Manchester United finally got round to appointing a new director of football last week, more than two-and-a-half years after club chief Ed Woodward first began looking to hire someone for the role.
But, with a new report concluding that United have the most sustainable squad of any club in Europe’s top five leagues, will the duo of football director John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher have much work to do at all in their new jobs?
According to the CIES Football Observatory’s latest report, United’s current squad has a better “sustainable squad management rating” than any other of the 98 clubs in Europe’s top five leagues, with Premier League clubs making up half of the top 10 (see below).
United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had had plenty of highs and lows during his time at the Old Trafford helm, but with his side second in the Premier League and looking odds on to seal Champions League qualification for next season, the data suggests he has a group of players fit to continue their progress in the years to come.
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Here comes the science bit
The CIES report takes three fundamental factors into consideration when assessing squad stability: the players’ ages, group stability (i.e. the length of each players’ stay with their current club), and the duration of their contracts.
Player ages: CIES studied the percentage of game time being given to “older players” in domestic league matches — 33 years of age and older for goalkeepers, 32 for defenders, 31 for midfielders, and 30 for forwards — to evaluate every club’s reliance on their veterans.
Group stability: The study used the percentage of minutes afforded to “new arrivals” (players recruited after July 2022) as a numeric marker for each squad’s levels of cohesion and familiarity.
Contract stability: This was measured by the percentage of minutes played in domestic league games by players on short-term contracts, on loan, or with contracts due to expire in June 2022 or before — thus judging each club’s reliance on players who would likely not be around for the long haul.
With all three elements taken into consideration, United emerge as having the most sustainable squad across all of the English Premier League, the Spanish Liga, the Italian Serie A, the German Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1.
Top 10 (based on senior squad members as of March 1, 2021)
1. Manchester United
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) May 3, 2020
Despite facing regular criticism for some of their transfer business, United have spent the past few years assembling a stable squad that includes plenty of youth products such as Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay and Mason Greenwood. The CIES sutudy suggests United can be confident of maintaining their ability to qualify for the Champions League and, quite possibly, challenge for Premier League title again sooner rather than later.
2. Real Sociedad
— Real Sociedad (@RealSociedadEN) August 1, 2020
Despite the Basque squad having one of the lowest average ages in European football, Real Sociedad find themselves performing well this season and were even surprise early leaders in La Liga. A few experienced veterans like David Silva and Nacho Monreal (both 35 years old) are meshing well with talented youngsters such as Alexander Isak (21) and Mikel Oyarzabal (23).
3. Athletic Bilbao
Because you are a lion… 🦁
… and because this is your home 🏠
— Athletic Club (@Athletic_en) August 12, 2019
Athletic Club are the second of two Basque clubs in the top three and, given their famous region-specific recruitment policy, it’s perhaps not surprising to find them riding high in the squad stability stakes. In 2019, homegrown star Inaki Williams signed a contract committing him to San Mames until 2028!
4. Tottenham Hotspur
𝟮𝟬+ goals for the 𝙨𝙚𝙫𝙚𝙣𝙩𝙝 consecutive season 🔥
— Tottenham Hotspur (@SpursOfficial) February 8, 2021
They may have endured notable managerial turbulence in recent times, but Spurs’ playing roster remains admirably consistent, with big names like Harry Kane signed to long-term contracts and marquee short-term signings like Gareth Bale largely restricted to cameo appearances.
5. Manchester City
🏆 Premier League – 1st
🏆 UCL – Quarter Finals
🏆 FA Cup – Quarter Finals
🏆 EFL Cup – Final
Could Man City do the quadruple this season? 😳 pic.twitter.com/u3vc9TwGyR
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 16, 2021
Not shy of spending big on recruitment, City have obtained a high squad stability rating by virtue of their deep financial resources. Teams with more wealth have a much higher chance of signing the best young talent at the optimal time, while also increasing the likelihood of being able to keep hold of them long-term should these players go on to realise their potential.
It’s been a rough season for Liverpool, with shock defeats abound since the turn of the year. But Jurgen Klopp’s side can console themselves with the knowledge that, while their title defence might have fallen apart entirely, their squad is still very much stable in a statistical sense.
The Saints are the fifth and final Premier League club to find themselves inside the Top 10 here. Even if they have slipped out of the Premier League’s Top 10 after a promising start to the season, they remain one of the division’s best-run clubs.
In Lionel Messi’s 17 years at Barcelona, he is averaging a goal contribution every 66 minutes 😱
Let’s enjoy him while we can.
(h/t transfermarkt) pic.twitter.com/ftNsQfd9Ek
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 16, 2021
Having jettisoned a few older players, Barca’s roster is looking more youthful these days with talent young academy products filling the gaps between established members — many of whom, like Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, have been rooted in the first-team squad for over a decade.
9. Atletico Madrid
Arguably not the Madrid club you’d be expecting to find tucked inside the Top 10, but Atletico have been outperforming everybody in La Liga this season. That’s the product of the fighting spirit and togetherness Diego Simeone has once again successfully instilled in his squad.
10. RB Leipzig
Since arriving in the Bundesliga, Leipzig have consistently operated with one of the youngest average squad ages, hovering around the 23-24 mark. The 2020-21 season is no different, with Julian Nagelsmann’s talented and carefully assembled group sitting second in the German top flight, just four points behind leaders Bayern Munich.
Where do the other big clubs rank?
Paris Saint-Germain sit 12th on the squad stability list and are therefore poised just outside the upper echelons, a few rungs above fellow heavyweights Real Madrid (14) and Arsenal (16).
The two German giants are next, with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in 22nd and 24th position respectively.
Chelsea (30) are the lowest-ranked Premier League side, though it’s the Italian sides who fare worst, with AC Milan (50), Juventus (58), Inter Milan (59) and AS Roma (80) finding themselves down toward the bottom of the pile.
Another Serie A outfit, Genoa, are ranked 98th out of 98 clubs in the stability ranking, reflecting their short-term approach to squad construction (and deconstruction) under current owner Enrico Preziosi.