Written by Oliver Gage

The day Josh Maja left Sunderland, he was League One’s 13th best forward and the 2nd most valuable. He was 20 years old and had been on a steep upward trajectory for the last three years. While his eventual ceiling is to be determined, we can comfortably say it looks to be higher than League One.

The theme of Sunderland ‘Til I Die season 2 is sustainability. It’s a word used countless times and features in most, if not all episodes. It’s a smart word to use when running a football club. Yet as is seen too often in football, actions don’t always speak louder than words.

With the extreme financial pressure of chasing promotion, the closing January window and thoughts of Lewis Grabban from season 1, Stewart Donald and the club turned their backs on everything they had been preaching from day 1.

It’s very easy for people to look at the Grigg/Maja situation 12 months on and point to obvious mistakes. Nobody sets out hoping to make a bad decision. But as so many do get made, because Football recruitment is difficult.

Regardless of the difficulties of the job, there’s no getting around it, Sunderland got took to the cleaners, and you could see it coming a mile off.

 

Taking a step back…

My role as Head of Player Recruitment for a whole league means I must aim to raise the level across the board, not just for an individual club. Last year we begin a partnership with sports intelligence company 21st Club headquartered out of London.

When I made the decision to approach the Canadian Premier League about this partnership, I felt they were the best fit for our ambitious vision and trajectory. Our latest project on player recruitment is off to a great start.

Specializing in better decision-making processes and having developed a unique set of tools, 21st Club is a perfect partner for forward thinking, proactive clubs looking to navigate their way through modern football.

Clubs like Brentford, lauded for their sustainable and profitable player trading model, or Liverpool, who spend equally to their rivals, but with far more success, should be the model followed clubs who aim for sustainability. It’s a model, I believe, will pay dividends for the Canadian Premier League in the long-term, and a strategy ignored by so many.

I feel there’s no better insight into the power of our work together than Sunderland ‘Til I Die.

 

Some important caveats…

Hindsight is a wonderful ally.

Losing an important player on short notice heading into the January window put Sunderland in an extremely difficult position. Clubs knew they desperately needed to buy a striker. Some certainly smelt blood in the water. In a move that most likely made the club an extra £1m in just a few hours, Kudos must go to Wigan for holding their nerve.

Pressure does incredible things to humans. Fearing another financial and emotional catastrophe in being ‘stuck in League 1’ for another year, Steward Donald certainly felt the heat when the pressure was dialed up. Probably not helped by the close bond he formed with supporters he chose to sit with at games, it’s doubtful Donald will choose to keep doing this regularly while Sunderland remain in League One.

Perhaps Stewart Donald’s biggest crime was caring too much. Should he have trusted his Head of Football Operations and Head of Recruitment to conduct some more objective and composed business? Probably. After all, these were two of the many advisors who seemed to be thinking clearly on transfer deadline day. Anything above £1m for Will Grigg was an over-pay.

 

Avoiding the Josh Maja saga…

The way the Josh Maja saga played out – timing, organization, decision making processes – it is clear things could have been better from Sunderland.

This isn’t designed to be an opinion piece. Rather, a focus on what could have been done differently at the time?

One question worth asking is why it took the owners until the winter transfer window to let the drama unfold?

At the start of the 2018/19 season, 21st Club ratings estimated Maja’s true market value to be £4.5m (more than double what it was a year prior). For new owners looking to guarantee season-long club performance, an “asset analysis” of the squad at the time would have highlighted the importance of securing Maja to a contract that may have avoided the transfer window drama.

Prior to, and following the takeover, a deep financial analysis had clearly taken place. On multiple occasions a financial shortfall of £25-35m annually was referenced. It’s not unreasonable to say that extending Maja’s deal should have been towards the top of Sunderland’s priorities, along with reducing the existing payroll.

It is conceivable that this was attempted before a ball was kicked, but Maja and his agent decided to use a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach, and refused to extend his deal. This in itself should have kicked Sunderland’s  search for a replacement striker into action.

