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Data Analysis: Who says that you can’t achieve anything with kids?

At the time of writing this article, another transfer window has come to an end and social media has started to calm down a little. At this point in the season, after the winter transfer window, I generally find that it is a good time to reflect and take a look around football to see which teams have upgraded their squads and, perhaps more importantly, which clubs are showing signs of future-proofing and forward planning. For those who are keeping count, it appears that two of the smartest teams in football, Liverpool and Manchester City, have again made intelligent moves to get younger in key positions while also maintaining their dynamic attack as they added Luis Diaz and Julian Alvarez respectively.

Recruitment within football, however, is not a linear process. When a team does not have a set identity for their squad or that is in the process of transitioning from not having an identity and plan for the squad to having one there can be a period of transition as the squad needs to be strengthened in certain areas while players who perhaps do not fit the identity are moved on to free up wages and minutes within the squad.

One thing that we do tend to see from teams who are transitioning from a model when recruitment tends to have been more individual and agent led to one that is driven by a central idea is that teams tend to get younger in terms of the average age of their squad and the usage of players within that. This leads to a dual prong approach as recruitment will tend to start to concentrate more on adding young players who retain a resale value while additional minutes within the first-team squad can be allocated to homegrown players from the academy setup. These approaches tend to also come with less of a reliance on loan deals as clubs prefer to give minutes to their own players from within the youth system as opposed to helping other teams develop their players. There are of course exceptions to the use of loans and we have seen an increase in loan deals that come with an agreed purchase price in the future.

The trick, of course, is to move your squad from an older average age towards a younger group whilst also maintaining performance on the pitch. In this article, we will take a closer look at which teams around Europe are maintaining a low average age in their squad while also performing well on the pitch.

Which clubs are leaders in this group?

In order to identify the clubs that we should take a closer look at we will use data analysis. In the data set that I am using, I have included clubs from across European football and we will be using some simple metrics to visualise the clubs that are interesting for us to look at.

Along the vertical axis we have average age, and please note that the axis is reversed so that the younger teams are nearer the top of the scatter graph. Along the horizontal axis, we have a metric that shows the difference between each team’s expected goals and expected goals against. Finding the difference between these two metrics (xG and xGA) gives us a good indicator of performance. If a team is performing well then we would tend to see them creating more xG than they are conceding xGA. Taking the difference between these and applying a weighting system can also be an interesting way of assessing teams across leagues and allowing for the difference in terms of league strength. In this instance though, because I am assessing performance in relation to average age there are no weightings needed.

There are obvious outliers in the data with Celtic performing extremely well with a squad that is just below the average in terms of average age. Salzburg are of course performing strongly with a low average age but the fact that this is very much on brand is already well known.

What we can do though is drill down into the data and into the top-right quadrant of the graph a little deeper by filtering our data by the averages above.

I applied filters to the data set so that we only have teams that are average in terms of performance (0 or above in the difference between xG and xGA) and in terms of their average age at 26.1 years old or younger. Now the data comes alive a little more and it is interesting to note that there are some league tendencies that start to come through. Slovakia for example has three teams who are prominent here with Zilina, Trencin and DAC while the likes of the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria start to feature more often. From a pure recruitment perspective data on this level can be instructive and can start to give us an insight into which clubs or markets that we can start to look at more in depth when scouting and preparing for the next transfer window, or indeed the windows after that.

I think that in terms of the data though we can still zoom in a little more on a team specific level in order to try to understand the general makeup of some interesting case studies by breaking things down into positions and minutes played as well as age. As such I have picked out four clubs that I think have an interesting approach to their squad building and recruitment.

Red Bull Salzburg, Austria, Average age: 22.7, Difference between xG and xGA: +28

It should come as no surprise that Red Bull Salzburg feature prominently in our data set. Since the club was taken over and rebranded by the Red Bull group we have seen an incredible level of synergy between the parent companies marketing (appealing to young people and appearing to offer a high-intensity experience) and the identity put in place at the Austrian club. Their recruitment has followed this identity with the club identifying and following players from a variety of markets from a young age. In the current squad, the likes of Karim Adeyemi (German lower leagues) Benjamin Sesko (Slovakia, see told you that was an interesting market) Brendan Aaronson (MLS) and Kamil Piatkowski (Poland) are interesting examples of this.

Let’s start though by considering what would have happened to the average age of the Salzburg squad if they did not have the likes of Andreas Ulmer (LB) and Zlatko Junovic (CM) in the squad! I am not convinced that we can consider a 26-year-old Bernardo (LB) as an older statesman of the squad.

