“Football is about recruitment. It’s the second most important position after the manager. If the recruitment is bad, the manager gets the sack.
That’s what Ian Atkins, head of European recruitment at Goodison Park, said when Everton returned to the Europa League under Roberto Martinez in 2014. Everton then had to adjust their squad to prepare to fight at the front, as the likes of Aston Villa, Brighton and Hove Albion and Newcastle United in the Premier League – plus clubs like Lens in Ligue 1 – had to do. Winter.
The Athletic wanted to see how clubs who are not regularly in Europe would prepare their squads in the short space of two months and what the damage would be. So we’re talking to people with experience in the industry, including Atkins, who watched Wolverhampton Wanderers enter the same competition in 2019, almost 40 years later. He knows a thing or two about the process.
“You really have to be prepared because for some players the normal routine is going to be a shock,” he said. “You need players in there who have been through week-to-week practice and are durable. The schedule from Thursday to Sunday is brutal. You also have to make sure the players you bring in are better than the ones already at the club. It’s always about quality, not quantity.”
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It’s easier said than done, especially some clubs. Take Villa as an example, still playing with European regulars, unable to compete with the best recruits. Their pursuit of Spanish striker Marco Asensio was very real, but when Paris Saint-Germain came calling, there was only one winner – the Europa League wasn’t entirely attractive when Real Madrid chased the world’s biggest trophies years later.
Hiring Uri Tielemans is a good start for Villa, but he has experience in the Premier League and Europe, as well as bringing in centre-back Pau Torres from Villarreal (Atkins recommended Torres to Wolves when he was on the move between Spain and Portugal in 2018-2019). Only four players have played more minutes than him in the last four seasons.That strength will help Villa adapt to an expanded schedule, a challenge Tyrone Mings said in May.
“Our next step is to play European football and run the Premier League season, so let’s see what that brings,” he said. “It will be difficult because of the travel, the games and the level of expectation, but that’s what you always want to try in football.”
Day 1. ✅ pic.twitter.com/hkOAPCyeap
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) July 1, 2023
Martin O’Neill was the last permanent manager to play European and domestic football at Villa Park. In the last-32 of the UEFA Cup, he took on a weakened side at CSK Moscow as Villa finished third in the league and pushed for a Champions League place. “It’s (the program) mentally tough,” O’Neill said recently. “And it sounds crazy, but when you play from Wednesday to Saturday, it seems like you have less time to prepare than when you play from Thursday to Sunday.”
New manager Unai Emery has great experience winning European competitions at Sevilla and Villarreal, while sporting director Monchi has experience from his time at Sevilla. There is hope the pair can do the same at Villa, although the club will need to be prudent in balancing the books as they build for a European team. Villa should not be sold to buy, but as they increase their income to try and catch the clubs in front of them, a reasonable sale is explained.
Brighton’s preparations for their first trip to the Europa League are more complicated. World Cup winner Alexis McAllister has lost their top player. Their impressive performance in the transfer market in recent years suggests they will find suitable replacements, but there are no guarantees. And what happens if Moises Caciedo goes too? The early arrivals of Joao Pedro, Mahmoud Daoud, James Milner and Bart Verbruggen will take care of various needs, but it will be difficult to stay competitive in many competitions when you lose top players.
Former Southampton vice-chairman Les Reid, who played a leading role in Saints’ promotion from League One to the Europa League between 2009-2017, expects Brighton’s recruitment to bring the squad necessary to compete in Europe and the Premier League. “Brighton have found a way to bring some really good players into the club, and the next generation of players are there, so it’s sustainable,” he said.
“They went to Ecuador and found Casido and Paraguay (for Julio Enciso) a little different way, but they had a plan to build a team that could compete in Europe. If you find a way to be successful like this, it’s all about moving forward, evaluating what’s good, improving, renewing, improving and that A crazed desire is never to ‘crack it’ because that’s when other groups get involved.
“Having the right coach also helps. Brighton, Newcastle and Villa have modern coaches who understand where the club wants to go. From there, every club needs to work harder and come up with better ideas to build its culture – and I’m sure Tony Bloom (Brighton’s owner) will find a way to stay ahead of the game and do just that.
Julio Encio wins the @BBCMOTD goal of the season award! 💎🇵🇾pic.twitter.com/qYpNvGfWYo
— Brighton & Hove Albion (@OfficialBHAFC) May 28, 2023
For a while, Reid’s former club Southampton were ahead of the game. Between 2013 and 2017 they recorded 8th, 7th, 6th and 8th finishes and returned to the European competition in 2015. Through a combination of eye scouting and data science, Southampton nailed their transfer strategy, signing star players such as Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk and Graziano Pele.
