I do come out of these posts as a bit of a stats freak, don’t I? But that’s a good thing. Our chairman and owner, Ken Bates, wrote in his Blackburn programme notes that fans should not take statements or articles at face value. A great idea, one which we’ve always encouraged. One example is the Leeds United Supporters Trust’s figures for the season so far which suggest Mr. Bates is either unable or unwilling to fund the first team despite a very large income so far. We could not be sure how much was guesswork, and so did not talk about them.
One example on Mr. Bates’ side is his reasoning for the sacking of Simon Grayson. He overspent on the budget to something like £13.5m, according to Mr. Bates. Large numbers to shock the flat-cap wearing morons of Yorkshire. Yet, not taking this at face value, we used what he said along with previous interviews to build the picture that Simon Grayson’s roughly £11.5m budget for our first season in the Championship appeared to have been slashed to £9.5m on the same summer as we apparently spent £7m on an East Stand white elephant. This was the summer when Bradley Johnson (who had pleaded he only wanted wage parity) and Neil Kilkenny were allowed to walk from the club, while Kasper Schmeichel was flogged at bargain-basement prices to Leicester, and Max Gradel would ultimately be sold days before the end of the transfer window for a shockingly low figure of E1.8m.
Okay, some of you are bored by that example. Let’s go for a more recent one. Mr. Bates frequently points to a “small minority” who disagree with his chairmanship. He often appears to want to paint them as the lovechildren of Peter Ridsdale and ex-Chancellor Gordon Brown. Yet The Scratching Shed’s poll (taking a sample size larger than market-leading pollsters Rasmussen and Gallup for the U.S. election) shows Mr. Bates’ confidence rating among over 3,000 fans is 0.44 out of 5. We should probably tell you, to honour Bates’ wishes of not taking things at face value, that according to accepted polling techniques the margin for error of this poll would be 0.05 at most. So supposing we are a biased site with an unrepresentative readership (something TSS blinded me with science to show isn’t the case yesterday), the margin of error would suggest Bates’ confidence-level is, at best, 0.49 out of a possible 5. I’m glad for him that he’s not the chairman of a proper company, he’d not last long with popularity like that, no matter how sure he is that he knows better than everyone else.
“Perhaps money and big squads are not the answer” insists Chairman Bates, concluding his case against spending money after pointing to big-money clubs being knocked out of a notoriously unloved cup… There we go again, Mr. Bates argues one thing, we argue another – clubs who see the cup as a distraction don’t try too hard to stay in it. So let’s try putting our opinion across with some stats instead. After all, we all just want to work out what’s best for our club.
To the left is a table showing the number of players who appeared 5 or more times for each club last season, along with the number who appeared once or more, and the number including those only named on the bench.
What can we take away from this? With 22 players playing regularly for Reading and Southampton, 24 for West Ham and Birmingham, and 32 playing for Doncaster, 23 for Coventry, 24 for Portsmouth, and 30 for Barnsley, it would seem too many cooks really do spoil the broth. Yet the fact that Coventry and Portsmouth only played one and two more players regularly than Southampton and Reading suggests it isn’t quite as cut and dry as that.
Reading and Southampton played another 5 players less than 5 times (oh God, it’s getting like those excruciating Maths classes again isn’t it…) West Ham played another 7, while Birmingham played only 1 player between 1 and 4 times. At the other end of the table, Portsmouth add 7 to their number, Coventry add 9 and Doncaster add 8. The total now (the second number column) shows an average of 34 players used by relegated clubs, and a steady decline overall to 32 for ‘mid table’ clubs, and 29 for playoff teams to 27 for the two who were automatically promoted.
Certainly, Doncaster’s pioneering plan to raise money and find hidden gems through signing legions of foreign players didn’t come off. 44 players were named on their bench or in their team over the season, injury-ravaged Barnsley named 38, while Portsmouth and Coventry named 34 and 33.
So far, Leeds of 2011-12 seem to have more in common with the lower-end clubs than the upper-end clubs. No compact, efficient squad of 22-24, we played 28 more than 5 times, we gave an appearance to 34, and we named 35. Yet it’s dangerous to judge solely on these statistics. Blackpool, for example, played more in every category, and named more than we did, and they finished in the playoffs.
While we can definitely take from this that Mr. Bates is indeed correct that we need an efficient squad rather than one bloated with unneeded and unwanted players, finances also play a large part. Neither Portsmouth nor Coventry handed their accounts for the previous season in on time during this period, due to financial problems, and while Portsmouth’s £12.5m wage bill was not exactly small, both Doncaster and Coventry budgeted as lower-end teams. As such, these cash-strapped clubs had to rely on comparitively cheap loans, Doncaster loaned in 9 from November onwards, Portsmouth loaned in 7, Coventry loaned in 3, Reading loaned in 3 and Southampton loaned in 1.
