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GUEST BLOG: Insights from the brand new CIES Football Observatory Annual Review 2012

The seventh edition of the CIES Football Observatory Annual Review is now available. This publication unveils the logics of success in the five major European leagues using a novel and unique "demo-technic" approach. The latter combines the study of players' demographic profile and their on-pitch performances both on an individual and collective level.

The five chapters that make up the publication cover the following areas: player selection and turnover; age structure and club experience; mobility and contracts; club pitch performance; player pitch performance.

Player selection and turnover

As already highlighted in our previous Guest Blog for OptaPro, a first insight of the Study is that squad size is generally negatively correlated to results. Fewer players used, the better the results. No 2011/12 big-5 league champion has fielded more than 25 footballers over the course of the season (from 25 for Real Madrid and Juventus to 23 for Dortmund and Montpellier). All title winners figure among the five clubs having utilised the least players in their respective league.

No big-5 league club has used as few players as German Bundesliga and Champions League runner-up Bayern München (21). The best performing clubs rely more than any other team on a core group of players who make up the main stay of the starting eleven. From a performance perspective, the analysis suggests that best strategy is to have at least eight stable players in the initial line-up.

The average percentage of minutes played by the four most used defensive footballers was always higher than 78% in title winner clubs, up to 89.8% for Montpellier (4th greatest value at big-5 league level, +28% compared to Paris St-Germain) and 90.6% for Juventus (2nd, +19% compared to Milan).

Age structure and club experience

The report shows that investing in young players is more than ever a key success factor. In all leagues, the average age of players fielded by champions was lower than that of runner-up teams. All title winners are among the ten youngest clubs in their respective league. As in the previous season, the youngest champion was German (Dortmund, 24.5), while the oldest was Italian (Juventus, 28.0).

With the exception of Juventus, the highest percentage of minutes among champions was played by footballers aged between 22 and 26. However, no title winners fielded as regularly players under 22 years of age as English and German runner-ups: Manchester United (25% of minutes) and Bayern Munich (22%). Within the context of a generation change, their strategy of giving a chance to young talents will pay dividends.

The best teams concentrate in their squad footballers having acquired extensive big-5 league experience already at young age. Among the teams made up of young but already quite experienced players also figure possible current season's surprise packages: Athletic Bilbao, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke 04.

Mobility and contracts

Footballers fielded by the best performing clubs have played a greater number of seasons together than their counterparts in lower tier teams. This shows the importance of squad stability in winning trophies. However, Manchester City and Juventus won their league with a relatively low social capital available. This highlights the outstanding work carried out by club managers Mancini and Conte.

Except for Juventus, all champions were among the four teams having fielded the least players signed at the start or during the season in their respective league. Only German surprise team Borussia Mönchengladbach (0.51) used fewer new signings than Spanish title winner Real Madrid (0.84). PSG's second place in France with 6.17 new signings on the pitch can be seen as a prelude to even better results.

In all champion clubs, players whose contract ran out at the end of the season played a much lower percentage of minutes than among league rivals. The ability of the best performing clubs not to rely too much on players who will be leaving the club in the near future is part of their competitive advantage.

Club pitch performance

The pitch performance of clubs is measured using data provided by our partners Opta. Our key performance indicators cover five areas of the game: shooting, chance creation, take on, distribution and recovery. All the indicators aggregated on a team level are positively correlated to results. This allows the objective identification of the highest performing clubs and players in the most decisive areas of the game.

Barcelona is at the top of the ranking of the most productive big-5 league teams, followed by arch rival Real Madrid, Manchester City, Juventus and Manchester United. Five English clubs are in the 12 first positions of the table. This shows that the greatest concentration of top level teams is to be found in the English Premier League.

The first French club is only 11th (Paris St-Germain). Montpellier success in the Ligue 1 is mainly related to the outstanding contribution of substitute players (1st position in France, 5th place at big-5 league level). Barcelona is among the three best performing big-5 league clubs in all areas of the game. Manchester City is not in the top three in the take on area only (18th).

Player pitch performance

Statistical procedures have been developed to compare players at big-5 league level by neutralising the three following possible biases: different styles of play between leagues, different competitive balance within leagues, and different competitiveness of league representatives at international level. These methodological precautions allow us to objectively rank players from different leagues.

Lionel Messi was the most decisive player in the 2011/12 big-5 league season. Barcelona's forward over-performed compared to Cristiano Ronaldo in all areas of the game except for shooting, during each part of the season, against every kind of opponent, as well as both in home and away matches. However, the positive gap in away matches was significantly lower than at home.

English Premier League footballers are over-represented in the first positions of the general ranking. They are eight among the 13 top ranked players and 22 among the first 60. This confirms the great level of talent concentration in England.

An excerpt of the Annual Review may be downloaded for free from the CIES Football Observatory's website ( The 96-page comprehensive report is on sale on the CIES website (

Posted by Raffaele Poli at 14:19


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