Another possible course of action, was forcing Josh Maja to honour his contract with the club. Messy, of course, and unlikely to squeeze every effort out of the player. But what might have come from a conversation along the lines of “play for us til the end of your contract. If we’re promoted, we’d love to keep you, but if you still want to go, we believe it’s a gamble worth taking and we’ll receive training compensation. If we aren’t promoted, you may walk.”.

Given that Grigg was undoubtedly coming in on a higher salary than Maja, this cash could have been invested in further strengthening the squad, and pushing for promotion.

Is this gamble safer than chancing your arm in the January window? With the benefit of hindsight, yes.

 

Proactive recruitment…

You would hope that Sunderland had a well thought out recruitment strategy, with a number of targets in mind, and the many meetings reviewing them to weigh up the decision on which target to acquire, were simply not included in the episode.

Perhaps they were moving on other potential strikers, but missed on them all? This looks far less likely based on emotional and bewildered comments from key decision makers, when Maja left for France.

In modern football, clubs with data-driven processes have proven to be successful when managed correctly and used in conjunction with ‘traditional’ scouting.

Despite what some might think, not many data folk would claim you should buy a player based off their insights alone. Analytics can be incredibly powerful when used within the right framework, and combined with video and live scouting.

Doubts about Maja’s contract extension appeared on the show months before January. It was clearly an issue the club were aware of. Could Sunderland have decided to deal with it earlier? Perhaps the club should have decided that by say… January 15th,, if a new deal wasn’t signed, they would make the move for a new forward. Over-paying for two great forwards it of course better than over-paying for one who’s not good enough.

Coincidentally, another valuable aspect of data-driven processes is their ability to move quickly. Integrated correctly into an organization, they are perfect for certain crunch-time scenarios. Say, for example, when you need to find suitable transfer targets in a matter of days. Ring any bells?

The strength of using data as a starting point is the ability to analyze literally thousands of games in just seconds. It won’t tell you how passionate someone is, or if he’s good in the dressing room, or if he’s got a fun song for the fans, but generally, it can give you a good idea of if he’s good or not. The rest comes later, and arguably if he’s good in the dressing room, or passionate (assuming that’s a good thing) then this should influence results when he plays and be reflected in the data.

Once you use the identify players quickly, the ‘traditional’ scouting begins.

Sunderland could’ve, at the click of a button, found a list of say 20 or 30 or 40 strikers who were of similar ability for Josh Maja. Some of course wouldn’t fit their playing style of play (although you can quickly adjust the model to account for this). Some too expensive, some too old, and some, you can pick your reasons and keep excluding them. Eventually, you’ll have a much smaller list of players who fit your needs.

In the Will Grigg episode, the drama unfolded because Sunderland didn’t have the time to make a better decision. This isn’t to say they couldn’t have had it. This process could, and should have started long before the new year. with a much more streamlined list of targets.

 

Player Evaluation – Enter Will Grigg…

The “Will Grigg as a target striker” concept was introduced in the show via a Youtube clip from May 20th, 2016, demarking a time in history where thousands of football fans sang his name.

 

Mid-2016, Grigg was about to embark on a European Adventure with Northern Ireland. Interestingly, this coincided almost exactly with the peak of his ability according to 21st Club’s player rating model. And this peak was roughly the same level as Josh Maja in January 2019, when he left Sunderland to join Bordeaux.

Had Will Grigg been English, and a long way from national team recognition, it’s interesting to consider whether his valuation and reputation at Sunderland would have been so high? We’ll never know.

Regardless of his appearances for Northern Ireland, Will Grigg was a player who’s according to 21st Club’s model, was declining.

Could Grigg be the savior of Sunderland’s season?

After all, he did score 25 & 19 goals in two separate promotion campaigns for Wigan from League One.

To answer this question, we need to consider much more than goal tallies and a catchy song for the fans. We need to add Sunderland and Josh Maja to the picture.

When we consider the average strength of Sunderland’s starting 11, alongside Josh Maja and Will Grigg, we see a compelling narrative.

