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The Innovators: Europe’s Smartest clubs

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William Blake once said, “What is now proved was once only imagined”, when trying to explain innovation. In today’s highly competitive football industry, success is measured in profit or on-field performance. Achieving that has become paramount for every professional club and this success-driven approach exists at every level in European football.

Some smaller clubs have adopted transformative practices to challenge ‘big’ clubs. These small clubs have used innovation as their weapon of choice to challenge Goliaths of European football that are backed by Billionaire owners. The path less travelled has become an essential way in which these clubs have started changing the norms of success since it is hard to disrupt the dominance of clubs with major financial backing or historical success. Eventually, these clubs have become the smartest clubs in Europe.

Here are some clubs that are challenging norms and looking to become behemoths in European football.

 

Brentford FC

Brentford FC is a professional football club, based in Brentford, west of London. Famous for their “Moneyball” approach, they have made it to the Premier League, playing their second consecutive year this season after promotion last year.

About 10 years ago, Matthew Benham, a lifelong fan of the Bees, took over the club as owner and made it one of the most consistent teams in the Championship. Brentford identified and produced PL-level talent through a data and stats-driven approach. Under Benham, Brentford adopted the ‘Moneyball’ approach, unearthing undervalued talents, who overperform at their level and outperform their peers in relevant stats. This stats-based approach is also used to develop the talent that was already present at the club, helping a lot of its players to improve drastically. This approach has made the clubs millions through transfers. They have bought Premier League ready players for a few million before moving them on after a couple of seasons or less for a hefty profit.

Benham’s mathematical approach has seen Brentford identify talents such as Ezri Konsa, Andre Gray, Chris Mepham, Ollie Watkins and Neal Muapay, to name a few. Brentford bought these players for a few million pounds and some even less than a million; selling them on for tens of millions of pounds to Premier League clubs. The club has made major profits through the sale of these players. This approach has made FC Midtjylland , very successful too, who play in the Danish league, where Benham is one of the major stakeholders.

Another essential element of the backroom staff has been Rasmus Ankersen, co-director, whose ideology aligns perfectly with the model currently being employed by Brentford. He has helped the club generate hundreds of million pounds worth of profit through player sales, and despite selling on their best players, has kept the Bees extremely competitive in the Premier League.

Brentford look to buy young players (Having Higher resale value) from obscure leagues or second-tier clubs from the top five leagues or teams lower in the English football pyramid itself. This transfer philosophy has resulted in Brentford having arguably one of the most talented squads in the Championship. Their approach of looking at underlying stats such as Xg or Xg chain, etc; has made Brentford FC squad very robust on a very low budget.  

Thomas Frank, the ex-Denmark youth coach who developed talents like Christian Eriksen, employs a modern style of football that concentrates on the concepts of pressing and transition. Last season Brentford delivered on their potential yet again as they finished 13th in the Premier League, with the prodigious young talents like Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbuemo, both bought in to replace Ollie Watkins and Said Benhrama.

Ollie Watkins’ replacement Ivan Toney is another star in the making, whose value has risen rapidly as the young Englishman has completely filled the hole left by Watkins. Signed from Peterborough, for 5 million pounds, he has already scored 44 goals in domestic leagues. He already looks ready-made for any Premier League side looking for attacking options and will surely make Brentford a massive profit when he moves on to a higher level.

While Brentford have figured out a business model to make itself a profitable club, the stats and data-based analytical approach has helped them become a true producer of Premier League talent. 

 

Sevilla

Despite La Liga being dominated by Barcelona and the Madrid clubs, Sevilla have carved out its own unique identity in Spain. Its transfer policy and digital engagement has made it one of the most innovative clubs in the Spanish top flight.

Formed in 1890, Sevilla FC is one of the oldest and most relevant soccer teams in Spain. The club has won a number of trophies and titles that make it one of the most successful teams in Europe in recent times. Sevilla FC has become the only club in history to have won the Europa League 6 times.

Under the guidance of club president Jose Castro Carmona, the club has consistently looked to finish in the European spots and challenge the dominant clubs in Europe too, often outperforming Tottenham and Fiorentina, clubs that are financially backed by billionaires who actively look to invest in their clubs. Sevilla, after performing consistently on the European stage has started to attract attention from all over the globe and look to become a global brand. One of the aspects the club has improved has been its digital services. It has invested a lot of resources and effort in its visual design, user experience and improving its online brand.

Sevilla have defined a new brand strategy, and with the club’s new purpose, values and communication territories identified, the club worked seamlessly to develop a new identity.

The identity includes the design of all of the club’s key identifiers as well as the creation of a unique, ownable and highly differentiated visual and verbal style. This has helped Sevilla reach out to the global market that is immediately able to identify posts on various social media platforms to the Sevilla FC brand. A perfect example for this is how Sevilla unveiled Jesus Navas, after he re-signed with the club in 2016.

The credit for this prolonged period of success goes to their sporting director, Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo, better known as Monchi in the football world. Monchi is referred to as a genius in the transfer market. His Golden touch is actually a result of an analytical approach to scouting. Under him, the scouting team uses underlying stats, data and keen knowledge of release clauses around Europe, to identify elite and undervalued players.

He also stresses on ‘re-scouting’ players from time to time , making sure of that the players have a consistent output. Sevilla looks to sign players no older than 27, because of this players who are unable to perform immediately can be sold on for at least the same amount the next season. This also allows undervalued players joining Sevilla to often reach their peak age, while being at the club, which often plays out really well for Sevilla.

The perfect example of this is Wissam Ben Yeder, who was prolific for the Andalusian side after he signed with them in 2016, when he was 25 and was moved on to Monaco, in 2019, when he turned 29.

