There are several furious internal debates in certain areas of soccer analytics research that have raged on mostly without notice. One of them is the split between those who believe wages in football are an accurate predictor of use-value (Soccernomics authors Simon Kuper, Stefan Szymanski), and those who believe the amount a club spends on transfer fees is a far better predictor of future performance (Pay As You Play authors Paul Tomkins, Graeme Riley and Gary Fulcher).
The latter group have grown in notoriety since the initial release of both books. They have some important backers in the analytics world, like Forbes’ Zach Slaton, who used the methodology featured in Pay As You Play to point out that Arsenal will have to spend a lot more than £16 million on Santi Cazorla in the transfer market to realistically compete for a Premier League title:
This study of Arsenal’s player values resulted in these two posts at the 7AM Kickoff blog. The troubling conclusion is that Arsenal need to invest about £120M in player transfer fees and wages, and this figure is already discounted by nearly £100M from the TTV estimated total of £220M based upon the 18 additional points per season that Arsene Wenger has delivered beyond financial expectations in the Post-Abramovich era.
A lengthy explanation of the methodology of TTV can be found here.
While I find this kind of analysis abstruse in the extreme, it is important work. It’s crucial to have empirical data to help support the broadly accepted idea that teams which spend more in the transfer market will be more successful, even though it’s not as important as improving on-field analytics, which, over time, will further reduce TTV’s predictive accuracy.
In fact, this may already be the case. Here for example is the Premier League table prediction for 2011-12 based on TTV.
It’s of course broadly accurate, but not in a way that’s of any use to anyone. Most telling is how the three teams at the foot of this table were not in fact relegated, but in fact place several places higher than the drop zone.
And that’s the far more interesting story. While it’s important to empirically demonstrate that transfer spending does indeed have an important impact on table position, this area of analytics, in my opinion, shouldn’t distract from the far more important work on the pitch, which might give a clue as to how Norwich and Swansea in particular were able to succeed far and above what their transfer bill would have otherwise determined.
In any case, should Arsenal fans be worried about not being able to compete with Man City, Man United and Chelsea for a reasonable crack at the title? Of course. The lesson here is ultimately that all the good coaching, tactics, and yes—performance analysis—cannot completely overcome gaps in transfer market spending.