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A (very incomplete) look at who in Serie A is doing the best in the transfer market

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Going deep on some transfer numbers and turning up some pretty interesting, albeit incomplete (so don’t go screaming at us for the results here), stuff.

The Serie A TIM logo is pictured prior to the Serie A... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

As fans pore over obscure data to figure out what transfer moves their clubs are going to make, it’s fair to ask how one quantifies a successful transfer policy. Obviously, paying less for better players who help you win is the goal, but it can be accomplished in various ways. Too, Juventus will pursue a very different strategy than, say, Cagliari.

We’ve decided to figure out which teams’ transfer policies have been the best over the past three years in terms of purchases and sales. By adding up the net transfer balance for each of those seasons and then figuring out how much each team spent per point in the table, you can get a pretty good idea of who’s succeeding. So while Juve may spend exponentially more than Cagliari, the Sardinians could prove to be much more efficient.

There are a number of caveats here. The first is that player sales don’t count for all of a club’s income; European competition, sponsorship deals, ticket or merchandise sales. and stadium ownership can add a lot to that number, so shrieks about Financial Fair Play violations based on these tables alone are unwarranted.

This exercise also ignores the importance of wage structures, which in some ways are more important than transfer outlays. By paying players top dollar, you ensure they want to play for you; whether that means snapping up talent on Bosmans or retaining stars already in the team, salaries are a seriously overlooked part of this equation. Maybe we’ll get into that another time. Successful loans, too, will skew the results here, as adding a difference-maker for a year or two without paying anything more than a loan fee (or a fee that hadn’t come due by last year) will improve a team’s apparent success without necessarily indicating sustainability.

The final issue is one of aim. Juventus, largely due to past successes and the massive non-transfer revenue streams those bring, has different goals than Chievo Verona. The former is happy to overspend on already expensive players on the grounds that if they make a slight difference, it’s a successful investment; money is not really an issue (this goes back to the first point). For the Flying Donkeys, though, turning a profit in the transfer market is necessary to the survival of the club, so staying in the black and hanging by a fingernail to the margins is the realistic aim. Comparing those two goals, which result in wildly different outcomes, is problematic, so keep in mind that the big clubs will grossly underperform while some of the stragglers will grossly overperform according to this (again, very limited) model.

For now, though, we think that this is a good exercise to give you a very general sense of who’s doing well in the transfer market and who isn’t. Again, the picture these numbers create is incomplete and flawed, but it tends towards portraying some interesting truths. All numbers come from Transfermarkt. We’ll discuss the implications for Fiorentina after the jump.

2016-2017
2017-2018
2018-2019
Total: 2016-2017, 2017-2018, 2018-2019

So, with yet another disclaimer that (ahem) THIS IS NOT A RANKING OF TEAMS’ OVERALL SUCCESS IN THE TRANSFER MARKET BUT RATHER AN EXERCISE TO GET A GENERAL IDEA OF SUCCESSFUL POLICIES AND THAT ALL CONCLUSIONS ARE RELATIVE ONLY TO THE DATA HERE AND NOT ANYTHING MORE (whew), let’s begin with the basics. A score of 0 means that a team’s net transfer policy reflects how many points it’s accumulated per season in Serie A. Teams with positive scores are outperforming expectations, while teams with negative scores are underperforming.

As you can see, Fiorentina is just about dead center, performing at a slightly higher-than-expected rate. If not for last season’s horror show, things would look a lot rosier, but that’s a whole different article. Pantaleo Corvino did a reasonable job of balancing the books, selling talent for decent returns in relation to his expenditures. That passes the eyeball test, considering that he spent a small fortune on fairly cheap young players and journeymen while shipping out a few established stars. This past year, he pushed his chips into the table, spending far more than he earned; the complete backfiring of this strategy is probably what led to his dismissal by Rocco Commisso.

Second, we can see that spending a whole lot of money on new players without making substantial sales doesn’t necessarily improve your team (hi, AC Milan). Obvious FFP violations aside, the Rossoneri just haven’t gotten a lot of bang for their buck, according to these charts. When you look at some of their recent big-money busts—e.g., Leonardo Bonucci, Nikola Kalinić (whoopsie), and André Silva, among many others—these numbers, again, make perfect sense.

The teams that I find most interesting are the ones I consider more or less Fiorentina’s direct rivals: the clubs that fall between fringe Champions League contenders and fringe Europa League contenders. That would be Atalanta, Lazio, Sampdoria, and Torino. Every one of them outperforms this model’s expectations, albeit not by too much.

The Viola are the highest-spending of this group, but the lowest-selling. What that indicates to me is that talent is coming in but not developing well enough for other teams to make big offers. Some of that is down to continuity: all four of these teams kept the same manager for the entirety of the 3-year period we’re looking at, while Fiorentina changed bosses three times. We know anecdotally that this kind of disruption leads teams to underperform, and these data seem to back that up.

What’s necessary, then, is to find a manager who has the full backing of the owner and the back office. Obviously, you don’t want to keep a bad mister around, but according to this model, it might make sense to slightly overpay for a top-quality manager, as he’ll allow players to flourish in his schemes, thus helping the club zero out its net transfer expenditures and thus rely less on European qualification for funding. A big part of this, of course, is that the DS has to find players who fit the manager’s requirements, thus maximizing both individual and team performance, and thus increasing the value of players as assets in the mercato as well.

Whether Vincenzo Montella and Daniele Pradè are the men to do this remains to be seen, considering that their plus/minus per point across that stretch was 0.046, which is actually a shade under where it’s been over the past 3 seasons. If Joe Barone and Rocco Commisso can provide the necessary jolt, though, they could goose that number quite a bit, leading Fiorentina back to where it belongs: lurking on the margins of Champions League qualification, scaring the pants off of every big team who has to play them and steamrolling the small ones.