Sunday, 21 September 2014

Yassine El Ghanassy: Prodigal Son or Lost Cause?

It almost passed as a footnote in this week’s Belgian football news: “The Roads of AA Gent and Yassine El Ghanassy part”. The nº 2 in the Belgian league is releasing the 24-year-old winger from his contract. These things happen every day in football. Then why is this case of special interest? Because El Ghanassy is – or was – a player with a talent rarely seen on Belgian football fields, the "white blackbird" most teams hope to discover once every decade or so. AA Gent found one. And now they seem happier without him.

For those unfamiliar with El Ghanassy, in the 2010-2011 season, when he was 20 years of age, the Moroccan Belgian was probably thé hottest sensation in Belgian football, gifted with dribbling skills and assists unseen to any team in the league. A creative genius, the kind of player who can unlock any game all by himself. It did not take long for him to be called up to the national team and to be linked to clubs of the likes of Manchester City. Forget about Anderlecht, this kid was not going to be around in Belgium for long.

El Ghanassy’s creative genius comes with a dark side though. He’s not much of a team player – to put it euphemistically – and he systematically seems to drive his chairman and managers crazy with his caprices and apparent lack of sérieux. The last manager at AA Gent to give the youngster a real chance, Rednic, at the end of last year, watched the winger return home once before a league game after he had learned he would not be in the starting eleven. During another episode, El Ghanassy insisted on taking a penalty although Rednic had expressly assigned another player. Loan spells at West Brom and Heerenveen had been in vain in terms of helping the fickle youngster mature, it seemed.

When Didier Drogba first arrived at Chelsea, he was disappointed to find that, in spite of having signed a lucrative deal at a highly professional club, he was left on his own when it came to arranging tedious practical details, such as finding a flat or a school for his kids and things as mundane as contracting a mobile phone operator. Naturally, Chelsea probably reasoned, he had more than plenty of money to hire people to take care of such things for him. But for someone who did not speak the language, it turned out to be demoralising and quite a distraction: "After all these worries, I didn't feel like integrating [at Chelsea] or multiplying my efforts", Drogba is reported in Soccernomics to have said. Needless to add such a state of mind in turn affects performance, which the club is likely to care very much about and is otherwise willing to pay a lot of money for in wages.

In football, as elsewhere, employers often still reason that they are paying their employees enough to take care of their own problems. It is very difficult, though, to buy someone’s loyalty, or satisfaction with you as an employer and there’s always a club able and willing to pay more to the best players. Since Drogba's early experience, Chelsea has taken strides. When signing Eden Hazard, for instance, it also signed his younger brother, Thorgan – last year’s winner of the Belgian golden boot and currently on loan at Mönchengladbach. This is about recognising that behind a millionaire football player, there is also a person with normal needs and concerns. In a similar move, Chelsea signed the three Belgian Musonda brothers. So (some) clubs are learning. Still, my guess is that, instead of the final €10,000 Hazard is to receive according to his new €250,000 p/w deal at Chelsea, the club may have offered him something that would have cost them less and he may have valued more.

Although I am not familiar enough with the specifics of the case of El Ghanassy, it would seem it is not just about understanding his wants, but that he rather has serious issues and that AA Gent did make some efforts to help him with those. What is for sure is that releasing him from his contract after three loan spells is not what they must have had in mind when, in 2011, it became evident they had stumbled upon a nugget of gold. Moreover, in the almost parallel case of Ilombe Mboyo, AA Gent had been able to offload the even much more troubled youngster for a Belgian-league record fee of around €4.5m.

Whatever came before, El Ghanassy is now a free agent. I’ll be curious to see which club will sign him and how long he’ll be without one. At age 24, he will still have quite some potential; when at Heerenveen, for 4 months in 2013, in 14 appearances, he scored 5 goals and had 3 assists. The predictably unpredictable winger may be of interest to a wide range of clubs. The critical success factor will be whether any interested club has the knowhow – rather than the financial muscle – to turn this lost cause into a prodigal son story. 

This task will not be for the faint of heart: although the risk of non-performance can be mitigated, e.g. by performance-based contracts, it could upset the dressing room to have an enfant terrible who gets special treatment. But then some players may require more love than others and as long as the guidance is potentially equally available to others who may be in need of it, it may well be preferable over assuming players have the money to get all the help they need outside. So, who’s up for the challenge?

Source: gva.be

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Munir vs. Neymar: 0-2

On Saturday afternoon, FC Barcelona was playing Athletic de Bilbao – always an interesting confrontation. As I wanted to see Barça with Neymar and Vermaelen before October 24 – when Luis Suárez will return from suspension and Barça can safely stop pretending still being més que un club – I checked the ticket prices. Cheapest ticket 70 euros, so I watched it on my terrace instead. Neymar was on the bench and Vermaelen not even in the squad, so, initially, it seemed for the better.