  • Come the January 2019 transfer window, Josh Maja added considerably more performance to the club compared to Will Grigg
  • Josh Maja was a player who’s performance and value was improving quickly
  • Will Grigg was a depreciating player asset, with his performance having peaked over 3 years prior

 

This could, and should have been a key conversation in or before January 2019, and as far as Netflix is concerned, it was not. The show had no issue revealing multiple conversations stating he wasn’t worth £1.25m before a £3m purchase, so why would this conversation not have been included if it did occur? 

Perhaps equally important, Grigg was far from an elite level forward by League One standards, and not even the strongest forward at Sunderland once he arrived.

Investment in analytics and software is something clubs are beginning to see value in. Trusting and empowering staff who are savvy and probably more importantly, influential enough to change decision making is taking a little longer, as owners and executives are still deeply involved with player recruitment and football strategy.

But how was Stewart Donald to know? It’s doubtful he had used or been exposed to this side of the game at Eastleigh or Oxford. Arguably however, a successful and intelligent businessman like himself, should possess the acumen to avoid getting caught up in the frenzy of modern football recruitment.

Another, less emotionally invested employee may have saved the club 10 times their salary on Will Grigg alone, before we begin to consider the cost of non-promotion to club described as ‘too big to be in League One’. Add to that Will Grigg’s lack of re-sale value, and it paints a pretty ugly picture from a business perspective.

 

Changing Behaviour…..

So, Will Grigg ‘s purchase could, and probably should have been avoided. Hindsight plays no role here. Events very publicly played out as they should have. Sunderland were in no way unlucky. The club purchased a player who was not fit for purpose. The tools were available, but the thought process was not.

It was stated before, Sunderland didn’t have the time to make a better decision and find more suitable targets.

Except, they did, even after Maja was ‘surprisingly’ lost with just a few days left in the window. After all, Will Grigg was acquired for the most part, in the space of just a few very expensive hours.

But who we’re they? Who could have Sunderland approached in January 2019?

A modern day player identification process should of course take weeks and months, rather than hours. Using a combination of 21st Club’s player contribution and team strength model and Transfermarkt, here’s a few examples who were highlighted in just a few hours.

Jack Harper – 24 – Scotland – AD Alcorcon (on loan from Getafe) – https://www.transfermarkt.com/jack-harper/profil/spieler/147524

One of the more interesting journeys, Harper ‘walked out on Real Madrid’ to join Brighton. After an unsuccessful spell with the club, he left to join Malaga. Initially with the reserves, he scored 13 in 23 games, as the club won promotion from the Spanish 3rd Division. After breaking into the first team, he moved to join LA Liga side Getafe for €1.5M.

Would the player be interested in swapping Spain for the North East of England for a second time?

It’s hard to say, but if he has genuine ambitions to break into the Scotland set-up, where better to make an impact than spearheading Sunderland’s promotion campaign under Scottish Head Coach Jack Ross? As the forward moved for €1.5M just 6 months later, it’s hard to believe Harper couldn’t have been acquired for a similar price aged 22.

21st Club’s model rates the forward significantly better than both Sunderland and Will Grigg. Harper may have been the perfect addition to the squad in the January window following Josh Maja’s departure. Detailed match data on Harper doesn’t appear until 2018, hence the shorter timeline on the graphic provided, but given his goal-scoring record in Spain’s Tercera (4th) division, at age 22 he may have been a risk worth taking. Sunderland could have found this within 2 hours of the search commencing.

 

Christian Kuhlwetter – 23 – Kaiserslautern – https://www.transfermarkt.com/christian-kuhlwetter/profil/spieler/184204

Developed at FC Koln, Kuhlwetter joined Kaiserslautern in 2016. Initially with the reserves, he scored 16 and assisted 12 goals in 24 goals before quickly being promoted to the first team in Germany’s 3rd tier. The robust forward has gone on to score 28 goals in 62 games for the club in the two years following.

Would the German club be interested in selling their young forward?

