Of late, the domestic leagues of European football have started to become dominated by single clubs. While we know all about the superclubs who have exercised despotic levels of control over some of the major European leagues, it’s the peripheral leagues that we don’t talk about. Take the Greek Super League for example. It had been won by the Athens-based club Olympiacos every season from 1997 to 2017. Here’s another one: The Belarusian Premier League has been won by BATE Borisov every year from 2006 to 2018. Finland’s Veikkausliga and the Croatian First Football League have also undergone similar dictatorial spells by clubs that are much better than the rest of the pack.
In Switzerland, 20-time domestic champion FC Basel 1893 won the Swiss Super League every year from 2009 to 2017. With an excellent youth system, financial backing from a billionaire, and a steady stream of Champions League revenue, Basel’s supremacy over the league has even forced proposals to alter the league format. “The most important thing in the championship is the competitive balance,” Swiss Football League CEO Claudius Schaefer said in an interview with Reuters, “If you have the same champions eight times in a row, you have to be worried, so we are looking into reforms.”
In this season, however, Basel’s dominance over the league seems to have wavered. After 31 league games, the league leaders are the Bern-based club BSC Young Boys, who are 13 points ahead of Basel. Young Boys, managed by the 48-year-old Austrian coach Adi Hütter, have seemingly sealed the title with just five games left in the season.
The question has to be this: how has a club that hasn’t won the league since 1986 toppled a club with a budget supposed to be three times larger (yeah, that’s right, a report in 2015 stated that Basel have an yearly budget of €90 million compared to Young Boys’ €30 million; Hütter confirmed this ratio is still correct to some extent) than theirs?
Winning the transfer market
A club that looks to compete with a club as large as Basel needs a source of funds. Young Boys try to generate large amounts through the transfer market.
YB are, in some way, what you’d dismissively call a ‘selling club.’ They bring up talent through their youth academy, or buy young players (hence sort of staying true to their slightly comical name), and sell them at a higher price later on.
“We really want a younger team. We do not need players who say at any point that they have signed the best contract of their career with YB.” Young Boys sporting director Christoph Spycher said in an interview with Watson.ch.
This is somewhat similar to the strategy used by Basel, who took players like Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny, Xherdan Shaqiri, Ivan Rakitic, and a certain Mohamed Salah to bigger things.
“In the summer,” head coach Adi Hütter told Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung, “we transferred Denis Zakaria to Borussia Mönchengladbach [for a fee reported to be in the range of €12 million] – the most expensive sale in the club’s history. We generated a nice transfer surplus. That’s our philosophy: gather young players, develop and resell them at a profit. Meanwhile, young players want to come to us.”
Young Boys have made a significant profit from selling players. As you can see in the following table, most of the players YB sold during this season and last season had been bought by the club for amounts much lower than the prices at which they were sold. In total, YB made a profit of €22.2 million from these players, and a return-on-investment of a whopping 403%.
While selling a lot of their best players could have been detrimental to their success, Young Boys have, on the face of it, replaced these players with low-cost yet excellent players. Jean-Pierre Nsamé, for example, signed for just €900,000 in July 2017, has scored 11 goals in 1,298 minutes in the league (a non-penalty goals p90 tally of 0.76) and assisted 4 goals (0.27 p90). Or current Leicester City target Roger Assalé, signed for an undisclosed fee (when Transfermarkt.com rated him with a market value of €250,000), who’s scored 12 (0.4 p90) and assisted 8 (0.29 p90). Then there’s ex-Newcastle fringe player Kevin Mbabu, signed after a season on loan at YB, who’s played 92% of the available minutes this season in the league. Most of these players tend to be young; all of the players Young Boys signed this season are 24 years old or younger.
Another feature of YB’s transfers – whether intentional or not – is that they usually sign either Swiss players, or players from Francophone countries. These players might find it easier to adjust to their new surroundings.
But certainly, clever transfer business doesn’t amount to much without good coaching and a good way of playing on the pitch. Luckily for Young Boys, they have just the man to do the job.
A breath-taking rush
Ex-Red Bull Salzburg head coach Hütter favors an exciting style of play, characterized by high, intense pressing and fairly direct, dynamic attacking. He uses a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 setup akin to the system used by Roger Schmidt and Ralph Hasenhüttl, with the wide midfielders often advancing to the forward line in attack.
As you can see in the following scatter, not only do Young Boys have a low amount of passes conceded for every defensive action (PPDA) they make, but they also win the ball frequently in the final 18 yards.
Not only does this mean they press high to disrupt opposition passing, but they also use it in attack – chances created through winning the ball in advanced areas tend to be dangerous. As a result of their press they concede only 508 key entries (entries into the final 18 yards), the second lowest in the league. This also translates into them conceding only the second-lowest amount of goals (33).
Generally, high-pressing teams try to keep the ball and move towards goal with a patient buildup. YB, on the other hand, aren’t a possession-heavy team (only keep 52% possession and complete just 78% of their passes), and are direct in attack. As you can see in the graph below, they only play 33 passes for every shot, lowest in the league, which indicates they look to move the ball forward quickly.
Young Boys are also an excellent attacking side, scoring the highest number of goals this season by a large margin (75 goals; Basel have scored 54). They’ve also taken 393 shots (the highest in the league) and put up 768 key entries (highest again).
Young Boys also use crosses and set pieces well, with 7 goals from set pieces (2nd-highest in the league) and 12 goals from crosses (joint-highest in the league).
While there is the evident influence of Hütter, the skills of the players in hand complement YB’s style of play. With quick players like Assalé, Nsamé, Miralem Sulejmani, Thorsten Schick, and Mbabu, and physically-adept players like ex-PSG striker Guillaume Hoarau, Sékou Sanogo, and Steve von Bergen, they can use their dynamic style of play well.
Hütter, whose contract with YB ends this year, is a competent coach who employs a style that’s craved by many. His appointment should definitely be considered by larger clubs should he wish to move onto other things. At the moment, however, he’s doing things that we should all be watching.
I’d like to thank Peter McKeever and, uh, Google Translate for translating quotes in German to English.
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which powers the StrataBet Sports Trading platform.