Neymar’s position in the starting line-up was taken by Spanish-Moroccan youngster Munir El Haddadi. The two Spanish commentators were lyrical about Munir, FCB’s new 19-year-old sensation. They both were unanimous at the start of the game that as the season progressed, Neymar would probably retake his position in the starting line-up – as Barça had paid a lot of money for him – but, implicitly, that in fact this Munir is a better quality player. When, in the 63rd minute, he was brought off for Neymar, they concluded Munir had been involved in every Barça attack and you could sense that they felt Neymar was only brought on to satisfy those people who had paid 70 euros or more to see a star team.

Source: fcbarcelona.com

After having been on the field for 15 minutes and when most people had already come to terms with a goalless draw, Neymar signed for the first moment of real excitement in the game by opening the score. The most striking element of the goal for the commentators was the apparent moment of hesitation in his finish, in spite of which he managed to score the goal. Five minutes later, Neymar would score the 2-0 – after another hesitation – and game over.

Indeed, it is not without meaning that Neymar had hesitated slightly when finishing on both occasions. Other than 99% of forwards, not only can Neymar keep his nerve when presented with a goal-scoring opportunity, but also does he know how to make the most of this trait. The split second he holds out, as compared to any other forward, enables him to read where the goalkeeper is moving to, to spot the empty space and to deposit the ball exactly there. The commentators had been most accurate in their observation: hesitation. If you watch his penalty goals at the World Cup, against Croatia and against Chile – arguably, the most potentially stressful penalty taken during the entire tournament – you can also spot the hesitation. Other forwards typically don’t hesitate, they generally just miss.

Munir had had a great opportunity to open the score when Jordi Alba and he showed up in front of Athletic’s goalkeeper. Munir got the ball and finished, but was – just – offside. The number-one rule for the free man when you are two advancing towards the goalkeeper is to stay behind the ball – if Munir had, it as surely would have been a goal. Is Munir a talent? A huge one. Is he better than Neymar? Not now, not ever.

Source: nacion.com

The episode resonates with a recent experience I had related to the last game I attended so far this season in the Belgian league, KV Mechelen vs. KV Kortrijk. After the game, I read a journalist's commentary, dedicated to KV Mechelen’s substitute Van Tricht, who was brought on just before half-time. The journalist described him as the future of the club and the only sign of light on my team’s side that day. At the start of his article, he mentioned that when Van Tricht was brought on, he had instantaneously decided to focus on him for the remainder of the game.

Had I not been in the stadium myself, I may well have taken this journalist’s assessment for true. As I had been, however, I knew that we had been 1-0 ahead when Van Tricht came on and ended up losing the game 1-2 – the only of four home games thus far we did not win – and that the coach had tactically erred by bringing on Van Tricht. What we needed was a powerful defensive midfielder to consolidate the lead, a type of player Van Tricht is not. Van Tricht is a physical lightweight with a light touch and good bouncing skills – most useful skills under most circumstances, but not the ones needed when defending a 1-0 advantage against a heavy-duty physical side such as Kortrijk. The much more sturdy, over-my-dead-body-mentality De Witte would have been the more obvious choice. Coach Jankovic tried to rectify his tactical mistake at half-time, but the system was already out of balance.

The take-away is not at all that either Munir or Van Tricht would be overrated youngsters who lack talent. It is rather very close to St. Thomas’s credo: “First I see, then I believe”. In order to judge those or any player, see for yourself – only then believe. If you rely on the so-called expert observers, you may well be taken in by their pre-conceptions and even their mood of the day. They will want to appear consistent – with their earlier statements or even their random choice of what player to focus on. Relying on their judgement may well get you on top of the day’s fads, but possibly farther away from the truth. If you’re selling newspapers, a fad may well sell better than the truth. But if you’re building a team, ask yourself what’s more important to you: selling jerseys or winning games.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

No Substitute for a Winning Strategy, Louis!?

As the number of countries qualifying for the next EURO Cup is to increase by no less than 50(!)%, it is, sadly, undue to pay any heed to the qualifiers: whoever wants to participate – except for Gibraltar – can and will. So I prefer to come back to one of the most striking moments at this summer’s World Cup, i.e. the rabbit staying inside van Gaal’s hat during Nederland's semi-final against Argentina.

