Data Analysis: The art of overachieving - 2023 Advent Calendar Series

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment. 

Today's featured excerpt comes from the November 2020 magazine. It's called, "Data Analysis: The art of overachieving."

Do big clubs buy titles in the transfer market?

Does the club with the highest wage bill win the league?

Is there any hope for small to mid-sized clubs?

We’ll look at the underlying data to find the game’s best overachievers and dig into their methods.

In this post, we’ll focus club salaries and transfer fees. The original article has much more, covering recruitment philosophies and game models, but we’ll follow the money here.


Our first task is to identify if there is a meaningful correlation between salary and season outcome. This seems like the natural indicator of predicting table rank and identifying overachieving teams. From a purely logical standpoint, top players earn top salaries that are continuously adjusted to the current market.

That brings us to the first graph, plotting competition and salary rank to gauge financial stoutness on a club’s success. Grouping the clubs into four clusters, the colouration and quartiles give a rather clear indication of which teams hit the expected mark, which underachieved and our class of overachievers.

On the top right, you have all the usual suspects. That’s where we find the Real Madrids, Barcelonas, Juventuses, Bayern Munichs, PSGs and Manchester Cities of the top five leagues. Greater salary immediately seems to point to a greater season outcome.

Over in the top left quartile, we get a sense of which teams have over-performed relative to their spending power. Atalanta and Getafe are prominent fixtures on the list, as is Nantes. Interestingly, RB Leipzig’s inaugural Bundesliga season saw them rate 10th in salary in an 18 team league, but finish 2nd in the standings.

Next is a graph of expected points and the difference in salary and table rank, taken from the 2016/17 through 2019/20 seasons. With salary and table rank +/-, we’re putting the above graph into one statistic, which lets us put that mark against another data point, such as xPoints.

Again using clusters, we find that most teams hit a table rank that coincides with their wages, give or take two spots. The further to the left, the greater the underachievement. At the other end of the scale, we find the greater overachievement. Teams in the top right quadrant have both exceeded actual and expected points values, making them the stars of this analysis. One important note is the early termination of the 2019/20 French league, bringing down the Ligue 1 expected point totals for the season. That said, we can still see that a club like Reims wildly outperformed expectations given their salary rank and low xPoints total, even in a shortened 2019/20 campaign.

Atalanta, Getafe, Wolves, Köln, and RB Leipzig are some of the more prominent sides. You could make the case that those first three teams over the greatest insight into beating the odds because of their consecutive years of punching above their weight. When clubs have a successful season, it’s common for wealthier teams to raid their rosters. To reach this quadrant in consecutive years is an incredible feat, one that leaves clues of a superbly run organization.

Finally, paring the list even further, we find the best individual seasons of overperformance relative to wages. The graph below shows the best of the best. You’ll also see a percentage attached to each listing. That’s the club’s wage bill relative to their league’s top spender.

Incredibly, the top percentage in the group is Parma’s 21% mark relative to Juventus’ spending in 2013/14. Even in the 2016/17 season, Roma, Serie A’s 2nd biggest spender, had a wage bill that was 74.32% of Juventus’. At the end of the 2019/20 season, Roma still had the second-highest wage bill, but their spending percentage relative to Juventus dropped to 44.45%.

Taking four of our overperformers (Atalanta, Getafe, Leipzig, and Wolves), we can now directly compare their performance from recent top-flight seasons. For Getafe and Wolves, note that each team returned to the top flight later than Atalanta and RB Leipzig.

Our chart measures average annual £ per player (salary), competition rank, positive difference in table over salary rank, xPoints rank and xG/xGA differential. Atalanta offers the most impressive set of statistics across the board. Not only do they routinely outperform their wage bill, but they have been dominant in doing so, consistently rating among the top four Serie A teams in actual and expected stat categories. Their expected goal differential is a strong indicator of their extraordinary performances over the past two seasons.

Transfer Fees

This analysis has already shown that there’s a strong correlation between the wage bill and table rank but how does transfer spending factor into the equation? Can a team buy their way to a trophy?

Given the spending habits and domestic trophies now sitting in Manchester City’s cabinet, you’re probably inclined to say, “yes, absolutely.” That claim has further backing by the transfer spending of Real Madrid and Barcelona since it seems a summer of transfers has ended with a La Liga title in May. Juventus, Bayern Munich and PSG follow up by hammering the final nails into the coffin, right?

Well, you’re right…and wrong, though not in the same regard. Not all transfer spending is created equal, as you’ll see momentarily.

To begin our inquest, the first image shows transfer balance (in millions of US dollars) and league table +/- from the previous season. If a team was newly promoted, I rated them 21st from the previous season, except in Germany where the new Bundesliga teams received a 19th place rating because it’s an 18 team league. Even though these numbers are a little wonky, I wanted to give the newly promoted clubs a seat at the table, especially since that 2016/17 RB Leipzig team, seen at the bottom right, was an important figure in the wages section.

Glancing at the chart, the lower on the placement in the image, the more money that was spent in the transfer market. Monaco’s 2018/19 mark at the other end of the spectrum shows a huge gain in the transfer market due to Kylian Mbappe’s sale to PSG. Light blue marks out the big spenders, whereas the other three colors are more performance-based measures.

With regards to the left and right extremities, further to the right shows improvement in the table from the previous season. RB Leipzig finishing 17 spots better represents them jumping from newly promoted to 2nd place in a single season, a remarkable feat. To accomplish that end, they spent $85.20m while not recouping any money in player sales.

Leicester City’s 2015/16 title win is another standout. Yes, they did spend, but six EPL teams had a lower balance than Leicester’s -$44.77m, and that doesn’t include Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham. The -$93.45m balance of the 2018/19 Wolves team in their return to the EPL is a better indicator of how well-spent transfer money can help a team.

The key isn’t to spend, it’s to spend well.

With a better idea of the link between transfer spending and status in the table, let’s return to our top performers from the wages section to see how they spent their money. The graph below shows both transfer spending and players in and out +/-. Atalanta is colored in blue and has a full range from 2015 to 2020 since they were so spectacular during that time frame. All other clubs are orange.

Remarkably, Atalanta only had a negative transfer balance in one of those six seasons, which includes three top-four finishes and a UEFA Champions League quarterfinal appearance. You’ll notice they have a high “players in and out” rating, skewed towards departures.

That’s by design and it’s a recruitment philosophy for the next section of the original article, which also features sections on recruitment philosophies and extreme game models.

Here's the link to the article.

Read and share with someone who would find this analysis interesting.

Come back tomorrow, either on or my LinkedIn profile for the next installment of the Advent calendar.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper

Day 5 - Superiorities-based training for possession dominant teams

Day 6 – Cues for progressive actions

Day 7 - Data Analysis: The art of overachieving