What’s the best transfer policy in the Scottish Premiership?

What’s the best transfer policy in the Scottish Premiership?

By James Cairney

With the transfer window open again, now is the time of year when fans excitedly speculate over potential signings and new transfers. On average in the Scottish Premiership around a dozen players will join a club over the course of a season, with around the same number leaving. Managers will assess their squads, identify weak spots and do their best to improve on the previous campaign.


When it comes to transfer policy, broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought. A club can either retain the majority of the squad and bring in a few new faces in the hope that the stability that this brings will be to the long-term benefit of their team. The other method is to release or sell many players in a total restructuring of the playing squad, with the aim of creating a culture where only the successful players are kept on and rewarded with new contracts.


Most of us can identify clubs that operate under the opposing systems. Motherwell, for instance, prefer the latter method and most summers at Fir Park are full of significant upheaval. St Johnstone, on the other hand, normally have fairly low-key transfer windows with few new additions or players moving on. It’s a conscious decision that clubs make.


Two opposing transfer policies then, but is there an advantage to be gained from either method? Stability or a shake-up? We crunched the numbers below to see if there’s a correlation between a club’s transfer activity and results on the pitch.



For the purposes of this article, we’re going to say that clubs who complete a total of 25 transfers – that’s a culmination of players coming in and out – over the course of a season have a high transfer frequency, while those who complete less than 25 will be considered to have a low frequency. That might sound like a lot but, as previously mentioned, the mean number of transfers for teams in the Premiership is around 25 overall.


As we can see, few clubs are totally married to one particular system. We can make generalisations however. Hearts and Dundee, for example, don’t rebuild their squad every campaign but still end up doing it most years. Inverness Caledonian Thistle, when in the Premiership, usually opted for stability and generally avoided bringing in lots of new faces over the summer.


The graph below shows whether a club has, on average, a high or a low frequency of transfers. And it reveals something interesting.


For clubs at the summit of the Premiership, it seems stability matters more than freshening up the squad. Of the five clubs that prefer to retain the majority of their playing squads each season, two have been the most successful clubs in the league over the last five years. Celtic have won the league each of the five seasons we’re looking at while Aberdeen have finished in second four times in a row. At the top end, it seems, stability breeds success.


That’s not the case for clubs elsewhere in the league though. For teams around the middle, low transfer frequency does bring stability, although there is a significant risk of a severe drop-off on any given season. Take Partick Thistle, for example. The Jags generally finished in the bottom half of the league but weren’t too embroiled in the fight against relegation most seasons, only for the wheels to come off this season.


It’s a similar story for Inverness – a series of top half finishes were abruptly followed by one disastrous season where they ended up getting relegated. It’s the same at St Johnstone – after finishing in fourth for three consecutive seasons, this year they dropped to eighth. This isn’t quite as dramatic a fall from grace as the two Thistles, but there’s still a pattern here. One year, for whatever reason, it can all go horribly wrong.


So what about teams with a high frequency of transfers? On the whole, it seems, this method works quite well but is still far from a guarantee of success. For larger clubs, determined to reach the top end of Scottish football, it looks like this might be the way to go. The one season that Hearts were forced into having a quiet couple of windows because of the financial restrictions in place, they were relegated. Whenever they’ve restructured the squad, they’ve finished the campaign in the top half of the table.


The data tells us the same thing about Hibs. The year they went down they didn’t make too many changes to the first team squad, but this year has been one of big changes at Easter Road and the Edinburgh club remained in contention for second spot going into the split. Rangers have improved with a revolving door at Ibrox. If you’ve got the money, then bringing in a new squad each year is a great way to climb the league table. Loyalty to players, apparently, can be damaging in the long run.


For teams with smaller ambitions it depends on the quality of the scouting department, ultimately. Motherwell, Dundee and Kilmarnock often have lots of new players at the beginning of each season and this largely serves them well. For teams merely looking to survive, however, it’s a high-risk strategy. Dundee United, St Mirren and Ross County have all been relegated following a season with significant player turnover.


All in all then, a club’s goals are inextricably tied to the transfer policy it should follow. If you just want to simply avoid relegation, then it’s a good idea to retain most of your players while bringing in some reinforcements. But as fans of Partick Thistle and Inverness can tell you, it doesn’t necessarily last. If you want to to climb the table rapidly then serious upheaval is required, but this is also the case for those wanting to establish themselves as a mid-table side. There’s a degree of risk attached – just ask Dundee United – but, for the most part, a revolving door policy works. For those at the top, the opposite is true: marginal gains in a playing squad are generally rewarded. No one method is bulletproof and each has their flaws, but the trends are there to be seen by those who care to look.

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