As most will remember, during Oranje’s quarterfinal against Costa Rica, right before the shootout, van Gaal had come up with the unseen move of substituting the penalty-inapt Cillessen by the gigantic Krul. And the ploy paid off big time. Krul turned out to be not just a talisman but truly exceptional at saving penalties, diving into the right corner at every occasion and saving two. Nothing short of an epiphany. Costa Rica’s Navas was elected man of the match, but would not be the goalie to be remembered from that game. Van Gaal had once more proved himself a tactical mastermind, unbound by convention.

In the next round match, the semi-final against Argentina, it again came to penalties. But this time, there was no substitution left once penalties had become inevitable. Oranje's secret weapon was to remain shackled on the bench – and soon to exit the tournament. Cillessen, who reportedly had never saved a penalty in his professional career, did not manage to stop one that night either, bringing his personal penalty performance at 0/17.

Source: welt.de

As van Gaal explained after the game, “If I had had the opportunity to substitute Jasper [Cillessen] I would have done that but I had already used three substitutes so I couldn’t do that. I thought it was necessary to get van Persie out because he was on his last legs… My feeling was that Huntelaar would make the goal.” So van Gaal presents it as if there wasn't any space for him to maneuver. Accepting the premise that van Persie was “on his last legs”, substituting him apparently meant that it was ruled out for Krul to save the day.

Was that necessarily so, though? When van Persie was brought off, there were still 25 minutes on the clock. However, once in extra time, a shootout becomes more than a remote probability. In fact, since the adoption of penalty shootouts by FIFA in 1976, out of the 43 World Cup games that had gone into extra time, 25 (so 58%) went into shootouts.

I will argue that with Cillessen Nederland hardly stood any chance of winning a shootout at the '14 WC anymore. Several years of conducting research into penalty shootouts, together with Profs. Govert Vroom (IESE) and Brian McCann (Vanderbilt University), have helped me to appreciate the role played by psychological pressure in these events. In terms of skill, there is typically not much that separates the sides at such a level and small differences in the pressure experienced and pressure-handling abilities are likely to amplify. 

If your goalkeeper tends not to be very good at stopping penalties, this is usually not a big deal, as the pressure is on the kicker. However, given van Gaal’s move in the previous game, it was now all too clear to everybody – not in the least Cillessen himself, his teammates and the opposition – that this particular goalkeeper was so lame – incapable even – of stopping a spot kick, one would not just contemplate the bold move, but actually go as far as having him substituted, if possible. Talking about taking off the edge for the Argentine kickers. And reminding the Dutch ones of the likely outcome in case of a miss.

The crux of the problem was that it had effectively become impossible for van Gaal to return to the status quo of before his substitution of Cillessen in the quarterfinal, when Cillessen had been “exposed”. Starting a shootout with the Ajax goalie thereafter would be nothing short of suicide. The hapless Dutch nr. 1 further accentuated his helplessness during the semi-final shootout by attempting to mimick Krul’s intimidation tactics – an unconvincing performance to say the least. Van Gaal could have realised that his substituting Cillessen in the previous game was a double-edged sword and that fielding him in a shootout later on in the tournament now simply was no longer a viable option.

Now, let’s revisit van Gaal’s comments. Again taking for granted that van Persie was actually “on his last legs”, did this necessarily imply doom for the Dutch team? Far from it. At least two alternative options remained open, in fact:

Option 1. Check whether van Persie, (one of) Oranje’s most proficient penalty kicker(s), would be up for kicking a penalty, despite his tired legs. In case he's up to the task, take him off and continue the game with ten men. Playing with one man less indeed implies you are just hoping to reach the shootout, but it is far from certain you wouldn’t manage to (e.g. out of the 12 World Cup games, since 1976, where a team that had been or had come to be a man down during extra time, only twice did this team lose during extra time. One of those instances, however, happened to be Nederland losing the 2010 World Cup final...). Under this option, replace Cillessen by Krul at the very end; van Persie takes a penalty.

Option 2. Van Persie is not up for taking a penalty. You substitute him by Krul, who enters as a field player. The task of Krul during extra time would be to stay out of trouble and be there at corners (he’s 193 cm). During Oranje’s training camp in Brazil, Krul had actually already acted as a field player. Psychologically, it would also be a constant reminder for the Argentines of what they had coming as the clock was ticking away. Come the final whistle, Krul would just pick up his gloves – no need for Cillessen to be substituted. Downside is that neither van Persie nor Huntelaar would be eligible to kick a penalty.

Hard to judge from a distance whether van Persie was up for a penalty. But it would always be either one of these alternative options for me – too young to die. Of course, we have the advantage of hindsight. What would you have done had you been in Louis's shoes?

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Falcon Has Landed…But Is He Here to Stay?

