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Fiorentina’s spends per point in Serie A explains a lot

The Viola are a step away from joining the league’s elite, but that one step is a very, very big one.

Luigi Lucchi,Mayor of Berceto’s Latest Protest Against Capitalism Photo by Leonello Bertolucci/Getty Images
After seeing a discussion in the comments the other day about how much Serie A teams spend (and excellent work, wolfpackallday), I was inspired to pick up a dataviz project I’ve been kicking around for a couple of months. It’s pretty much the exact same thing, if I’m honest, and I’m a little embarrassed that it took me this long to finish it, but now that wpad has lit a fire under me, here you go.

One of the best parts about following a team in any sport is being able to imagine that you could run it better than the dummies currently at the wheel. That urge is at least half of the discourse of fandom: which players would you acquire, which would you get rid of, how much would you spend, et cetera. We’re all guilty of this, and it’s why Football Manager is has been one of the best-selling video games of the past 30 years.

I’m just as guilty of it as anyone. I rip on Joe Barone and Daniele Pradè quite a bit (although I haven’t gotten the Rocco shoutout yet), but I also try to remind myself and everyone else that running a Serie A team is really, really difficult. It’s a job that requires an enormous list of contacts within the game, a deep understanding of the machinations of and politics between a wide range of characters, and the ability to create and execute multiple plans simultaneously. In short, it’s a job for smart, talented people.

What makes it particularly difficult to judge how good Barone and Pradè are at their jobs is that they’re not working on a level playing field. Fiorentina spends much more than some clubs in the league and a lot less than others. These differences in finances and ambition make it pretty difficult to compare clubs in a vacuum: what’s good for Juventus may not be good for Cremonese and vice versa.

What you’re looking at

Still, I think that spend per point is probably the best way to judge a team’s leadership, so I decided to plot that and see what I came up with. I decided to start with the 2019-2020 season (the year Rocco Commisso bought the club and put Pradé and Barone in charge) and look at the three complete seasons since then; I’m ignoring this year because it’s an incomplete data set.

I decided that the best way to visualize this was with my beloved scatterplots, so off I went to make spreadsheets and begin plotting them. I took the financial info from two sources: Transfermarkt for transfer expenditures and Capology for wages. For the former, I combined purchases and sales into a single number. For a few teams, it came out negative, meaning that they spend less on salary than they earn in the transfer market. For the latter, I ignored the various operational costs of running a team (VIOLA PARK, BAYBEE) as well as income from sponsorships and European competitions, so these numbers aren’t gospel; rather, they’re meant to provide an impression.

I’ll also add a quick note about how to read these charts. You should be able to mouse over or tap any of the points and get more information. I’ve highlighted Fiorentina as a purple dot for easy reference. Teams below the trend line (that black diagonal going through the middle) are getting spending less for more points than average. The size of the circle corresponds to how much a team spent per point, so a smaller circle indicates that a team is getting more bang for its buck.

Finally, there are some ghost teams. Because of the way I set this up, teams that end up with a negative spend (i.e. they earned more from player sales than they spent on transfer fees and salaries combined) won’t appear, because you can’t make a circle that’s smaller than zero. The data point will still appear on the chart if you hover on it; I’ve added little text notes so that you can see where these clubs would be if they appeared. If anyone’s got a better way of visualizing these, please let me know and I’ll update it.

Have some charts

Looks about how you’d expect, right? Fiorentina weren’t particularly efficient with their spending, but this was Rocco’s first year in charge and management had a lot going on. They shelled out a fair amount of money, as you’d expect from a new ownership group trying to make a splash, but the outcome wasn’t particularly good. That’s fine.

It may not be fair to draw too many conclusions from this season. Finances were super wonky because of the coronavirus pandemic (definitely a thing of the past). Pour one out for Parma, which spent all the money for none of the results and remains in Serie B. Fiorentina were again pretty bad results-wise and probably overspent, but again, some truly remarkable circumstances mean that there’s only so much we can draw from here other than overall impressions.

