By Dan Wilson
Soccernomics is a book written by an economist (Stefan Szymanski) and a sports writer (Simon Kuper). Published in 2012, it is an updated version of their original book Why England Lose written in 2010.
The book uses data to clarify thinking on topics such as transfers. I shall be comparing Newcastle United’s shift in transfer policy to the successful policies analysed in Soccernomics.
In recent seasons there has been a major change in the way Newcastle United operates in the transfer market. The days of the big name signing are long gone. The percentage of money spent on wages has been lowered and the average age of the squad has also fallen. The 2011/12 season supported the methods being used when locating and signing players.
Soccernomics lists several key points which should be adhered to when attempting to successfully ‘play’ the transfer market. I shall consider what I feel are the 10 most important areas. They are as follows:
- A new manager wastes money.
- Stars of recent World Cups and European Championships are often overvalued.
- Certain nationalities are overvalued.
- Older players are overvalued.
- Buy players with personal problems at a discount then help them deal with their problems.
- Employ relocation advisers to help new players settle in to the area.
- Use wisdom of the crowds.
- The best time to buy a player is when he is in his early twenties.
- Sell any player if a club offers more than he is worth.
- Replace your best players before you even sell them.
Taking each in turn I shall analyse how Newcastle United adhere to the key points when playing the transfer market.
A new manager wastes money
Alan Pardew was brought in on a 5 ½ year deal. It is a common occurrence that a new manager will clear out previous signings and bring in their own. Keeping the same manager for the long term allows stability and means the manager can build his own team and therefore not waste money. It would appear that Mike Ashley has taken note of the money wasted at Newcastle by successive managers since Kevin Keegan’s first spell in charge. Factor in the compensation payouts following dismissal and the needless money wasted spirals to ridiculous levels. Money saved can be used to strengthen the squad which is now being demonstrated.
Stars of recent World Cups/Euros are often overvalued
Graham Carr has said on record that he first scouted Mathieu Debuchy early in the 2011/12 season. He rarely scouts players in the final few months of a season because footballers are not as fresh. Debuchy’s value may have risen following decent performances for France but he was on Newcastle’s radar for well over 6 months. One of the best examples of signing a player who was in the limelight following a major international tournament is Stephane Guivarc’h. France won the 1998 World Cup with Guivarc’h selected as the main striker. Despite not scoring and not starting every game he was signed by Newcastle for £3.5million because he was a World Cup winner. After 4 less than impressive appearances he was sold to Rangers for the same fee. Newcastle no longer look for the big name signings which has often backfired in the past.
Certain nationalities are overvalued
Brazilians are naturally an expensive purchase due to the stereotype that all Brazilians are amazing at football. English players are also expensive purchases as was demonstrated by Liverpool when they signed Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing for large sums. For some unknown reason French players are cheaper options. Arsenal have recently signed Olivier Giroud for £12million. Of course £12million is a lot of money, but to put it into perspective Giroud was top scorer in Ligue 1 last season. He is only 25 years old. If he was British I would anticipate at least another £5million added to the fee.
Newcastle have noticed value in the French transfer market. Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa demonstrate that value can be found for younger players who are yet to reach their peak.
One of the best examples to demonstrate a ‘cheap’ nationality is Mark Viduka. Australian footballers are usually a very reasonable purchase. Mark Viduka’s career spanned 507 games and he scored 258 goals. This equates to a goal less than every 2 games. Despite this impressive statistic his biggest recorded transfer fee was just £6million paid by Leeds United to Celtic at the beginning of the 2000/01 season. With Newcastle linked to young Australian defender Curtis Good they may be aware that there is value to be had when buying Australian players.
Older players are overvalued
One of the major changes in Newcastle United’s transfer dealings is they have stopped buying older players. They also understand that older players are overvalued because of what they have achieved during their careers. At the beginning of the 2011/12 season West Ham paid £4million for Kevin Nolan. He was 29 years old at the time. The £4million meant Newcastle recouped the transfer fee they paid Bolton Wanderers in 2009. Knowing when to sell a player is just as important as purchasing new players if the club is to be financially successful.
Buy players with personal problems at a discount then help them deal with their problems
Hatem Ben Arfa. Signed for £5.75million, a relatively small amount by today’s transfer market standards. A list of incidents in his relatively short career to date highlight the problems he has created:
- Training session scuffle with Sebastien Squillaci at Lyon.
- Refused to train to force transfer to Marseille.
- Training session bust up with Djibril Cisse.
- Bust up with Modeste M’Bami.
- Refused to warm up against PSG.
- Fined €10,000 for missing a training session (apparently stuck at Tunisian airport).
- Argued with manager Didier Deschamps.
- Refused to train to force loan deal to Newcastle.
It has become apparent to Newcastle fans that Alan Pardew has man-management skills that have worked with Ben Arfa. Despite starting the season on the bench for numerous games he kept his head and finished the season very strongly, proving that he can remain focussed even when things do not go his way. Pardew’s man-management skills were given further credibility during the European Championships. Ben Arfa allegedly fell out with Laurent Blanc after being substituted during their game with Sweden, highlighting the petulance that bubbles within.
