Last season was a spell in Dante’s inferno for quite a few renowned clubs throughout Europe. Aston Villa and Newcastle United were relegated to the Championship in England, Traditionsverein VfB Stuttgart dropped a division in Germany, whilst renowned clubs such as Werder Bremen, HSV, Deportivo La Coruña and Valencia barely stayed above the relegation line.
So what is next for those clubs condemned to spend at least a season away from the limelight of top flight football? How do they pick themselves up after their disastrous spell from last season? How do they survive the drop? We look at strategies regarding rebuilding such relegated clubs with James (@FMPressure) and Matthias (@DerFManager), who share their own experiences.
Why would you need to revisit your strategy?
So apart from getting relegated, which is an indication that your strategy (or at least the execution of said strategy) was faulty, you are going to face financial difficulties. The biggest shortfall facing any relegated club comes from the loss of revenue. TV revenue drops dramatically, as well as matchday revenue. The top divisions in a country often have far more lucrative deals than the second tier, whereas the loyalty of the fans might sway after spending a season in disarray at the bottom of the table. This sum will increase with each passing season in which a club fails to win promotion. Clubs will attempt to balance this loss by reducing their wage bill, though most smart clubs have clauses in the staff’s contract that reduces their wages significantly in the event of a relegation. Either way, you need to figure out a strategy that saves costs yet gets you back on your feet and competing for promotion as soon as possible.
The three basic gameplay strategies one could use
After lumping our ideas together on a big pile, we were able to distill three basic strategies from this myriad of information. We do acknowledge that most of us use hybrid versions of these strategies, combining two strategies to achieve success, but for the sake of this article, we’ll treat them as separate strategies.
These are the three basic strategies we will discuss. Don’t cut costs but spend more on proven quality in a high risk-high potential yield effort to win promotion. Go bargain hunting abroad or in lower divisions. Focus on developing your own academy graduates into first team material.
It’s not quite clear-cut
We briefly addressed this point in the previous paragraph, but these three strategies are not as black and white as one might be led to believe. Most clubs employ two or all three strategies simultaneously because they refuse to put all of their eggs into a single basket. They create hybrid and fluent strategies, that are altered as the finances or the ambitions of the club change. Please keep this in mind when reading on.
The riskiest way to go about your business is to maintain the level of expenditure you were used to a division higher. Many second-tier clubs spend aggressively in the hope of a crack at the big time. Whilst they often lose a number of their star players who do not wish to go down with the ship, these clubs splash the cash on sub-par top division players or proven quality from the second division, in an effort to ensure promotion back after spending only a single season in the purgatory of the second division.
Bringing in experienced players and proven quality has its advantages. These are often good players, which means they reinforce your team and can be sold on when things don’t quite work out. You can also use them as tutors for your younger squad players. Their often consistent performances make them the backbone of your squad.
On the other hand, these guys are often expensive in terms of wages and transfer fees. There is also never a 100% guarantee a transfer will pan out the exact way you hope it will, so when your team is in a situation where every dime is important, these are expensive investments. Especially if you fail to bounce back to the top division, these guys can become an expensive block to your leg.
When your team has dropped a division they often feel the need to slash wages, which means scouting for affordable reinforcements becomes a matter of the utmost importance. If you have to sell players and can’t rely on your best players staying on board for a longer period of time then you need to be able to replace them as smoothly as possible and ideally as cheap as you can too. Ideally, you do this by focussing on specific categories of players;
- Emerging youngsters;
- The out-of-contract established players;
- Rejects from a top club.
One specific group of players to focus on is made up of young players whose value is bound to increase over their time with the Saints and also by getting them from clubs who are in that same step-ladder position. Like, Celtic are the best in Scotland but the best in Scotland would rather play for a lesser club in a bigger league. Players in Scotland, in Holland, in Scandinavian leagues… there’s a discount you can get on their ability that’s there for a team that was recently relegated to exploit. The best players in Scotland end up at Celtic, right? It’s like the scouting’s already been done. And the more scouting that takes place… or rather the better the scouting… the less risk there is with any transfer. All transfers run the chance of being duds for reasons nobody can predict but if you play it smart then you can offset those duds that do occur.