“When we were a Championship club in 2009, we had a long-term strategy,” says Reed. If we reach our goal of becoming a sustainable Premier League club with the potential to qualify for Europe, we have already seen what our squad could look like. This is how our team ended up with a mix of James Ward-Prowse, Virgil van Dijk and Dusan Tadic.
Reid said the focus had always been on bringing in players who could mix up a Premier League campaign with Europeans. “Mane started to develop a profile that could play in Europe, especially when he was at Red Bull Salzburg,” he said. “Dusan Tadic was part of the succession plan. He was always our replacement if we sold Adam Lallana. The same goes for Rickie Lambert with Pele.
“We knew they both played in Europe (Tadic for Twente, Pele for AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord) and we got Victor Wanyama, Virgil van Dijk, Fraser Forster and Stuart Armstrong from Celtic. Why Celtic? Because if you can handle 40,000 people screaming at you and you play in the Champions League every year, you’re a big boy. They all have the profile we are looking for who can continue in a Premier League team and then play in the Europa League.
Losing top managers (Mauricio Pochettino to Tottenham Hotspur, Ronald Koeman to Everton) and stacks of players (Nathaniel Clyne, Mane, Lallana, Lambert and Van Dijk all lost to Liverpool and cleverly recruiting for their own European efforts) finally caught up. Southampton. Some appointments fell apart, a change of ownership stunted progress, their European dreams ended and they were relegated last season.
An experienced technical director, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect their relationship, said: “Building a European team is not a concern for the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea because they are always looking for top players. It’s the smaller clubs who struggle and have to get most of the decisions around recruitment right. A transfer success of 50 per cent is generally seen as good, but when trying to get into Europe or the Champions League, you need to get 75 per cent right to get ahead of the rest.
This year’s Champions League will have a new feel with Newcastle, Lens, Lazio, Real Sociedad and Union Berlin all making the qualifiers. The bottom three are used to European competition with recent appearances in the Europa League, but it will be a big change for Newcastle and Lens, who finished second in League One.
Lens are already under pressure with midfielder Seko Fofana attracting interest from Saudi Arabia. The club’s sporting director, Florent Ghisolfi, was hired by Nice last season, allowing Lens head coach Frank Hayes to adapt to his role as general manager. How does this affect the residuals shown; Smart employees are hard to replace. The appeal of the Champions League helps attract players and Lens broke the transfer record by signing Andy Diouf from Basel for €15m (£12.8m; $16.4m). Further signings of Stijn Spierings, Niil El Aynaoui and Morgan Guilavogui mark the rise.
Newcastle, meanwhile, have FFP concerns. They are aiming to build a squad ready for their first European campaign in 11 years, but head coach Eddie Howe admits this transfer window will be tough for them. After signing Sandro Tonali from AC Milan for €60m, they are expected to move for another high-profile signing, but their recruitment after that is likely to be modest, including loans.
Ideally, Newcastle will want to strengthen with a centre-back, full-back, another midfielder and a wide forward as they know the need for improvement is essential to their progress after years of falling behind.
With the support of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the efforts of the club’s majority owners and their transfer committee – which includes key directors as well as Huan, sporting director Dan Ashworth, head of recruitment Steve Nixon and the team’s chief executive. First Team Technical Scout Andy Howe – Newcastle have had a lot going for them since their return to the Premier League.
They don’t waste money on signing statements. If that is the case, they will be pushing hard to sign James Maddison, who left relegation zone Leicester City to join Tottenham Hotspur. From England’s Kieran Trippier, who recently won La Liga with Atletico Madrid, to Bruno Guimaraes, Sven Botman and £60m record signing Alexandre Isak, they are making their most important recruitment decisions. Anthony Gordon, a £40million signing from Everton, is the only big-money signing to be unbeaten – but time is on his side at the age of 22.
Newcastle’s plan under the PIF was to grow and grow, then grow and grow some more. Building a sustainable future while preparing to compete in Europe is a subject regularly discussed at board level, as is the case at Villa and Brighton. Newcastle’s desire is to stay where they are and be a Champions League powerhouse, but even with such heavy backing, those FFP restrictions mean they need to recruit wisely.
It will serve as a warning to the many clubs who have been involved in the Premier League over the last 15 years who are trying to do so in 2023-24 – a surprising number of them are now floundering in the Championship. .
Leicester City is a case in point. For a while they were the envy of other mid-to-low Premier League rivals. They recruited well, made changes at the right time, built on opportunities in the Premier League in 2016, played Champions League football, ran in the Europa League, won the FA Cup in 2021 and only last year reached the semi-finals of the Europa League.