History suggests yes. In the 2018/2019 season the club spent a total of €375k on incoming players, while adding a further €1.15m this season. Outgoing transfers have raised no cash in the last two seasons, although Robin Koch €4m & Julian Pollersbeck €3.5m were sold in 2018 following relegation from the German second division.

Looking further afield, the German 3. Liga (3rd division) record outgoing transfer was €3.5m back in 2011. From 2017-2019 seven (7) players have been sold for sums ranging from €1.1m to €2m, which seems to be the going rate for the league’s best young prospects. A reminder, the €4m & €3.5m fees were received following a campaign in Germany’s version of the Championship, while they now reside in Germany’s League One.

21st Club rate the forward slightly lower than Josh Maja at present, although in January 2019 he would have been considered an upgrade on both Grigg (obviously) Maja. It’s hard to imagine the striker being out of Sunderland’s reach at £3m and important to remember Germany’s 3. Liga contains the country’s 37th – 56th best teams, rather than League One with England’s 45th – 68th.

 

Blaz Kramer – 23 – FC Zurich – https://www.transfermarkt.com/blaz-kramer/profil/spieler/322288

Transitioning to a new country might come easier to the Slovenian, who at the time was plying his trade in Germany. Scoring 27 goals in 46 games for Wolfsburg II in the Regionalliga Nord (4th Division), Kramer was clearly above this level.

Would Wolfsburg cash in?

As he moved to FC Zurich on a free transfer just 6 months later, and what we already know regarding transfer fees from German lower divisions, it’s reasonable to assume Wolfsburg might cash in on Kramer for a nominal fee.

Scoring 8 times in 22 games in the Swiss Super League, where 21st Club’s data is more robust, Kramer is rated just a shade below Josh Maja at present. Kramer’s rating close to Will Grigg in January represents the strength of Wolfsburg II. As he was most likely their best player, scoring 27 in 46 for a club rated equal to League One’s, Ipswich or Doncaster Rovers Kramer would surely have been a no-brainier.

 

 

In just a few hours, three young, and most-likely available forwards were highlighted for Sunderland to consider in the January window. As the search was limited to U23 players, one can only imagine this player pool to be three or four times that size, should the player age requirement expand to 27.

In fact, the club could quite possibly have acquired both Kramer and Kuhlwetter for around £3min total, even when you account for English club inflation and Sunderland’s desperation tax.

This information and search process was available to Sunderland at the time of the January window, and still is.

 

Learning Lessons

The finances behind modern day football have been widely criticized in recent years, with clubs investing more and more money in chase of perceived bigger and better things following promotion.

The English Football League is often viewed as one of the most unsustainable business models of any industry. Aside from the sporting nature of the business, most competent businessman or woman would fail to see the value in purchasing and running a football club. However, year after year, we see owners write off millions of pounds in losses, and empower executives to knowingly commit more money to player salaries alone than the club revenue entirely. This is before other operating costs like travel, staff wages and fixed stadium and training ground expenses are considered.

Generally speaking, if you don’t spend it, you’re relegated. Just look at Sunderland’s demise following Ellis Short’s decision to stop burning his money year after year. And look at how he’s now perceived in the North East by so many for that decision.

But this was never designed to be a piece on fixing modern day football, simply an insight into how Sunderland, who like so many others could have taken advantage of the industry’s shortcomings, and operated more like the business they claimed to be.

Ironically, expenditure was cut throughout the club, except where it arguably mattered the most. A robust, strategic and innovative Recruitment Department or Sporting Director, may just have saved Sunderland from another year in League One. If nothing else, the club would almost certainly hold an asset more valuable than Will Grigg, who recently turned down a move to League Two club Salford City.

For all the talk of a sustainable business model, the club decided to invest a record breaking sum on an asset with virtually no re-sale value. Unfortunate, but also avoidable, in one emotional, pressure filled day in January, 2019, Stewart Donald undid all the hard work he’d put into the club the previous 6 months. His only crime – caring too much about the club he was trying to save, and acting accordingly.