The second group consists of the ultimate bargain deals; the free agents. At the end of each season players who are out of contract are released by their respective clubs, but every manager worth his salt is well aware that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. They may be older players, they might have an injury-prone nature, they might not have performed all that well the last few seasons, but if you sift through the lists of released players, you might be able to unearth some diamonds in the rough. They may need some polishing before they can shine again, but clubs on a budget can’t be that picky.
The final category consists of players who are not (yet) good enough to make the grade at a top club. Some of them are a bit too young to break into the first team line-up straight away and might benefit from a loan spell at a lower level club. Others have been tried and tested and have come up short in their efforts to succeed at the very top, which doesn’t mean they are not good enough to hold their own or even excel at a lower level.
When we look at real life clubs who employ such a transfer policy, teams like Sevilla, Udinese and Basel come to mind. Whilst it is true that they have not been relegated in the past couple of seasons, their policy is very much applicable to teams who have just relegated. These teams have to compete with financially superior clubs either in their own domestic league or on the international stage, so they have to make sure every signing counts. It’s not hard to imagine the main benefit of such deals; they are relatively cheap, both in terms of transfer fees and wages. A secondary benefit would be that most of these players can be sold on for a profit if they perform well. Signing players like these is a low-risk strategy since the players are dirt cheap and are often on relatively low wages as well as short-term contracts.
There are of course downsides to bargain bin hunting. Most of the players you sign this way will end being stop-gaps, short-term fixes for a season, maybe two at most. Most of the players you bring in will be flawed players, be it prone to injuries, out of form for a couple of seasons, physically in decline or suffering from Moussa Sissoko syndrome (looks decent on paper, plays decent every now and again, disappears for most of the season). You are also heavily reliant on your scouts. If the club is lacking a sufficient network, you’re not going to find many bargains.
Focus on the academy
The most satisfying way of achieving success is quite probably through the use of your own, home-grown talents. A prime example of a club achieving success in that manner is Southampton. In May 2005, Southampton was relegated from the top tier of English football for the first time in 27 years. Just four years later they were relegated to League One, in part as a result of the club going into administration. Fast forward seven years and the club is back where the fans will feel it belongs as a solid Premier League side, despite several summers of wholesale changes and a whole series of significant player sales.
Southampton made their way back to the top not by blowing huge amounts of cash on big name players, despite several takeovers in club ownership. They rebuilt the nucleus of their team and maintained fan support and interest in the team by promoting and advocating youth.
The club trusted in its youth system and produced an incredible conveyor belt of talent, including Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw who, despite having all now moved on for big money, have given the club at least some financial stability.
Whilst we realise that during their Premier League tenure, Southampton has started signing more expensive players from abroad, there is still a core of academy graduates in and around their first team. Southampton’s their initial rise through the divisions was mostly made possible by the introduction of academy graduates to the line-up.
When we look at Southampton, it’s clear to see the advantages of such an approach. For starters, it’s a cheap way to go about your business. No scouting fees, no transfer fees, you cut down on overhead costs. New players were often home-grown academy graduates, which does not mean that they were free, but they were often a whole lot cheaper and used to the particular brand of football the club were playing, which meant less time was needed for them to adapt. The fans generally loved such an approach as well. It also means the club has fewer problems meeting the home-grown criteria the league has imposed, both short term and long term.
On the downside, going down the academy road brings certain risks with it. For example, your academy might not produce sufficient talents to suit your needs, both in terms of quality and quantity. That leaves you stranded up shit creek without a paddle. Another inherent risk of fielding youngsters is their frail posture and inconsistent performances. If you rely heavily on the input of youngsters, you might be faced with a sudden loss of form or an injury streak due to them not being ready for so many matches. The final downside is a reconstrued benefit. Whilst academy graduates being bled into the starting eleven is a good sign of long-term planning, it can be exactly that; long-term planning. It means being patient and perhaps not winning promotion straight away.
When taking over at Newcastle, I found a club that had already been very active in the transfer market. They’d cleared out a lot of excess baggage and a very capable Championship squad has been put in place. In terms of Football Manager, many of these players are well suited to making the step up to the next level and doing a very good job. When I took over I didn’t have much work to do, but I always like to put my own mark on any team I manage.
