Data Analysis: The art of underachieving - 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 Underachieving."

Yesterday, we looked at the Art of Overachieving. Today, let’s move to the other end of the scale…the art of underachieving.

From the same data source, we’ll identify the clubs that got it wrong, as well as the specific trends in the build-up to the catastrophe.

Just like yesterday, this post will focus on salaries and transfer spending.


From “The Art of Overachieving” article, we know that a club’s wage bill is the best indicator of expected success. Each league’s powerhouses might vary greatly in transfer spending from one window to the next, but they’ll always pay top players top wages. It’s a constant in the analysis. As the club’s wage bill becomes more robust, so will their competition rank, at least in a general sense.

The 2018/19 Monaco team is one to remember. You’ll recall the summer transfer window of 2017 that saw the club lose Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, Tiémoué Bakayoko, and Rúben Vinagre. They followed up that window by losing Fabinho, Youri Tielemans, João Moutinho, and Thomas Lemar the next summer. Nearly an entire starting XI, and a world-class one at that, left the club within a 15-month window. Despite the reinvestment in the transfer window and high wage bill, that 2018/19 drop-off isn’t surprising.

Part of their struggles simply came down to bad luck under Leonardo Jardim and Thierry Henry. Looking at the expected points total from the 2018/19 season, Monaco should have garnered far more than the 36 points they managed that season. Their xPoints for the season came in at a healthy 54.9, good enough for 8th in Ligue 1.

The image above also bears a repeat listing for Wolfsburg’s 2016/17 and 2017/18 sides. Finishing 12 and 13 spots, respectively, behind their salary rank, those teams also managed meager xPoints totals. 45.1 xPoints in 2016/17 was 10th in the Bundesliga, but the 36.7 the following year rated 17th in an 18-team league, indicating that Wolfsburg was lucky not to be relegated.

Looking specifically at the underachiever quadrant, the image below filters for clubs that rated in the top half of their league in salary rank, yet finished in the bottom half of the table.

Within the dataset, these teams have produced the greatest feats of underachievement. Wolfsburg and Monaco claim their spots on the one extreme, but there are a number of surprising, very competent clubs to suffer a terrible season or two. Lille, Real Betis, and Schalke are all solid mid-tier clubs that fell on difficult times.

To give a better idea of season expectations and the relative spending power of the elites, the next graph considers salary and table ranks but also lists the percentage spent on player wages relative to the top spender in their respective league.

Looking at some of the most frequent clubs to appear in this section, we can track their spending, table and salary rank, and expected performance statistics.

Interestingly enough, while underperformance can plague a club for a number of seasons, the stats in the image above give the impression that extreme underperformances are fairly easy to correct within a year or two. As we’ll see later in this analysis, there’s usually a shock to the system that leads to aggressive underperforming.

Transfer market spending

In the graph below, we’re looking at the stability rating of teams that dropped at least three spots in the league table from the previous season. Keep in mind that few of Europe’s elites will fall into this graph. Three spots is a significant drop for top teams, but it’s far more likely from the middle-tier clubs.

With the exception of the 2015/16 Chelsea and 2016/17 Arsenal teams, we find that it’s generally more established, mid-tier clubs that make the list. A period of success followed by a spell of underperformance is likely influenced by competing in Europe or the loss of key players. On that second point, as mid-tier clubs ride the backs of top, emerging players to new heights in the table, Europe’s elite wait in the wings to sign the player. It’s no coincidence that Wolfsburg’s struggles also correspond with the loss of a certain Kevin de Bruyne.

We find that most teams not only spent money, typically large sums, but they also finished the season with more players departing than joining the squad. The general pattern is offloading first-team excess and academy products to funnel funds into top-shelf talent.

For clubs at the lower financial end of this tier, such as Wolfsburg and Monaco, you might see fewer top-level talents enter the club, but a number of high-upside players come in, offering lineup depth, the hope of next-level talent and the prospect of a large outgoing transfer fee. This recruitment philosophy is sometimes called “the shotgun approach”, prioritizing high-ceiling low-floor players instead of top-end quality. When you’re right, much like Monaco was in 2016/17, winning Ligue 1 and reaching the UEFA Champions League semifinal, the result resembles a video game save more so than reality.

That said, it really is difficult to buy your way out of trouble. There are simply too many variables to consider, especially if the core of the team is gutted. Player quality fluctuates, the established playing style might not fit the incoming players, team cohesion needs time to develop and maintaining the psychological state of individuals, especially higher-priced new players, can present difficulties.

Filtering for teams that spent a minimum of $100 million in a transfer market, all in a single season, we can see that clubs can’t necessarily buy their way to a higher domestic status.

Casting transfer expenditure against league table movement from the previous season, the image above identifies clubs that spent big yet still dropped at least three spots in the league table. With some sides, like the 2016/17 Leicester team, the massive drop is indicative of wild overachievement one season, followed by a regression to the mean the next. Fitting the UEFA Champions League fixtures into their schedule simply didn’t help matters either.

On a positive, there is a sense that a large transfer expenditure should, in theory, lay the foundation for future success. So long as consecutive seasons of underachievement don’t happen, a club can maintain hope that they’ve done good business in the transfer market.

So, no, clubs can’t spend their way to improved domestic standing, that short-term underachievement can play a role in long-term success, especially for clubs with a wage bill less than 75% of the league’s top dog.

We'll cut the post here, but, again, much more detail is available in the full article, available exclusively on Total Football Analysis.

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

Day 8 - Data Analysis: The art of underachieving