Smarter recruiting: Succession planning

According to a recent report in The Times of London, Manchester United are interested in signing Raul Jimenez from Wolves – and Wolves don't have a problem with it. Why should they? Sure, Jimenez has been their pivotal striker since arriving two summers ago. But a well run club is always ready to replace its players, and it has a plan for the future as well.

The jobs in a football squad are always essentially the same, so it's just a question of how to fill the positions. There's lateral succession, where a player may require a direct replacement, as in Jimenez's case. And then there's vertical succession, where a club plans for its players to grow into and out of jobs as they age.

Lateral succession requires a club to keep a running list of candidates who can be brought in on relatively short notice: "If we lose Player X, we get one of the names on this list." Because the club may have to fill the hole in midseason, when it's unlikely that they'll want to change their playing style or setup, they might be looking for similar players. For example, here are the top matches to Jimenez's style in Europe's top five leagues over the past couple of seasons:

Jimenez matches reassuringly to himself, but more interestingly Gerard Moreno of Villarreal also matches twice. So Moreno – another striker in a top league of roughly the same age and experience – might be suitable as a quick replacement were Jimenez to leave. By expanding this search to other leagues, Wolves might be able to create a long list of potential replacements whom they could then filter using video analysis and (eventually) live scouting.

Even if Wolves keep Jimenez, however, they'll still have to think about succession. The Mexican international has just turned 29 years old, and while his numbers have improved in the past two seasons, he may not have much time left at his peak. Indeed, it's useful to have an idea of the peak age ranges at every position, so that a club can ensure that they always have a peak-age player for each job.

For instance, the average age for every player in the Premier League who's played CF in the past several years was slightly over 26 when the season began. If we weight the players by the minutes they actually featured at CF, then the average is just below 27. And then if we weight the players by minutes multiplied by their ratings for attacking output – thus giving the most weight the players who attacked at a high level over the most minutes – then the average settles down around 27. So the peak age for Premier League strikers is probably just under 27 at the start of a season, or basically 27 over most of the season. From the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile, the range goes from about 25 to 29.

If a club wants to ensure that it always has a CF in this four-year age range, then it will need to have CFs in the squad who are four or five years apart in age. Wolves might therefore want a 20-year-old and a 24-year-old in addition to Jimenez. When Jimenez exits the peak-age range, the 24-year-old will be on his way in. And if Wolves can keep hold of a 20-year-old for five years, then he'll be the next in line. By coincidence, they already have Ecuadorian international and Spanish passport holder Leonardo Campana – brought in on a free from Barcelona SC in January, crucially right before Brexit – who will turn 20 this summer:

At every position, a club can have a conveyor belt of players spaced out by age and a list of alternatives for each name on the belt. The first step towards this system is to create a detailed profile – possibly more than one – for the kind of player being sought at each position. Then the club can keep up constant surveillance of players around the world, making the same queries periodically to find whether any new players might fit these profiles (which they can do with one click on our site's History page).

From a logistic perspective, the conveyor belt requires planning several years – and probably half a dozen transfer windows – into the future. It also requires budgeting over a cycle of five years or so rather than year-to-year. Wages and flows of transfer fees need to be forecast, with different scenarios depending on where the club might finish in the table.

Yet in every window, some clubs are still scrambling to find names and do deals on deadline day. Not so at Wolves. In the last four transfer windows, out of 18 permanent signings to the first team, the club have made only one on deadline day: Luke Matheson's £1m move from Rochdale on 31 January 2020. Daniel Podence and Adama Traore each arrived with a day to spare. Leander Dendoncker's deal was sealed on the early deadline day in the summer of 2018, but it was initially a loan.

So we shouldn't be surprised if the bosses at Molineux are laid back about Manchester United throwing money at them for the services of a 29-year-old striker, albeit a very good one. Chances are that Nuno Espirito Santo, Jorge Mendes, and company know exactly what they'll do if the Red Devils come calling – and they'll be laughing all the way to the bank.



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