A crazy season in English soccer shines light on an overlooked idea: Value for money

When will it be our turn?
When will it be our turn?
Image: Reuters/Eddie Keogh
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Chelsea, the English Premier League champion, has overtaken rivals Manchester United and Manchester City in at least one way—the amount its players are paid. It costs a lot to win at soccer. But should it?

Chelsea dished out £215.6 million ($313.6 million) in wages last season, the highest in the Premier League on their way to winning the title, surpassing Man United, Man City, and Arsenal. Chelsea’s wage bill rose by £25 million in a single year; the figures include coaching staff.

At the other end of the table, financially, is Leicester City; its wage bill is £36 million. But this a topsy-turvy season; Leicester became the first team to be bottom of the league at Christmas one year and top the next last month and is currently in second place.

And Leicester’s Jamie Vardy is currently the joint-top scorer in the Premier League—the Englishman was playing non-professional soccer less than four years ago and considered quitting the game. Now, there is talk of Real Madrid buying him.

And so a growing chorus of critics are calling on English teams to look to lower league talent for value for money. Peterborough United owner Darragh MacAnthony points to Vardy and Tottenham’s Dele Alli as a “wake up call” to big clubs about the potential of lower-league English talent versus big-name foreigners.

“People talk about value for money,” MacAnthony told the BBC, ”but what they don’t realize is when you pay a fee for foreign players it’s the wages that come into it.”  Lower-division English soccer players end up being paid £5,000 to £10,000 a week when they make the move; Chelsea striker Diego Costa, who came over from Spain, is paid around £150,000 a week.

This all suggests that soccer teams are valuing the wrong players—a variation on the theme of Moneyball, which utilizes mathematical modeling and statistics to analyze a player’s strengths and weaknesses. The approach was made famous by baseball manager Billy Beane, who used sophisticated statistical analysis to field a team of undervalued players and take his team to the playoffs in 2003—with a wage bill a fraction of the cost of richer teams.

Currently, oversea players account for 59.9% of Premier League soccer players, the second-highest figure in Europe, while the percentage of club-trained players is currently at an all time low, with only 11.7% of top players graduating from their own club’s academy. And this isn’t due to a lack of talent. Chelsea has some of the most successful young players around, but fans are highly unlikely to see them play in the famous blue jerseys any time soon.

Which may just mean there are more Jamie Vardys around, waiting to be discovered.