How smaller Premier League clubs could compete or possibly overtake the big boys

One look through the Premier League finances quickly shows that it is a very uneven financial field. Based on this it at least appears on the surface that there are only a number of Premier League teams that have a realistic chance of winning the title and qualifying for the Champions League by finishing in the top four places in the league. However, is that just close minded thinking? And can Major League Baseball (MLB) in the US and a book written by Michael Lewis entitled Moneyball provide inspiration for smaller teams with less money?

Moneyball details the success that MLB franchise Oakland Athletics had despite having significantly smaller budgets. Oakland A’s had some truly remarkable seasons, most notably in 2001 and 2002. In 2001 they won the American League West with a 102/60 win/loss record. However, the following season they did even better by winning the American League West with a 103/59 win/loss record. These achievements are to be commended under any circumstances – but the truly remarkable thing is they did it with a payroll considering less than their rivals.

Comparisons with the MLB in 2002 and world football now can be drawn at the time. As the game was ceasing to become an athletic competition and becoming a financial one; at the time the gap between the richest and poorest teams was the greatest of any professional sport. To put things into perspective, the richest team was the New York Yankees and they had a payroll of $126m and the two poorest teams were Oakland A’s and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had a payroll of around $40m. However, despite that financial difference Oakland A’s showed that they can perform equally well in the regular season as the New York Yankees – because both teams won the same number of games.

Critics might say that Oakland A’s performance is somewhat less impressive without World Series wins – but doing well in the regular season and qualifying for the play-offs is a measure of consistency. Much like in the Premier League qualifying for the Champions League is the real gauge of consistency. Arsenal fans may bemoan the lack of trophies – but would they really swap their place in the Champions League for winning the FA Cup.

But back to the Oakland A’s performance in the 2002 season – it is really hard to comprehend how incredible it is; a bit like if Wigan Athletic winning the same number of games as Manchester United and finished second in the Premier League. However, as the Premier League is at the moment it’s hard to imagine that such a feat is even possible.

MLB had a similar issue until the moneyball concept completely changed things and defied belief in the baseball world – how a team with so much less money could be successful. The trick in baseball seemed to be to take a much more scientific approach to how teams were put together. It became less about who the magazines/newspapers thought were the best players and to a certain extent less about what the scouts made of the player on one-off games – but much more about what the statistics said. Ball players were now being signed on data from someone’s laptop, even when it seemed to defy what the scouts thought they knew. Ball players were being traded despite being out of shape and being unable to run. But somehow the statistics concluded they were effective and the statistics were proved to be correct.

The moneyball statistical analysis concluded that there were two statistics more important than any other and those were on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Therefore, Oakland A’s knew where they should focus their efforts in order to build a successful team. It is debatable if such an analysis could be undertaken in football and if two or three statistics could be considered more important than others. But despite all the statistical data available from companies such as Opta – has anyone bothered to find out?

Anyway what Oakland A’s found out was that they were able to trade players cheaply because the data wasn’t being analysed as well by the other teams and they could sign statistically brilliant players very cheaply because they were drastically undervalued by the market.

But here really holds the key to the system, if you want to compete with the Yankees then you can’t simply do what they do, if you are a team with low budgets – because the Yankees have spent $126m on 25 players and have maybe another $100m in reserve; whereas, Oakland have just $40m.

So a team has to be put together cheaply but it also has to been competitive with the best – which have the biggest budgets. So player development plays a big part in the system and when those previous nobodies become stars and command too high of a salary they are traded and the next one comes in.

However, could an adapted strategy work in the Premier League? Could a smaller Premier League side like Fulham use it to be successful? Well some of the ideas may need to be adapted bearing in mind football is a different sport. However, it seems sensible to look at some players that will not be on the radar of the big clubs. Clubs have managed to do this in some way – think to the success of players like Charlie Adam and Peter Odemwingie from last season’s Premier League.

But not all teams follow that blueprint – West Ham has been overspending on player’s wages and will need to adjust their wage bill quickly to adjust to life in the Championship – especially if they don’t make an immediate return to the Premier League.

In order for clubs to spot these rough diamonds in the first place they need to have a worldwide scouting network and use statistical data to back-up the thoughts and opinions of the scouts. Furthermore, the scouting system needs operate at youth level to bring through and develop young players at little to no cost that could become future stars; that involves expertise to spot youth players and facilities to train them up.

Gradually building a team in the right way and not spending excessive wages and when those players get too good and demand too high wages then are simply sold off and the next crop of talent comes in. With the right ownership and good manager it is certainly a system that could work and certainly seems like it’s worth a go. After all it isn’t just about how much money you have but also how well it is spent.

Time will tell if such ideas will come into the Premier League with teams with smaller budgets getting smart – but it’s certainly food for thought.

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