Monchi is also a shrewd negotiator and being a former player allows him to understand a player’s psyche too, more than usually giving him the upper hand during contract negotiations.

Monchi has now become one of the most recognizable sporting directors in football. A lot of the players signed by Monchi over the last 20 seasons have been bought at a low price and sold to the clubs in the highest echelons of football for hefty sums. Players like Rakitic, Lenglet, Carlos Bacca and Julio Baptiste, all who made use of Sevilla as a stepping stone.

Jules Kounde has become one of the most highly rated young centre-backs in the Spanish top flight and has made a move to Barcelona after a successful spell at Sevilla.

 

Bodo Glimt

In Norway, where the league has historically been dominated by clubs from the southern side of the country, like FK Molde and Rosenberg, FK Bodo Glimt in recent seasons have gone from being relegation contenders to champions of Norway. They are also now regarded as the best team in Scandinavia.

After being promoted to the first tier for the 2018/19 season they narrowly escaped relegation finishing 11th, in a league that only has 16 teams. In the start of the 18/19 season they were rock bottom, till the appointment of their current manager Kjetil Knutsen in January 2019.

Under Knutsen, the Superlaget looked revitalized and he was able to keep them up. Next season he built on the young players coming through their academy and helped a lot of players with the potential to get closer to their peaks, which helped them finish 2nd in the league. He looks to tactically and technically really improve individual players, who have versatile skill sets and engrains a very high work rate into his players. Hakon Evjen and Jens Petter Hauge are good examples, who looked completely transformed after Knutsen took charge of the club. Both players have moved on since then to AZ Alkmaar and AC Milan respectively, making the club a decent profit since both of them were academy products.

The key to Kjetill Knutsen unlocking the true potential of the players at his disposal has been the appointment of a former fighter of Norway’s Air force pilot Bjorn Mannsverk to work with the squad as a mental health coach. The Superlaget Sporting Director Aasmund Bjørkan and Knutsen are advocates of taking down psychological barriers to peak performance, and the hiring of Mannsverk did the trick.

Now players are put through military-like mental toughness training, resulting in enhanced concentration levels during games and collective flow. 

We have been treated to some entertaining football by Bodo Glimt in the Europa league in recent seasons and hopefully, they can continue on this upward trajectory of theirs.

 

Red Bull group

The Red Bull Group are backed by a multi-billion dollar enterprise, who started investing in European football in 2005, when they bought the Austrian first division side SV Austria Salzburg and rebranded it as RB Salzburg. Then in 2006 after a lot of public scrutiny, they were able to acquire fifth-tier side SSV Markranstadt, which was later rebranded to RB Leipzig.

The Red Bull philosophy of identifying talent and their humongous scouting network is what makes them so good. They have shown true innovation when it comes to identifying promising players and managers from all over the globe. Their transfer policy revolves around identifying extremely young talent, players that can either be signed straight for the first-team or players that can improve their technical and tactical understanding in their state-of-the-art training facilities and play for the youth team to hone their skills.

The scouts are only allowed to scout players between the ages of 16 and 23. The Red Bull scouting network extends to every part of the globe from Japan in Asia to the USA in North America, their scouts are also present in a lot of African Countries such as Angola, Senegal, Zambia, Ghana and many more. 

Another area where the Red Bull group has emerged as pioneers is coach education and style of play. The collective Red Bull philosophy is extremely modern, in fact, the coaches under the Red Bull umbrella are all ardent students of high-pressing, high-paced attacking football and attractive entertaining football takes precedence over everything else.

This has also made them a hotbed for coaching talent. Coaches like Ralph Hasenhüttl and Marko Rose perfected their high-intensity attacking style of play while coaching Red Bull teams and now have become highly coveted coaches capable of transforming a team to play football the modern way, as they have done with Southampton and Borussia Monchengladbach.

 A very important part of this has been Ralf Rangnick, who managed Red Bull Leipzig to the german second division from the fifth division, before taking the role of sporting director at Leipzig itself. He appointed Ralph Hasenhüttl as the man to succeed him at the helm. Rangnick who has always been a constant supporter of high-intensity attacking football, is the embodiment of the Red Bull philosophy as he has always looked to improve young players and implemented unique styles of play. 

This has given rise to the most sustainable model in European football today, as they sign highly promising young players from all around the globe. These highly coveted youngsters are trained to play the modern game the modern way, enhancing their skills and market value exponentially, before selling them on for massive profits. There have been multiple success stories to prove this, the likes of Sadio Mane, Naby Keita, Timo Werner, and Erling Braut Haaland are some of the most famous ones, they have all bagged the Red Bull group a pretty penny in the transfer market.

They also make sure that before a star player leaves they already have a highly coveted youngster in the ranks to take his place immediately. Hwang Hee-Chan moved from RB Salzburg to RB Leipzig, after Werner’s move to Chelsea, and he fit seamlessly into the Leipzig squad, before moving to Wolves. These kinds of deals have made their squad extremely immune to their star players being sold year on year. They have essentially assembled a model that produces consistent talented players like a factory, producing one elite player after another.

Of course, the players are the ones making a difference on the field, but off the field, the group has looked to appoint the most intelligent, young and promising coaches. That’s why they signed Julian Nagelsmann to lead RB Leipzig and Jesse Marsch as the manager of RB Salzburg. Both of these coaches are extremely young and like to play the Red Bull way.

RB Leipzig and Salzburg, have been involved in the most entertaining games on the European stage, and have impressed a lot of fans around the world with their performances and, rightly accumulating more fans that are singing the praises of the RB model.

Vidur Arora
A Swansea City fan, who fell in love with the game watching Joe Allen play. Usually found in the wild with headphones in his ears and bobbing his head. Love his art too.

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