This past weekend saw the close of the summer transfer window for the English Premier League (football/soccer). Premier League clubs spent a total of £835M, exceeding the previous record of £630M last year. (The spending of the other leagues: Spanish La Liga (£425M), Italian Serie A (£260M), German Bundesliga (£250M), French Ligue 1 (£100M)).
That the English Premier League is awash with money is clear, thanks in part to rising broadcast revenue and sponsorship deals. In a league that can only have one winner, there is certainly a lot of inflation going on!
An interesting question is, what do all these inflation and spending do for English football?
At the club level, English football hasn’t fared too poorly. In the 2013-2014 Champions League, a competition of the top European teams, English clubs made up 25% of the field from the round-of-16 onwards through to the semifinals, although the final was an all-Spanish affair.
At the country level though, it’s not a rosy picture. In the recent 2014 World Cup, England finished last in their group. The next highest spending countries – Spain and Italy – also failed to make it past the group stages. The best that England has fared in recent World Cups was back in 1990 when it reached the semifinals (and lost).
Why is English football under-performing at the national level even though it is one of the richest football nations? There are many possible reasons, and I’m not going into the technical (i.e. sports) analysis. Instead, I wish to look at it from an OD (organizational development) lens.
In many ways, the huge spending we see is the visible surface of certain underlying dynamics – the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The availability of big money and economics are certainly major factors, but I will focus on attitudes and belief systems. I would like to highlight three in particular:
- There is a belief that money solves everything. When a team under-performs, the solution is to buy better players. If a club is not doing well, bring in (i.e. buy) a better manager. TV shows and websites are full of “expert commentators” (and “expert fans”) who discuss what teams should buy which players. It gets a bit ironical, because one team’s purchase is another team’s sale; one team’s solution turns into another team’s problem. And the merry-go-round continues.
To buy, you must also sell. Sometimes, the word used is “offload” (and it sounds offensive). In fact, this year’s offload may be the star buy last year. Take Shinji Kagawa for example. Manchester United acquired him two years ago, only to under-utilize him and sale him back to his former club for half the price.
Increasingly, teams seem to do better at buying players than getting the best out of them. Which may not be surprising: when a team spends that much money on a player, the onus to perform shifts from the team to the player; if not, he can always be replaced with a better one.
This reminds me of a computer game called Championship Manager, which I played many years ago. You assume the role of the manager – you buy and sell players, and assemble a team to play matches. Championship Manager mimics many things in real life, except you don’t actually interact with any real players, or train or motivate them. You spot who the good players are, buy/sell them, and deploy them.
Somehow, the real football world is looking (and behaving) more and more like the virtual Championship Manager.
- The constant link between price and value creates a mindset of quick fixes and plug-and-play solutions. This may be yet another legacy of Championship Manager – the myth that a player’s quality and role in a team can be boiled down to a set of attributes. If a team is weak in attack, you can plug that gap by buying a player with high attributes in scoring, and he will win the game (and championship) for you.
Such a mechanistic approach overlooks the organic nature of people and teams. The game of football is not simply a function of attributes and skills (although they are very important), but a far more complex interplay involving multiple relationships between players, and with the coach. Someone who can score well, must also depend on someone who can read him well to feed him a good pass. (It also depends on the competition, which is a whole new dimension of complexity.)
A new player that joins an existing team literally creates a new team, which needs time to get used to one another and to settle down. All of this is dynamic, and in many ways, this is the real deal about sports coaching and management. Recognizing and accepting that football is organic, and not mechanistic, does not make the game easier, but it is far more realistic. And we do not end up expecting coaches to weave magic and deliver instant results with new signings.
- There is something unsettling about the attitude of always looking for solutions externally rather than internally. Many top teams are packed with more and more superstars purchased from the market – in fact, some of them do not even make it to the substitute’s bench! When teams hold such attitudes, why would they bother about developing talent from within? Why would the young blood and youth academy hold out hope to break into the senior ranks if the boss’ attention is always outward facing? Perhaps not surprisingly, among the world’s top 20 record transfers (34 players in fact, as some positions have more than one name), with the price arguably reflecting their price, none of them originated from the youth squads of the top English teams. (The top British transfers, Gareth Bale, Andy Carroll and Luke Shaw, emerged from the youth squads of 2nd or 3rd tier teams such as Newcastle and Southampton.)
The heady news and record spending in British football may offer the impression of a rise in British football. Yet, they may mask an inconvenient truth – that constant fixation with money and spending may mold unhealthy attitudes and belief systems that may weaken the core of British football for years to come.