It is interesting to note that when looking at the positions from an age perspective there is a definite tendency for Salzburg to use extremely young forwards within their system. This is even more impressive when you consider the players that have left the club in that position in recent seasons. Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund) Patson Daka (Leicester City) Hwang-Hee Chan (RB Leipzig and now Wolves) Takumi Minamino (Liverpool) and that Seikou Keita is currently serving a long suspension.

Salzburg rely on young players as a key part of their strategy and identity and this translates to the tactical side of the game as they play aggressively and with tempo in and out of possession.

MSK Zilina, Slovakia, Average age: 21.6, Difference between xG and xGA: +5.66

Next up we will head to MSK Zilina to look at a club who have recently gone through the process of moving away from relatively high spending to developing and playing their own youth players and positioning themselves as a selling club. This move, however, was not overly voluntary as COVID forced the club into liquidation with many players from the first-team setup being released as they refused to take wage cuts. If you want to hear more about the circumstances that surrounded this change in approach then I would suggest reading the feature on First Time Finish looking closely at Zilina.

Now, the Slovakian side are competing in a competitive league with the lowest average age in our data set. They have not gone totally homegrown and are still using the African market to supplement what they already have and they are still in a position where they are being targeted by clubs looking to take their better players. In the winter transfer window we saw the excellent duo of Vahan Bichakhcyan move to Pogon Szczecin and Enis Fazlagic move to Wisla Krakow.

There is no position in which Zilina have a greater tendency to play young players than another but they do play a progressive and attacking style of play at the club which, of course, leads to more interest from clubs looking to recruit modern players.

Volendam, Netherlands, Average age: 23.7, Difference between xG and xGA: +12.15

There is a youth revolution taking place in the North-West of the Netherlands and this time it is not taking place in Amsterdam. The roots of this revolution, however, are firmly based in Amsterdam at Ajax.

After Ajax limped to defeat in the 09/10 Champions League to Real Madrid the Dutch legend Johan Cruyff decided that things needed to change at his boyhood club. That loss instigated a process that became known as the velvet revolution as Cruyff, along with a group of former Ajax players took charge of key areas of the club and reshaped the future of the team. Central to implementing the plans envisioned by Cruyff was the former Ajax and Internazionale midfielder Wim Jonk. Gradually, before his death, Cruyff pulled away from the club but the key members of this process remained in place. That was until 2015 when Jonk announced that he was leaving his post of head of youth development citing differences with the board.

In 2019 we saw Jonk return to the game as he took the coaches job at Volendam, a club based extremely close to Amsterdam. Since then we have seen Volendam remade in the mould of Ajax and, at the time of writing, they sit top of the second tier of Dutch football and look odds on to return to the Eredivisie from next season.

This success has been built on the back of a progressive and exciting brand of football and the trust and usage of young players in key positions. While the goals of Robert Muhren and the creativity of Daryl van Mieghem (both 32-years-old) have helped the rest of the squad is on the young side of the scale. They lost the talented young central defender Micky van de Ven for a reported £3.15M to Wolfsburg but haven’t missed a beat with a combination of clever recruitment and youth development.

When they do return to the Eredivisie it certainly feels as though the club will continue to follow this blueprint.

Genk, Belgium, Average age: 23.7, Difference between xG and xGa: +13.74

Belgium has a reputation for youth development that is similar to their neighbours the Netherlands and there are a number of clubs in the Belgian Pro League who are on the young side when it comes to average age and indeed Charleroi probably deserve an honourable mention in this piece.

We are, however, going to take a closer look at Genk who feature prominently on our graph via a well-definied recruitment policy. I should also note though that the average age of your team is always likely to come down when your first-choice goalkeeper is a 19-year-old that was developed at your own academy, Maarten Vandervoort. From that point on though the balance on the squad still remains on the low side despite the likes of Patrick Hrosovsky (29) Junya Ito (28) and Paul Onuachu (27).

They have favoured recruitment and take a balanced approach between searching close to home, in Scandinavia and the Netherlands and further afield in South and North America. It is perhaps their access to more exotic markets that have been more interesting though with the likes of Gerardo Arteaga (Santos Laguna, Mexico) Angelo Preciado (Independiente Del Valle, Ecuador) and Carlos Cuesta and Daniel Munoz (Atletico National, Colombia) all coming in and impressing for the first-team.

Conclusion 

The teams that I have picked out for a deeper dive at their squad makeup all have slightly different reasons for turning to younger players whether it is circumstance (Zilina) value (Genk) or branding (Salzburg) but all have shown that with a coherent recruitment strategy it is possible to turn to young players in order to maximize the potential value of your squad whilst also maintaining performance.