By Tim Penfold
So, we’ve finally reached the end of January, and have ended up with a squad that is a bit stronger than the one we came in with. All’s fine, right? Well, not really. Before the late reinforcements arrived, we had a squad with large holes in it that contributed hugely to the recent slump in form, and even with the extra signings there are still some issues at goalkeeper and on the flanks.
This isn’t the first time it’s looked like we’ve had issues with recruitment – the summer had some problems as well, particularly with the much-delayed Rory McArdle replacement, and a few of the players recruited have looked somewhat sub-standard.
The squad has ended up lacking depth in key areas. We ended up with only 14 or 15 players who are of a good enough standard to push for promotion in League One, and replacements coming in who were simply not good enough. This causes plenty of issues over a long season – players can’t rest minor injuries, which then become bigger ones, or can’t be rotated out when they are struggling for form. And when major injuries hit, the poor quality of replacements badly harms the team’s performance.
We’ve been here before – remember when Andrew Davies was struggling with injuries? With him, the defence was solid, but without him it wobbled badly – even with the presence of excellent defenders like Darby, McArdle and Meredith, the team was only as strong as its worst player. When that player is someone like Matthew Bates or, more recently, Rouven Sattelmaier, the effect on results is awful.
So what has gone wrong with the recruitment? How did we end up with a squad lacking depth and lower in quality than last season, and how on earth did we manage to go several games this month with no natural full backs?
The first major issue with recruitment is that City’s use of financial resources is wrong. We have seemingly focused on fees over wages, spending around £400k this summer on the likes of Jake Reeves, Shay McCartan and Dominic Poleon, who haven’t lived up to their fees. This is the wrong way to go about things – various studies have found that the biggest predictor of a club’s success is the wage bill.
Stefan Szyamnski and Simon Kuper, in their book Why England Lose, suggested that the correlation between wage spend and finishing position was as high as 90% when averaged over a decade. Further work by Chris Anderson and David Sally in The Numbers Game reduced this figure to closer to 60%, because it took into account the likelihood that quality football managers will go where they are paid more and have a bigger budget to work with. The key point here is that this is wage spend, not transfer spend. There is a strong argument that we would’ve been better off putting most of this £400k into the wage bill in the summer – maybe then we could’ve kept the likes of McArdle and had a big enough squad to cover injuries.
The second issue is with the much-discussed wage model. City are apparently using a wage model that is similar to the one used in Germany, where 50% of a player’s wage is paid up front, and 50% in bonuses. While this works in Germany, it works because everyone else does it and it is ingrained in the football culture. In the UK, players get paid around 90% of their wages up front and the rest in bonuses.
It may be that the German model is more sustainable, but unless you can get the rest of the football league to change their entire structure at the same time that you do, it will always put you at a disadvantage when bidding for players. After all, a player accepting 50% of their wage in bonuses is a season-ending injury away from losing a large amount of money – why wouldn’t they take the guaranteed income? This, combined with a focus on fees, leaves City bringing a peashooter to a gunfight in terms of wages, and hurts our ability to close out deals once we’ve identified our targets.
The final issue is the lack of clarity as to where responsibility for transfers lies. There is no reason why a Director of Football/Head Coach model cannot work in English football – many of the top clubs do this, and it keeps things like budgeting and negotiation out of the hands of the Head Coach. This means the Head Coach can focus on tactics and coaching while not having to worry about the finances – as they were probably recruited for their footballing knowledge rather than their financial knowledge, this could well be a good thing. It can also ensure greater continuity when successful coaches are poached – a new coach can fit straight in without needing to rip up the entire squad.
However, we’re not using that model. We have a Head Coach, but the role of Director of Football is split between Greg Abbott, who is responsible for identifying targets, and chairman Edin Rahic, who appears to handle the negotiations and the financial side of things. This role split makes responsibilities unclear and removes a lot of the accountability for the recruitment process. And when we have a January like this one, where targets were identified, offers are made but deals don’t get finalised, this accountability is vital.
If we are going to go with a Director of Football model, we may as well do it properly, and get in a qualified and experienced staff member to fill the role. Give them the responsibility for identifying and recruiting targets, but ensure that the role is clearly defined so that it does not undermine the Head Coach, who keeps the responsibility for tactics, coaching and matchdays.
Edin Rahic doesn’t really fit this job description – his only previous publicly available football experience is scouting work at VfB Stuttgart nearly 20 years ago – and I think it would be better for the club if he took a step back from direct involvement in recruitment.
The chairman’s job should be to provide the overall strategic direction for the club and let the specialists that he has recruited get on with it, rather than getting too involved in the fine detail of each section of the club. The chairman is a hugely important role for a club who’s only main ambition in my early years as a supporter was “survive”, and there is a lot that is right about our current strategic direction and our owners’ publicly stated plans for the club.
There is plenty that is good about our current setup – cheap tickets, James Mason’s twitter presence and the focus on developing youngsters all stand out. But recruitment, and the reaction that it has caused, seems to be a major weakness that could damage the entire project. Can those responsible fix it?