There’s a lot of hand wringing about Italy and its apparent failure in the Champions League. And like a lot of the youth player development stuff, there's much ado about nothing. And of course, more foreigner hate/blame.
Which in this case would be the opposite of the problem. Foreigners are actually the solution to supplementing talent on a a Serie A team. The real problem is money, as in not enough of.
I have been listening and reading a bit about the problems with Serie A and how there's not enough money for a team to make a serious run at the Champions League... which is obviously stupid. Milan did it 4 or 5 years ago. Inter did it last year. So clearly Italian teams can compete. What we can't do is be consistent. There isn't enough money for any consistency in Serie A teams.
Follow the Money
As it was detailed very succinctly in the book Soccernomics, there is a correlation between salaries and performance. Note that I didn’t say transfer fee and performance. Basically, the theory goes like this: higher salaried teams are more likely to finish higher in a league table because they keep good, expensive talent instead of selling it along – the resulting good standings attracting more high priced talent. There are exceptions, but more often than not, they prove the rule. Here’s a great example: look at Sampdoria last season. Samp finishing in the top four last season represented a large aberration in their normal expectations. Samp is almost always considered a midtable team. And their salary structure at the beginning of the season reflects that.
However, consider how Samp did in the Champions League/Europa League and how they are doing this season after dumping their 2 highest wage earners. It’s a completely different team. And with a lower salary structure – with two less good players – they have dropped significantly in form. Like relegation survival drop in form.
“What," you might ask, "does this have to do with the Champions League, fool?” you might ask.
Teams with more money have better and deeper teams to handle the match congestion that adding almost another seasons worth of games to already long Championship and Domestic cups season. Looking at the League table, it’s easy to see which teams have talented starting 11s and thin depth. It’s easy to tell, just find which teams started strong and then faded as the season got longer. Fading late in the season when injuries and match congestion take a toll is the hallmark of either a good but thin squad or reliance on a couple of players whose form dictates the fate of the teams season.
My prediction? If Napoli and Udinese do take Champions League spots like they are threatening to do, I hope they bulk up the back end of their roster. They have the talent in the starting 11 to be dangerous enough, but unless they get more money pumped in from somewhere, they are going to need another 5 - 8 good players each of starting-ish caliber to rotate the squad, give rest and handle injuries. The 20 and 30 million € in salaries that these two teams spend each per season respectively make group stage survival a real risk.
Unfortunately, I have a feeling that only Napoli would be willing to put in some cash to help actually compete in the group stage of the Champions League and also attempt to compete in the League. I think that Udinese will take the money and run. But I have been wrong before.
So teams with more money can handle more games buy hiring more players with better quality. We know – or should know from all the Swiss Rambler articles that everyone loves so much - that Inter (125), Milan (135), Juventus (105) and Roma (80) have roughly the same payroll budgets of Chelsea (160), Manchester United (@130), Arsenal (100), Liverpool (90) and Manchester City (80). Clearly there is parity of a sort there, in finances if not number of teams who can afford those finances.
Clearly there is a very small difference between the number of English teams and the number of Italian teams that have won the Champions League since 2000 and 2009 – for the record it’s 2 English teams (ManU and Liverpool) and 3 Italian teams (Milan x2 and Inter). There is also a small difference in the number of teams that made the finals: 7 English teams (ManU x2, Liverpool x2, Chelsea, Arsenal) and 5 Italian teams (Milan x3, Juventus, Inter).
So, clearly the issue with the sporadic nature of Italian performance in the Champions League isn’t the “big” teams. The big 3 or 4 of Serie A payroll are actually rather holding their own against the big 5 of EPL payroll. If money is the difference in performance between Italian and English teams then we need to look outside the top spending teams in the two leagues to see if there are telling differences there.
The questions that should be asked at this point is:
Assuming the last few paragraphs I have written are true and that Italian football is considered poorer than other leagues is there any relationship between the relatively poor in a League like the EPL and the poor in Italy? In other words, how poor are the poor in Italy compared to the poor in England?
Assuming there is a large gap between the poor in England and the poor in Italy, how does this affect the teams that will actually be competing in Europe? Does the relative poverty (remember we are talking about teams with a payroll of several millions here) of the poorest teams affect Italy’s Champions League ambitions? Is it all connected?
Money, I am told, in the Italian game is tighter, more so at the bottom than the top. But as I have detailed here before, Inter isn’t immune to having to make a few more holes in the belt, post purchase either.
If money spent on talent has a correlation to match performance over the long run then Italian team’s failure to produce consistantly in the Champions League isn’t surprising. Inter, Milan, Roma and Juventus all spend in the neighborhood of their counterparts in Manchester, London and Liverpool but the rest of the table in Italy does not spend up to the limit of their counterparts.
