This week, if the Telegraph is correct, Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain will be handed down a punishment for violating rules meant to prevent clubs from spending in excess of what they earn to compete in Europe. Readers should err on the side of caution, particularly as UEFA will not comment officially on the matter.
The news comes just before the apex of the league season, around that time of year when assembled newspaper transfer hounds pick up faint scents of deals yet to be done and of struggling managers about to meet their sorry fate, the intoxicating odour of more money spent and losses cut in the endless pursuit of a few fleeting moments of footballing glory.
At the heart of all this is a central question: what does it take to win at the football? Particularly at the highest levels of the sport?
Certainly a good dose of luck, demonstrated by a Premier League title race in which the leaders are tightly packed together at the top, separated only by individual goals in single matches.
But what about winning consistently, over years and even decades? The answer, at least over the last 25 years or so, is money and a global supporters base that only history can provide.
What if you have neither?
This is less and less of an academic question every year. Should City or PSG be punished by UEFA in a way that sticks (with or without the legal help of angry third party clubs), UEFA will have made their point. If you want to compete, you cannot spend far in excess of what you earn.
Yet even without FFP, we’re reaching peak spending in European football. There are only so many oil barons interested in buying football clubs, and only so many clubs for them to buy. Spending hundreds of millions of pounds on a Premier League squad won’t give you an edge if your competitors are doing the same.
So if money can no longer buy glory, are there any means left for clubs to get an edge?
Football is a romantic sport. It is marked by passion, by courage, by luck, belief in your team, your supporters, yourself. These are the qualities that make it so compelling for the millions who have made it a part of their lives.
The problem however is when we exclusively turn to these qualities to explain why one club wins Premier League trophies every other year while another club consistently finishes in fourth or fifth place.
Think of your knee jerk, impassioned response to some poor results from your club. Sack the manager. Sell the overpaid donkey up front. Get new owners, the club is inept, run by idiots. They’re all greedy and selfish. They go out and party while the team continues to lose.
Keep in mind, it’s possible the club should do none, one, some or all of these things. If you make the wrongdecision however, like sacking a manager suffering from a short-lived poor run of form driven more by variance than skill, it can cost the club even more down the line and put you in an even worse mood when you call for the head of the old manager’s replacement (the author writes this as someone who was glad when Paul Lambert replaced Alex McLeish as manager of Aston Villa).
Critics might claim there was no way anyone could have known beforehand that the problem with the team was a personnel issue or a managerial issue, but in 2014, with so much good, publicly available analysis on team diagnostics (including the impact managers have on good predictive metrics like TSR), this rings hollow (Statsbomb incidentally did a lot of good work this week on evaluating managers).
Nothing any columnist writes will convince skeptics of the value of data analysis in sports, but analytics-boosters might gain from reframing their work along helping clubs make educated decisions based on good evidence. Most of the time this is implied in their work, but here we can put data in a wider context moving from on the pitch to the front office to the board room.
Your team sucks. Okay, do they have a decent TSR but a low PDO? Can you identify affordable options to radically improve the team? Are there ways the club can plan five, or even ten years in the future to build on their current form rather than simply pray to stay up every year? This becomes less about data and more about evidence-based decision-making.
FFP has set the stage for a club to take the lead in this regard. Even if the clubs are skeptical, surely they have nothing to lose in making decisions based on reasonable, tested evidence.