Perhaps no sport is more dominated by money than European soccer. With few restrictions on team payrolls or transfer budgets, big spending clubs consistently outperform their poorer competitors by wide margins. Recent seasons have seen exciting challenges to the elite come from Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, both clubs coming just short of winning the 2013 and 2014 Champions League titles, respectively. However, the “smallness” of these clubs is relative. Dortmund does not have the budget of Bayern Munich, but it is one of two major teams from the massive Ruhr Valley metropolis, and it sells out an 80,000 spectator capacity stadium regularly. Atletico Madrid are overshadowed by Real Madrid, but as the second team in Madrid, Atleti can draw on large revenues to fund its underdog campaigns.
If you look lower in the soccer class structure for overachieving teams, some less exciting examples show themselves. Last year in the English Premier League, both Crystal Palace and Hull City appeared to be good candidates for relegation. The two teams had managed to win promotion from the Championship after uninspiring league seasons in which they outscored their opponents by just 20 goals combined. Neither Palace nor Hull used the sudden revenue jump associated with joining the Premier League to spend particularly lavishly, dropping net spend numbers of about $20 million and $30 million respectively, while the other promoted side Cardiff City splashed over $50 million. But at the end of the season, it was the Welsh side that was relegated back to the Championship. Palace finished a solid 11th, while Hull City ended safely in 16th and reached the final of the FA Cup.
How did the Eagles and the Tigers stay in the league? It was not, sad to say, by playing inspiring or exciting soccer. Managers Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce built teams that excelled instead at soccer’s classic weapons of the weak. They defended deep, then attacked quickly down the flanks with long balls and crosses. I wrote earlier about opposition passing percentage as a marker of a high defensive press. No team in England forced a lower rate incomplete passes than Crystal Palace at just over 17 percent. Hull City was little better, at a little over 18 percent. No exciting, high tempo press here.
Both teams also eschewed attacks through the center for more speculative crosses from the flanks. Pulis’s and Bruce’s sides led the league in their ratio of crosses to through-balls attempted.
In fact, that number somewhat understates Pulis’s side focus on the flanks. He was only manager for the final 26 matches of the season. Crystal Palace began the season under Ian Holloway, who made a few desultory attempts to get him team to play more exciting, passing soccer. Palace had a high but less extraordinary Cr:TB ratio of about 20:1 when Pulis took over, and a crazy ratio of about 38:1 under his watch.
The extremity of Pulis’s tactics can be seen best by comparison to Bruce’s Hull. With a good passer in Tom Huddlestone at the base of midfield, Hull City did at times seek play out of the back. Tony Pulis effectively barred his team from playing out of the back.
Most teams in the Premier League, even Hull City, play over 150 passes in their own defensive half per match. Your more progressive passing attacks like Liverpool and Arsenal attempt well over 200. Tony Pulis got his team under 100 per match.
These tactics hold little appeal for fans. They tend to slow games down, and the goals that are scored tend to be more on the smash-and-grab end of the attractiveness spectrum. But at a reasonably low cost, these tactics carried Hull City to the FA Cup final and Crystal Palace out of the basement into the mid-table. I worry that if a systematic Moneyball approach comes to soccer, for many teams it might look a lot more like Pulis-ball than anything else.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.