It is far easier to build a consistent and talented squad of 22-25 with the staff-budget of about £30m that 2010-11′s champions QPR boasted, or the cash injection of over £20m that 2011-12′s champions Reading received, than it is for lower end clubs.
Leeds do not appear to have spent very much. Estimates on our income on player sales have around £4-5m coming in, for about £1.5m-£2m spent. We must, of course, take tax into account in considering how much we’ve spent, but with a full squad-overhaul of 11 signings this season, it seems as if Leeds have had a cheque-book more like Doncaster or Coventry’s than Reading or Southampton’s. Though taking that assertion too literally would be unfair. Nevertheless, joint-record-holding manager Neil Warnock has done a fantastic job in putting a small squad together that many agree is very capable. He was clearly an excellent acquisition by Bates and shows the results to be gained from appointing quality at the top, rather than cost-cutting as some clubs have a history of.
But how big is that squad? Neil Warnock spoke in a press-conference a couple of weeks ago saying it was 18 men. I count less than that! 17: including youngsters Byram and Poleon, and excluding the long-term injured Bromby and Somma. Also excluding Zac Thompson who does not appear to be part of the squad so far, and Kisnorbo and Brown who both have some injury problems.
Including Brown and Kisnorbo, as they might make 5 league appearances – you never know – we have a squad of 19. Somma and Bromby are not going to be of any use this season, as unfortunate as that is. Adding Zac Thompson makes a squad of 20. Then we have Danny Pugh who Neil Warnock transfer listed but has to rely on now with the injury-crisis. That’s a squad of 21, but it’s been a push to get there. Every single player needs to make 5 or more appearances and we’re still using 1 less than last year’s champions, and without the 5 playing bit-parts.
It is, of course, not yet January. But Leeds have a bad history with January. Last January, for instance, we sold our club captain and brought in Pugh. Are we realistically going to bring in more faces? So far, it seems we aren’t tightening our squad to be like the successful clubs in this league, we’re tightening our squad to a far smaller size than one every used even by cash-strapped clubs.
Why can’t 19-22 players complete a 46 match season when we only play a maximum of 14 at a time? After all, 25 compete in the Premier League? One answer is that youngsters like Poleon, White, and Byram would not need to be registered, another is to point to the 6 games less in the league (and entry in later rounds in the cup) that Premier League clubs benefit from. But there’s another.
There’s another simple answer, it’s not just the fatigue Neil Warnock has spoken so frequently of, it’s injuries. Let’s take a look at Michael Brown’s pesky hamstring strain for example. Never overly serious, but enough to make you miss a few matches. During a 2 year period between 2001 and 2003, an average of 90 days and 15 matches were missed per club, per season, due to this injury alone. And this accounts for only 12% of injuries!
For the 2006/2007 season, Premier League clubs reported on average 22 “serious” injuries lasting two weeks or more per season. Lucky clubs Watford, Bolton and Blackburn suffered only 16 injuries; unlucky Newcastle suffered 39 injuries, while Tottenham suffered 36.
As the study which calculated these findings points out, those with a lower number of “serious” injuries had smaller squads and so could not necessarily allow full recovery from injury. This, of course, increases the risk of repeat-injuries.
Statistically speaking, unless Leeds add another 4-5 faces to the squad over the year, our squad size is abnormally low. It is unusual. Perhaps it is pioneering? But even if this is so it is high-risk, and Bates insists he wants a stable club. The statistics suggest our squad is slightly too small, and given the funds we have had available, few would expect us to compete for promotion – which should surely be the aim of a club with circa £30m turnover?
But forget the statistics for a moment. This was a debate Mr. Bates and Mr. Warnock appeared to be having behind closed doors this spring. Mr. Bates’ insistence on a squad this size not only goes against the advice of a manager who is one promotion off the English record, it also goes against his assistant Mick Jones’ judgement, the fans as a collective (despite hopes of a top-6 finish capturing 79% of voters in early August, promotion chances are now rated at more like 2.41/5) seem to believe we have too thin a squad, while the regular feature “Round Table” sees blogs The Scratching Shed, The Square Ball, Right in the Gary Kellys, LUFC White Knights and Through It All Together unanimously worry about our lack of depth. We’re not alone, Dom Matteo’s column in the YEP sees him provide a stark warning: “Invest or Face a Long Season“.
Statistically, we’re running light, and according to almost any commentator on the current squad, whether a manager, a very experienced player, or the many fan blogs, this squad is too small.