“Squad Churn” - Is consistency the key to success?

Transfer windows are funny things aren’t they. Short points in the football calendar where seemingly every player, agent, journalist and fan are on tenterhooks awaiting news on a move. Players can wake up on Monday morning thinking they are a key squad member and then find themselves by tea time looking at house prices and schools in Fife. Life can come at you fast.

You’d like to think that a great deal of planning goes into each transfer as sides make long term plans aligned to a well thought out strategy...from the outside this doesn’t appear to always be the case.

Whilst incoming transfers grab the headlines an often overlooked point is the ‘squad churn’, how many minutes did the players remaining at the club make up. Whilst some clubs prefer to keep the core of their squad consistent and just pepper the side with a few additions, others teams look to tear it up and start a new.

A complete overhaul of playing staff may seem like a nuclear option and potentially detrimental to a sides chances of doing well in the following season. How can we determine how much affect this has on future results?

Rather than just looking at a transfer window as a merry go round, purely focusing on the number of in-goings and out-goings, we can assess how important a player was by looking at their number of league minutes played. Players who are kept by the club have their minutes retained. Using this figure we can plot it against the number points that side received in the following session.

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A look over the last 7 seasons shows that however risky it is there is nothing to suggest that such wholesale changes have a direct affect on future results. That’s not to say that doing it yields great results but the risk is almost as much as sitting still. Although try not to draw too many conclusions from looking across only two metrics.

It may seem intuitive that there isn’t a correlation, replacing the spine of your team with better players could lead to better results or it could disable whatever good thing you had going on. Although a baseless narrative of ‘the manager is paying the price for making too many changes over the transfer window’ still gets its bi-annual outing regardless.

A big factor in ‘squad churn’ is Age. At ModernFitba towers we have in the past looked at different ways of profiling age amongst a squad and how some clubs are better than others at maintaining a peak age squad. With a bit of inspiration from Opta’s Tom Worville and the data we have from our partners at ORTEC we can look at the age profiles of last seasons squads as well as their squad turnover over the season.

In an ideal world your squad management shouldn’t be too dissimilar to how farmers implement crop rotations. Having your players all come into their prime at once is great but the rebuild afterwards is painful and costly. Having staggered development throughout the squad should mean that the squad carry’s on organically without too much disruption. This isn’t an easy process as seen by some of the squad churns season on season in the Scottish Premiership but some clubs look to be implementing it better than others.

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Aberdeen didn’t rely on a large squad last season and so it has been easy for them to retain a majority of their regular first team players, the issue is that the majority of their first team squad is aging. Another issue is losing all bar one of their peak age players for…checks notes…£0m. That’s all before we even get on to the fact they have signed Curtis Main and 32 year old Craig Bryson from Derby.

We have theorised before that there is a chance that older players can enjoy an Indian summer in the Scottish Premiership so its not necessarily a disaster. 2017/18 into 2018/19 saw one of the Don’s largest squad churns (well predicted Pedro), and whilst Aberdeen have retained more of their squad for this season we may also see another large churn next summer as Derek McInnes tries to build a new core to his team.

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Celtic fans have been far than impressed with the clubs transfer dealings but it is no secret that they are a selling club, especially if people within the club insist on leaking transfer documents.

The older players in the squad have either been moved on or frozen out while the club has continued to buy young players with the ultimate intention of selling them on after developing them.

Something that has been a spanner in the works for the Celts has been injuries. Buying seemingly low risk cheap signings who didn’t quite make it a bigger clubs has exposed that these players may have been unwanted elsewhere for a reason.

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Who needs strategy when you can just keep rolling the dice. The conveyor belt at Dens Park was in full force over the summer as Dundee go into this season with less than 22% of last seasons minutes retained. As we’ve already seen, overhauling your squad doesn’t instantly mean that performances suffer but as their poor start to the season has shown it isn’t easy.

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Hamilton join Aberdeen in the ‘letting players in their prime go for free’ club. A subtle difference being that they have a much younger profile to the rest of their squad.

Having a core of good young players is advantageous but as with most clubs in Scotland they are all only on short contracts so it won’t be a complete surprise if they are in a similar situation next summer.

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Whilst some clubs are enjoying letting players go when they reach their peak age, Hearts have found a novel approach to combat this…don’t have many in the first place.

Hearts have in recent years had to give minutes to youth players under duress. Injuries to key players with no viable experienced options to replace them has seen opportunities for young players but there is a stark difference between giving a young player a run in the team on merit and just throwing them in because they are the only option. A sink or swim approach could prove to be detrimental.

A shaky start to the season has seen more pressure on Craig Levein to leave the club. His role as Director of Football (a position he still claims to be as well as manager) you would expect to be to maintain a good squad balance. There is little evidence to suggest this is being done.

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Hibs have maintained the bulk of their squad from last season which has a nice mix across each age. Their subsequent signings have all been either of peak age or younger which is positive. Being a manager in Edinburgh is a thankless task so far this season and Heckingbottom will certainly be feeling the pressures of expectation from the supporters. There is little evidence in their transfer activity to suggest that there are any knee jerk reactions, they have recruited fewer loans which may suggest that the board is keeping faith by the manager.

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Angelo Alessio is getting a rough time in the media but the squad he inherited from Steve Clarke isn’t far from an overhaul. Youth didn’t get much of a look in last season so there isn’t going to be tried and tested young players as the Italians disposal. An army of loan signings coming into the club smacks of short termism. If the new managers ideas are proving too much for some it’s going to be even harder if he’s got to go over the basics again in 12 months time.

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If you have got this far and are wondering ‘what does good look like’ then Livingston are an example of a good squad profile. No key dependence on youth or older players, a majority of their minutes went to players in or around their peak age. Although, as is usually the case, a majority of those players have left the club for free.

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Motherwell’s Chief Exec Alan Burrows has never been shy about talking about what the club are doing so it’s not surprising that their plan stands out. Allowing youth the chance to get minutes but also willing to let young players go (usually for development fee’s) there isn’t much time for older players. Conor Sammon and Ross McCormack are outliers of what is otherwise a nicely balanced squad.

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Steven Gerrard 2018/19 squad carried less than 60% of the minutes from the previous season but is coming into this season with a more consistent core squad. That said, Rangers have also brought in plenty of new signings. With the majority of them being either peak age or younger and signed for relatively low fees they come with a low risk, if they make it then they can command a fee or retain them for long enough to see the benefit. If they don’t make it they are young enough to be moved on easily. Keeping hold of peak age players…good. Competent youth players getting first team minutes and then loaned out…Good. Giving players over 35 over 1000 mins…

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St. Johnstone are a club who don’t normally like to make too many changes to their playing squad, and the transition into this season is no exception. They also have a young enough squad profile to foreseeably keep things the same going into next season.

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St Mirren, much like Dundee, couldn’t get into a settled rhythm and relied heavily on loan players. Whilst churning your squad from one season to the next may not directly relate to poor results, constantly rotating your playing staff throughout the season probably isn’t a good idea.

Whilst St Johnstone have a domestic slant to their transfers, seemingly St Mirren had a very different approach, bringing in players from the Czech Republic, Belgium and Romania. It’s likely these acquisitions are agent lead rather than the result of a vast scouting network. There are pros and cons to this, having football agents run your recruitment may seem like handing the key to the asylum over to the inmates but you could argue that if the agent wants to use your club as a shop window it’s in their interests to make sure that the shop stays open.