If you’ve been following Scottish football on Twitter this week you’d be forgiven for thinking…
Every summer it’s the same. Clubs devote an enormous amount of time and resources into their scouting system, determined to find gems in the market that can elevate their side. Teams fight with each other to secure players’ signatures, while each club’s fanbase eagerly anticipates transfer announcements from their side.
Building a squad is one of the most difficult aspects of running a football club, particularly in the modern game where transfers are held up to such intense scrutiny. For those directly involved in the transfer process – managers, scouts and directors of football – the mindset of signing one or two marquee players can be a seductive one. Signing an exciting winger, an up-and-coming striker or a commanding midfielder is a tempting offer – after all, these are the players that can win games. If a club brings in better players in these positions, then surely it stands to reason that this will improve a team?
This is the basis of the transfer policy at many clubs, but there’s just one problem – it doesn’t work. Every time a club prioritises an exciting signing over a functional one, they’re bringing in a player that they don’t really need. If you’ve already got a player performing at a decent level, then spending big for a marginal increase in performance simply isn’t worth it. Odsonne Edouard’s recent transfer to Celtic is a good example of such a situation – the Glaswegian side already have two strikers who perform at a good level relative to their teammates in Mousa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths. Bringing in a third forward isn’t strictly necessary, but it gives the fans a boost. It’s exciting to see your club break their transfer record. It’s exciting to see them hoovering up young talent. But it isn’t the best way to improve your team.
To understand how to improve a football team, first, we need to understand the basic principles of the game. In football, goals are rare. It’s hard to score. This means, in order to win, a team has to work together. While a very few select players can occasionally collect the ball, dribble past an entire team and score, teams have to work together to create opportunities for themselves. This is where football differs from basketball, for instance. Basketball is a team sport, yet it is still fundamentally individualistic. One good player can take a match by the scruff of the neck and tear their opponents to shreds. Its high-scoring, fast-paced nature allows for those with the greatest individual talent to rise to the top and regularly determine the outcome of games.
Basketball is what is known as a strong link game, meaning that a team is essentially only as good as its best player. Having a bonafide superstar in your side is the most effective way to improving your team’s fortunes on the court. But this isn’t the case with football – the beautiful game is a weak link game. Due to the importance of teamwork placed on a football team, a starting eleven is only as good as its weakest player. Because goals are rare and often come through taking advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses, the most effective way to improve a side is by minimising your own team’s shortcomings and exploiting your opponents’.
Not everyone sees football in this light. Take Real Madrid, for example. Florentino Perez clearly believes that football is a strong link game and it’s proven to be a costly misunderstanding. During two separate eras, Real’s president has introduced a Galacitcos signing policy, insisting that Real should sign only the world’s best players. The majority of the starting eleven would be made up of football superstars, supplemented by youth players who would learn from their experience. Good players can always play together, the thinking goes, so accumulating match-winners should make your team better and better. During the first Galactico era, Madrid often fielded Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos, David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane in the same starting lineup. But it didn’t really work – Real won one Champions League and one La Liga title in this time. For a club like Real Madrid, this simply isn’t good enough.
When Perez returned to the Bernabeu in 2009, he brought in the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso as he overhauled the playing squad. Success has arrived eventually, but for years Madrid struggled to keep pace with Barcelona. For the second time, the Galactico project had failed.
So where did Perez go wrong? The president should have focused on replacing the worst players in his side, rather than securing big, sexy signings. As a weak link game, having an unbalanced squad is detrimental to a football club. Having world class players is all well and good, but if you have one poor player in your squad – whether it be an inconsistent goalkeeper, a dodgy centre-back or a careless midfielder – they will often be exploited and can cost your team the game. Football is a game of fine margins and the simplest rule of success is to cut out your own mistakes.
This, after all, is the reason we have tactics. A coach’s job is to find a system that compliments his players’ abilities, to make a team more than the sum of their parts while minimising an opponents’ strengths. Part of what makes football so compelling is the fact that the team with the best players doesn’t always win. A well-drilled, hard-working, organised team can upset the odds and achieve unlikely victories through effort rather than superior talent. If the team with the best players won every game, football wouldn’t be very interesting.
It doesn’t matter how many world-beaters you have; if you can’t play well together, you won’t win a thing. Milan’s legendary manager Arrigo Sacchi understood this and famously demonstrated it to his star-studded Milan team of the late 80s/early 90s with a simple defensive drill. The players were split into two groups – five players would make up a defensive team, while the attacking team would have ten. The rules were simple – the match would only last 15 minutes. Defenders had to protect their goal, while the attackers bombarded them with attack after attack. If the attacking side lost the ball, then they had to start their move again from ten yards inside their own half. Sacchi was trying to prove that an organised defence would always win against a disorganised attack. And he was right – the attackers didn’t score a single goal, despite outnumbering the defenders two to one.
We all know examples of lesser teams pulling off shock wins by virtue of an excellent tactical setup. Greece winning Euro 2004, Atletico winning the 2014 La Liga and the Leicester City side that won the English Premier League in 2016 all come to mind here. None of these teams had the best squad or individual players compared to their rivals, yet all emerged triumphant. Players with less natural talent performed at a high level, because of the tactical system, and the gap in ability between their best and worst players was small. All of these sides understood that football is a weak link game and adjusted their tactics and transfer policy accordingly. And they all pulled off unforgettable and unprecedented successes for their fans.
In Scotland, there are some coaches who see football as a strong link game and others who take the weak link perspective. Derek McInnes is an example of the former. Ever since Graeme Shinnie was moved into midfield, left back has been a problem that the Dons boss has repeatedly refused to address. Andrew Considine, a centre-back by trade and by nature, has been unconvincingly played out of position there for years now even though, statistically speaking, signing a proper left back would improve the side. But McInnes clearly feels that Considine is good enough and instead regularly looks to rebuilding his attack year after year. He’s a strong link coach.
Brendan Rodgers is another manager who could be doing better in this regard. Mikael Lustig’s performances for Celtic have been steadily deteriorating for a while now and right back has been an issue for the club pretty much ever since the Northern Irishman took charge around two years ago. In Rodgers’ defence, it’s not like he hasn’t tried to rectify this – Christian Gamboa was brought in and Tony Ralston was promoted to the senior squad – but neither player has proved an adequate replacement. So here we are with the transfer window open again, and the champions have an obvious hole in their team that’s needing to be filled. But what does Rodgers do? He placates to the fans who want an exciting, big-name player and breaks the club’s transfer record for a striker they don’t really need. In the long term it makes sense, but the Celtic manager’s priorities should be elsewhere. A similar point could be made of Rangers’ recent acquisition of Allan McGregor.
From a statistical perspective, there is no question that replacing the worst player in your team is the most effective method of improving results on the pitch. Having one sloppy player – whether it’s a defender, midfielder or an attacker – has a multiplicative detrimental effect on your team’s chances of getting a win. In their excellent football analytics book The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally draw the comparison between a team’s worst player and the O-ring on the Challenger space shuttle. The small piece of metal failed during the flight and set off a chain of events that resulted in exponential damage and ultimately ended in disaster. The same, Anderson and Sally argue, can be said of a team’s worst player. Every loose pass, every mis-hit shot, every badly-timed tackle makes it a little bit less likely that their team will win. These mistakes accumulate and, in a sport of such fine margins, can ultimately be the deciding factor in a tight contest. McInnes and Rodgers should take note – a lowkey, unglamourous signing might turn out to be their most important signings this season.