums and training grounds. And if an ownership group were to be interested in purchasing a club like that there is much we could do to assess the playing squad, the transfer success rate, and audit the current processes.
However, clubs of this stature will cost hundreds of millions of euro.
With that in mind the two clubs we would recommend learning from are Atalanta, and Sassuolo.
Atalanta reached the 19/20 Champions League Quarter Final, playing against Paris St Germain. This has been achieved on an annual budget of around £50m. The club has a unique approach to player development with around 60 players out on loan at clubs throughout Italy. Each player has a development pathway and is loaned to a club that mostly closely matches the needs of the player to improve. This model could be replicated but involves building up a huge network over time.
Sassuolo are perhaps a more easily replicated model. They are a traditionally tiny club only reaching Serie C in 2006. Their secret has been consistently good managerial appointments and consistently good player trading. Massimo Allegri, Eusebio Di Francesco, and Roberto De Zerbi have been their key managers in winning promotions.
Where money has been spent it has been on young players for the first team. The likes of Locatelli (21), Demiral (21), and Muldur (20) were purchased from the sale of Politano (25). Each year the club sells a star player and improves the squad overall.
High potential clubs
Looking for a club with “Sassuolo” potential involves considering the factors that make a club successful.
The model of building a club through sustainable player trading, player development, and building a sustainable fanbase requires the right combination of demographics and location.
Italy has many beautiful cities with clubs of high potential, Padova (Padua) and Perugia both currently in Serie C are clubs who have previously played in the top flight. Palermo has huge potential but many have tried (and failed) to bring the stability to that club to make the most if it.
After Padova, Perugia and Palermo a fourth club beginning with P that could be looked at is Pisa. A small city but famous worldwide, and situated in a province of 500k people.
The main draw to this club is the stadium location, approximately 200m from one of the world’s most visited attractions. The potential to make huge returns from the stadium location with 5m people from around the world (in normal circumstances) with money to spend is unrivalled. Daily (hourly even) Italian cultural shows in the stadium, merchandise, sponsorship from international brands. The potential is huge.
Running a football club anywhere in the world is difficult, but Serie A seems to have a lower barrier to entry than the other big leagues.
Get the investment right and la dolce vita can become a reality.