A little bit more like it, huh? Fiorentina were the league leaders in point-per-spend efficiency after Udinese, and a high finish in the table makes the Viola feat even more impressive. The problem, of course, is that it felt as if this success was driven more by Vincenzo Italiano’s excellence as a coach more than any brilliant purchases; the mega-fee received for Dušan Vlahović looked a lot better in the ledger book than on the pitch, as everyone knows, and the team still hasn’t replaced him up front.

Anyways, let’s combine all three years and see what we get. I chose to do these by total spend from 2019-2020 to 2021-2022 because I think that’s more helpful than just overlaying all these charts; I tried it both ways and found that this was a lot more interesting, at least to me.

There are some pretty clear trends here. The group farthest to the right is the Champions League contenders: Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Napoli, AS Roma, Lazio, and Atalanta. The middle group is teams that occasionally threaten the European places and aren’t really relegation candidates: Fiorentina, Sassuolo, Hellas Verona (might be changing this year), Sampdoria (ditto), Genoa (whoops), Cagliari (double whoops), Bologna, Torino, and Udinese. The other teams have all spent at least one of these seasons in Serie B, so their point totals are much lower.

What’s it all mean?

What I find particularly interesting about this distribution is the distribution against the linear regression (that diagonal line through the middle). With the exception of Lazio (very well-run of late) and Atalanta (just the most bizarre team in Europe), the teams that make it to the Champions League have to “overspend” to earn their status. Part of that of course, is that continental competition offers financial compensation that means the clubs at the right of that last chart are not losing as much as pictured here.

Compare them to Serie A’s middle class, though. That central grouping consistently beat the spend-per-point projection, highlighted by Sassuolo (fantastic model throughout the club), Udinese (samesies), and Hellas Verona (brilliance from Ivan Jurić and Igor Tudor). Even so, with the exception of Fiorentina, none of these middle clubs have made it to Europe in this 3-year stretch. What that says to me is that, for a team to remain solidly in the mid-table and safe from relegation, spending wisely isn’t a choice. It’s the only way to survive.

And that might be the issue here. Pradè and Barone have done a decent job keeping Fiorentina in the mid-table, even if it’s not always a very enjoyable journey. What’s difficult is taking that next step, going from okay to good. That no other team has done it in this span indicates just how special Fiorentina was last season, but it also throws a bucketful of cold water on any ambition of regularly cracking that top 7.

If Fiorentina want to do that, the club needs to maximize its assets. That requires hitting on the big transfers and finding value in the margins. A good academy system is a significant advantage, as is a scouting department that finds bargain bin deals—Sassuolo and Udinese say hello. Finally, top-notch coaching is clearly de rigeur as well; look at Sassuolo’s initial rise from the lower reaches under Eusebio di Francesco, or Verona under Jurić and Tudor, or even Fiorentina last year.

The good news is that the Viola are poised to take that next step. Qualifying for Europe last year offers an injection of cash that the club can then spend on improving the squad. The academy is regularly churning out top talent, with the Primavera winning 6 trophies in the past 4 years. Italiano is a good coach and a clever tactician who’s still learning on the job and thus should only get better.

The swing factor here, of course, is spending that money. Barone hasn’t reinvested most of that proceeds from selling Federico Chiesa and Dušan Vlahović; Fiorentina’s gross transfer spend since Commisso bought the club is about €31.3 million, per Transfermarkt. That climbs up to €72.1 million over the past couple of seasons. Such an immense sum could vault the Viola into a singular tier in Serie A: consistently fighting for Europe (but not the Champions League) and never concerned about relegation.

A romantic might say that’s where this storied club belongs. The goal, in this view, ought to be competing with the megaclubs in a good year and comfortably riding out a bad one, with neither result having too much bearing on the subsequent season. Getting there will require spending and it will require risks. This current management has shown a willingness for the latter: selling the club’s best player in consecutive years, especially when battling against relegation or for European qualification, is a swing-for-the-fences type of move. But spending, well, that’s the tricky one. As Plautus said, “You have to spend money to make money.”