Roma, a distant 4th in the top salaries of Serie A, spends over 80 million € per season on salary but the next biggest spenders are Fiorentina and Lazio at 41-ish. Napoli is doing wonders with smart investment at around 30-ish million € and Udinese is at its usual just under 20 million €. In fact, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to discover that a large proportion of teams in Serie A are closer to 20 million € then 30 million € like:
Cagliari 15 – this was the beginning of the season so minus Matri's .5 million…
Parma – right at 20
For comparison, in the 2009-2010 (I am using last season’s numbers for the English teams, just to rub salt in the wounds…) season ~40 million pounds (I don't have the numbers in Euros and I don't have the time nor the conviction to convert. Let's just say that the two currencies are very close, 1=1.2 or so and move on, shall we?) will pay the salaries for teams in:
For completion sake, the teams that sit below the 40 mark for last season in England are:
Teams I haven’t mentioned are: Aston Villa, Tottenham, Everton, West Prosciutto and P’mouth (I always giggle at P’mouth when I see it on a TV screen mini-score thingy in the corner contracting the name Portsmouth). These teams all live in the 80-40 million no mans land that don’t have an Italian equivalent, which is telling in itself, but not pertinent here, though.
I can hear another question starting again… why does the payroll of the lower half of these two leagues matter, fool?
It’s all connected. Is that Zen enough? Is this questioning Zen enough? Is it?
It has to do with depth and pie. But, it’s mostly depth.
More young talent that poorer teams can draw into a league and used by those lower salaried teams means that there is better shopping for the higher salaried teams. Smaller teams with bigger budgets can use more and better players. Larger teams play against those teams or scout those teams and notice those players.
Inter’s roster has several players on it from smaller Serie A teams but the point is better made when we look at teams like Sampdoria and Udinese. Sampdoria had a very good season last year finishing in the top 4. They went to the Champions League playoff section and were found lacking to make the group stage. The 2 best players from that team were then poached by the 2 Milanese teams that were fighting on 2 fronts and needed desperate reinforcements. Udinese is having a great season by their standards but the talk isn’t about the possibility of making a splash in Europe, it’s about who is going to buy one of several good, young players on their team.
All due respect to Udinese for having a wonderful season, but we all know that they make their bread from bringing in young players from South America by the 100s and then seeing who/how many they can sell on. Their business model of young players for sale keeps them in Serie A, profitable and destined to lack any sustained success. But if other Serie A teams who have bigger payrolls can’t afford to buy that talent that Udinese is willing to sell then teams like Inter, Milan, Roma and Juventus have to take bigger gambles on players from further afield who have a smaller chance of fitting into the lifestyle and norms of life in Italian football.
In a perfect world, a team like Genoa, Fiorentina, Lazio or Napoli with a bigger budget than Udinese would buy Sanchez to see if he can handle the step up in expectations, pressure and competition. That team would either hold on to him to satisfy their own ambitions of cracking the Champions League spots or they would sell him on for their own profit to Inter, Milan, Juventus or Roma. They would all be connected and everyone would grow together.
This way three teams would get profits from Sanchez, he stays in Italy and assuming he’s all he’s promised to be those teams improve and never have to worry about him not getting acclimated to the culture or getting homesick.
But that’s not going to happen to Sanchez. Sanchez’s asking price by Udinese is going to be well above what any team in Italy can afford, I think, so he’ll go to a team out of the country willing and able to pay. It’s not Udinese’s fault, they should get the price that they can get and they have their own financial worries to contend with.
So with Juventus not being a real factor in the Champions League lately through squad revolution/rejuvenation and poor form; it's Inter, Milan, Roma and which ever abysmally low salary team that really can't afford the extra quality player it would take to be a part of all the extra games and distraction. That gap between Serie A Champions League quality and the next tier down is too far and if Inter, Milan and Roma are having a poor season or injuries, forget it. In England there are 5 teams at 80+ million who can step in and have a good run.
There just isn’t enough money in Serie A. That’s not the fault of anyone else but Serie A, the FIGC and the teams themselves for not modernizing or keeping up with the English League. It’s also their fault for being petty enough to not work together to ensure their own survival until it’s nearly too late. The money problem that lower teams have in Italy is affecting the larger teams. They are all connected. This is why teams like Inter, Milan and Juventus have agreed to take a nominal TV money pay cut. They have been convinced to try and grow the pie of TV money instead of just their individual piece of it. In the long term it will turn into a serious benefit – look at the EPL and all its monetary benefits of investment in team marketing and stadium building. The TV money is just the first step in pie building. Gods willing, we might see a stadium for Inter’s 50,000 + home attendances sometime before I reach a hundred years old...
Is money the only difference between Italy and England where it comes to a stable, reliable European performance between two teams of relatively equal depth? No, as it turns out it isn't. I think that there is also a tactical and style gap that exists here, but I don't have time or the space to get into it at the moment. We'll call that Part II if I ever get around to digging there.