Davide Santon could also possibly come under this heading. After an impressive start to his Inter Milan career a number of injuries restricted Santon’s appearances. Once fit he was eventually loaned out to Cesena (who were in Serie B at the time). Something was obviously amiss. With Newcastle United paying just over £5million for him in January 2012 there is something Alan Pardew and his team believe they can do to help him regain the impressive performances he showed in his early days at Inter Milan.
Relocation advisers allow players to perform better
Newcastle United are one of the better clubs at helping new players settle in the region. Former player Olivier Bernard is employed by the club to assist the new French players. The club also send players for language lessons which have obvious positives. Newcastle have a subconscious habit of signing players from the same country or who speak the same language. This will not be a deliberate act to help players settle (more linked to point 3) but does help.
Papiss Cisse & Demba Ba. (Cheick Tiote can also be added to this group – French speaking Africans).
Jonas Gutierrez & Fabricio Coloccini. (Spanish speaking Argentinians).
Yohan Cabaye & Hatem Ben Arfa & Mehdi Abeid & Gabriel Obertan & Sylvain Marveaux & Romain Amilfitano. (French).
Mehdi Abeid has said that he spoke to Cheick Tiote prior to signing for Newcastle, highlighting how positive it can be for players to know they will not be alone and isolated when they sign for a new club abroad.
The less a player has to worry about, such as schools for their children or purchasing a house, the better they can perform on the pitch.
Use wisdom of the crowds
At Lyon, a number of directors, scouts and coaches’ sit down and debate transfer targets. The current manager attends the meeting but does not have the biggest input. At Newcastle United this group would probably include Graham Carr, Derek Llambias, Lee Charnley, Alan Pardew and possibly John Carver. Back over at Lyon, Bernard Lacombe is held in such high regard for his ability to find hidden talents for the club he has worked for them in a non-playing role since 1988. He previously held the position of technical manager (similar to technical director) and is now special adviser to the team President Jean-Michel Aulas . The group meetings held at Lyon aim to find a common answer as to what they need to purchase in the transfer market, therefore using the ‘wisdom of a crowd’. The Chief Scout plays an important role in the meeting.
Graham Carr’s position at Newcastle has become such a crucial role that he has recently signed an 8 year contract extension. This is literally unheard of for a club scout. Carr joined Newcastle as Chief Scout in February 2010 following the resignation of Dennis Wise. Wise held the position of Director of Football. The role of the Director of Football may include control over transfer dealings and targets and aspects outside coaching and squad selection which are handled by the manager. In English football the Director of Football position is still scorned upon due to the impression that they sometimes have more power than the actual manager. Graham Carr’s position of Chief Scout has many similarities to Director of Football. It is well documented that it was Carr who helped find and sign Cabaye, Ben Arfa, Tiote, Marveaux and Cisse. Knowing that the scouting network is successful allows Alan Pardew to focus on the team. With Graham Carr locating possible future purchases it is he who can control the direction the club goes when it comes to transfer market dealings.
Best time to buy a player is when he is in his early twenties
A lot of Newcastle United’s recent purchases fit into this key point. Age when they signed in brackets:
- Vurnon Anita (23)
- Romain Amalfitano (22)
- Mehdi Abeid (19)
- Hatem Ben Arfa (24)
- Davide Santon (21)
- Dan Gosling (20)
- Gabriel Obertan (22)
Players in their early twenties are old enough to nearly be formed but young enough not to be an expensive star demanding high wages. Newcastle operate in this part of the market very well.
Sell any player if another club offers more than he is worth
Andy Carroll. That name could cover this section easily. If another club were to offer an amount for Hatem Ben Arfa, Cheick Tiote or Yohan Cabaye that the club felt was more than the player was actually worth they would not be running the business properly if they refused the offer. Receiving a large transfer fee would allow the club to reinvest in more players, probably younger players who are able to develop. In modern football fans should not become attached to any player. Every player has a value. If a football club say a player is not for sale they are not telling the truth. The right offer will see the player sold.
Replace your best players even before you sell them
If a football club is to be successful on and off the pitch it must plan for future changes. Newcastle signed Cheick Tiote in August 2010, Hatem Ben Arfa in January 2011 (following a loan spell), Yohan Cabaye in June 2011 and Gabriel Obertan in August 2011. In the same period the club sold Kevin Nolan in June 2011 and Joey Barton in August 2011. These were both perceived as key players in the first team squad. However, planning from the club ensured that there were players already in place to fill the positions vacated. In January 2012 Newcastle signed Papiss Cisse. With Demba Ba’s contract containing a release clause this may also be viewed as a planned signing in case the clause is triggered. As the old adage goes, ‘Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance’.
The 5th placed finish in the 2011/12 season highlights the new transfer policy is working. Newcastle United adhere to the Soccernomics key points very well. There are no areas in the key points that need major improvement. The 2012/13 season should further support the new transfer policy and demonstrate that the key points in Soccernomics should be used by all football clubs if they want to be successful on and off the pitch.
Author: Dan Wilson is a 24-year old Toon fan from Newcastle. His favourite memory in recent times is watching Sunderland fans leave at half time in the 5-1 thrashing on Halloween. You can read more from Dan on his personal blog – Eyes In The Corner.