With the first UEFA Financial Fair Play fines fresh in managers’ and club owners’ memory, the end of the summer transfer window brought a newly emerging trend into the light. Top players are no longer transferred, but are rather borrowed and lent. Chicharito to Real Madrid, Falcao to Manchester United; no name is too big not to be lent out and tried out. But don’t be fooled, it’s just a transfer in disguise, with payment partially deferred, so as to circumvent financial fair play rules. Is it really, though? In this post, I will explain why those gullible enough to believe the emerging loan + purchase-option is a mere deferred-payment plan are bound to find out that it isn’t. Those who understand that it isn’t, may have an opportunity at their feet to start building their dream team for the near future.

The underlying logic of UEFA’s financial fair play is a straightforward one: you ought not spend more than the money that is coming in. By the end of a transfer window, clubs typically have already spent close to their maximum allowance and are thus at risk of punishment if they sign big-ticket players. By rather borrowing a player, a club avoids having to pay a large transfer fee upfront. Instead, a typically much lower – otherwise there would be no point – fee is paid to the owner-club in return for transferring the services of their employee for certain duration, typically one year. In addition, there is a purchase-option included, which the borrowing club can exercise when the loan spell ends.

An at-first-sight similar construction has since long been used in American professional sports, where salary caps cap the amount a team is allowed to spend on players’ wages during a season. When a club wants to land a new star player but is close to its salary cap, a preferred solution is to offer a back-loaded contract, by which wages earned early on, e.g. in the first year, are relatively very low, but will go up substantially in later years.

It is important to appreciate the fundamental distinction between both mechanisms. In the case of the salary cap, payments are simply reshuffled, but essentially secure. In the case of the loan + purchase-option, the option element, critically, is uncertain to be exercised. It is an option, not an obligation. In finance, options come at a premium, exactly because – other than with an obligation – you are locking in the upside potential, but do not bear the downside risk. No free lunch in finance. Is there one in football?

A concrete example, if Man. U. signed Falcao on a four-year deal for, say, €65m, Falcao would get injured this season and never return to his old level, Man. U. would lose its capital invested. With the loan + purchase-option, if Falcao became top scorer in the Premiership this season, Man. U. would gladly exercise the purchase-option. But would it also if Falcao broke his leg and was facing revalidation at the end of the season? Not likely. And no-one can force them to exercise their option. Surely, today Man. U. intends to exercise the option at the end of the season, as it told Monaco – but it can postpone that decision till the end of the season – when there may be a new hot kid on the block.

Source: dailymail.co.uk

Options tend to be extremely valuable – the difficulty often lies in finding a counterparty willing to take on the downside risk while ceding the upside potential. Influential Belgian sports commentator Stef Wijnants was wondering out loud why clubs were agreeing to lend their top players and that this had previously been unthinkable. Indeed, if before a Manchester United would have gone to Monaco and said, ‘listen, we are interested in Falcao, but we would like to try him out for a year and if we like him, we will buy him’, the Monegasques would likely have told them off with the warning not to waste their time. Thanks to financial fair play rules, however, the story can be framed differently and becomes very credible. It is not that the Mancunians do not want to sign Falcao and pay everything – say €65m – upfront, it’s that they are not allowed to! Plus, this is actually true today. Will it still be true next year? The risk is entirely Monaco’s.

Based on the numbers from the sports press, the option premium in the case of Falcao was…0. Spanish sports site sport.es is formal: “Van Gaal’s club will pay €65m to Monaco”, the number that had been circulating earlier, when talks of a – real – transfer were picking up. The small print: Man. U. pays €10m to hire the Colombian for the first year, with a €55m purchase-option. €10m + €55m = €65m: Monaco agreed to the terms as if it's about deferred payment. It kind of is – only without any of the upside potential, and all of the downside risk: If Falcao will be worth €55m or more (to Man. U.) next year, they will exercise the option. If, instead, anything between that and 0, Monaco will get him back.

To what extent these numbers are reliable and this case may be indicative of a more general trend to erroneously conceive of the loan + purchase-option as equivalent to a transfer with partially deferred payment with the same nominal amount is hard to judge. What does seem clear is that, as far as the borrow-side clubs are concerned, financial fair play is, paradoxically, enabling them to pull something off in terms of top transfers that they could not have gotten away with otherwise. Thanks to the “credible threat” of financial fair play, sell-side clubs are apparently found willing to lend their best players in the expectation that they have de facto transferred them. The ones who will continue to be stars, they will actually prove to have. The "lemons", they will see back in a year’s time. Thanks to financial fair play, the smart stand to get richer and the gullible poorer.

Cruijff had known it long before there was talk of financial fair play: “Elk nadeel heb z’n voordeel”. Every disadvantage has its advantage.