Now they’re back in the secondary and starting to rebuild. How could it be resolved? Money is an important factor and an important lesson for clubs eager to recruit for Europe this summer. Even when Leicester were competing in Europe, there was a financial gap between them and the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham.
Their strategy of selling a key asset every summer to reinvest in young talent has worked for some time. Out are N’Golo Kante (£30m to Chelsea in 2016), Danny Drinkwater (£35m to Chelsea in 2017), Riyad Mahrez (£60m to Manchester City in 2018), Harry Maguire (£80m to Manchester United in 2019) and Ben Chilwell (£50m in 2020). to Chelsea). In their place came suitable replacements. But after the outbreak, player ratings began to fall.
Leicester started keeping players for a long time; Tielemans is a good example. His former club have said they have no intention of selling, with suitors such as Arsenal and Liverpool interested. The Belgian subsequently terminated his contract and left on a free transfer in the summer. Leicester have brought in the likes of Patson Dakka, Boubakari Soumare and Jannik Vestergaard, and in 2021-22, it all went their way.
Leicester have tested the depth of their squad, picking up 31 injuries along the way, playing 58 games in six competitions, including the Europa League and Europa League.
Manager Brendan Rodgers at the time publicly pleaded for a “healthy shake-up”, but the club spent £182m on wages (85% of their income) and made a £92.5m loss. Amid concerns about financial fair play, the handbrake was pulled. In May this year, they went down to the Championship and the fairytale passed. While such a steep decline in such a short period of time is unexpected, Leicester is not alone.
Although not as dramatic, Stoke City, Swansea City and Hull City are all interested in building a European team but are currently in the Championship. Birmingham City won the 2011 Carling Cup in the same season they were relegated, so their European adventure was not a foregone conclusion.
After lifting the 2013 FA Cup and being relegated, Wigan Athletic have combined Europa League matches with Rubin Kazan and Maribor away to Blackpool and Doncaster.
Burnley, recently promoted to the Premier League, spent one season in Europe under Sean Dyche but failed to make any changes to their recruitment strategy and returned to relegation again within years.
Wolves Villa and Brighton are examples to watch out for when planning to Europe. Under Nuno Espirito Santo, Wolves finished seventh in 2018-19 and the following season they finished seventh, losing to Sevilla in the quarter-finals of the Europa League. They signed the likes of Diogo Jota and Ruben Neves as a Championship side and then added Raul Jimenez, Joao Moutinho, Willy Boley and Rui Patricio, but as recruitment faltered – notably Fabio Silva, Patrick Cutrone and Willian Jose – and Nuno’s magic faded, Wolves crashed out of the league. It started and they didn’t bother Europe.
Fulham are slowly rebuilding under Marco Silva, but they are in a respectable position in the Premier League without being ready to make a deep run in the Europa League in 2009. Yet somehow, under Roy Hodgson – who described his troops as “funny dogs” – they rolled to the final, losing only to a 116th-minute goal against Atletico Madrid.
They won’t win any awards for team-building – keeping Bobby Zamora and Brad Hangeland was perhaps the most important piece of business – but Fulham got there through Hodgson’s management. “We didn’t have a big squad, and we certainly didn’t have anything like the rotation you see in teams today,” Hodgson said.
“Saturday-Thursday-Sunday got harder and harder as the season progressed. As we did well in the first half of the league and more and more players began to feel the pain of a long and difficult season, we were slowing down the league a bit. Fulham failed to maintain that level and have since been relegated three times from the Premier League, but those European adventures have led to lifelong memories: “It’s the highlight of my career, of all our careers, I’m sure,” says Hangland.
Like Swansea fans still talk about beating Valencia 3-0 at the Mestalla.
And Birmingham City fans will never forget Chris Wood’s 90th-minute winner in Bruges.
Or Wolves’ memorable field days at Torino, Beşiktaş and Braga.
West Ham United are close to relegation in 2022-23, finishing in 18th place, just 6 points behind Leicester. At times their European campaign seemed to push the team to the brink – the Thursday-Sunday schedule was a clear problem at the start of the season. But do you think anyone will mind flirting with relegation and 14th place when they win the Europa League and qualify for the Europa League?
West Ham were proud of their results in 2022-23, despite going through some tough times and finding enough to lift the trophy and stay in the Premier League.
History tells us that Europe is hard to build and sustain, especially if clubs are not set up to fight on multiple fronts. For all European newcomers there are bound to be problems along the way, but so far Newcastle, Brighton and Villa have got their early recruits right. Ultimately, that’s what determines how you cope.
(Top photos: Getty Images; Design: Samuel Richardson)