Newcastle still possesses a few players that are earning very large wages so they were targeted first. As Guido has mentioned, offloading players on big wages is a common tactic that teams dropping down a division employ. The likes of Tiote and Anita were unlikely to be first choice players. Both players moved on for around £10m in total and the saving I made on their wages amounted to nearly £4m per season.
I signed three players for the team. I required someone who was English, a low financial risk and if possible, has previous promotion experience. I’m not sure it’s overly important for the game, but in my head, it’s a good trait. Matty James was on the transfer list at Leicester for £3.9m. He ticked all the boxes. His skill set was decent and should we get promoted, he’d do a job in the Premier League. Not an outstanding player, but one that had been there and got the t-shirt. He’s certainly not a glamorous signing or someone to build a team around, but a sensible transfer.
I would’ve left my business there, but injuries forced my hand a bit. Thinking a bit longer term, I dipped my toe back in for 20-year-old Sevilla striker, Carlos Fernández. He had reasonable potential and I could see him fitting into the side as a rotation option for the coming season and possibly a first team player in future.
The likes of Isaac Hayden and Rolando Aarons were also afforded plenty of game time and were very much a part of the first team squad. It can always be a risk using younger players, regardless of which division you are in. I was thinking of the future of these players, the Championship has plenty of big games that these sorts of players may not get a chance to play in very often.
I don’t quite know why, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Aston Villa. So after their shambolic exit from the Premier League last season, I decided to give them a go on the Beta version of FM17. The frameworks of a good Championship squad were in place and being in the promotion hunt was certainly the target.
There wasn’t a lot of excess Premier League baggage because let’s face it; they were a Championship squad at best last season already. I still needed to offload some players that were on high wages and superfluous to my needs. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to buy Kozak and Gestede outright, but I did manage to loan them out for the season. Not only did this take 100% of their wages off my budget, but we also cashed in on decent monthly loan fees. It accomplished close to the same thing as selling them. Aly Cissokho also had to go since he just wasn’t the type of player that I needed and thankfully Sunderland were willing to spend £3 million for him.
This little bit of budget space could now be used to plug some gaps. The biggest area I needed support in was a new rotational option at left back, since I sold Cissokho. I brought in younger and better Adam Lundqvist for £850k from Elfsborg. It was a net gain both from a player standpoint and financially. I also made most of my transfers with an eye towards the Premier League. I didn’t want to spend a huge portion of my budget on players that wouldn’t play at the next level. That’s far too shortsighted for my liking.
One advantage that Villa has is that they have an excellent academy system. I tried a few youngsters during the preseason, and picked the one stand out performer, Andre Green. He has the potential to not just dominate at the Championship level, but also in the Premier League. Giving him plenty of first team game time would certainly accelerate his development. Green had a breakout season featuring in 32 matches (9 goals, 6 assists, 7.26 ave rating).
Now one unique aspect of the Championship is the sheer volume of matches you will be playing. As such, I also opted for adding some depth. I brought in Lloyd Isgrove from Southampton for £425k. He would be the one signing I made that you can truly classify as “for this level only”, but he was cheap and perfectly suited as an occasional rotation option.
Ahead of the January transfer window, the board gave me a £17 million transfer budget cash injection. We were in a tight battle for the top spot so I gambled a little bit in the second window. Now none of the signings I made got big wages, since if we didn’t achieve promotion, I still didn’t want to over inflate our budgets. The criteria were simple for each transfer. It had to be an upgrade (or fill a need due to injuries) and the player needed to have the upside to play in the Premier League.
- Lukas Klostermann (£6 mill. from RB Leipzig)
- Ryan Christie (£500k from Celtic)
- Nikola Gjorgjev (£700k from Grasshoppers)
- Raphael Holzhauser (£5 mill. from Austria Wien)
- Domagoj Pavicic (£2 mill. from Dinamo Zagreb)
With what I now considered a perfect mixture of young talent, experienced veterans and plenty of depth we pushed on through the rest of the season. The result wasn’t just that we won the Championship title and bounced right back to the Premier League, but that I built a squad that could at its core hold its own at the next level and never got us into financial troubles while in the Championship.