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How college football is a lot like (and nothing like) English Premier League soccer

Recruiting season is when college football's powers most clearly assert themselves and the sport most closely aligns with European soccer.

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Soccer and college football are incredibly similar. There are haves and have-nots, and the have-nots have to find inefficiencies.

In college football, you know which 10 schools are going to land most of the blue-chip recruits. That doesn't guarantee success -- talent can be either overcome or done in by development and deployment -- but in pure potential, the sport's blue bloods start a leg ahead of the field thanks to the players they sign each February.

This is evident from a cursory glance. The teams that signed the top 10 classes according to last year's 247Sports Composite went 98-35 this year, the teams that signed classes 21-30 went 86-47, the teams that signed classes 41-50 went 64-61, et cetera.

In European soccer, it's the same thing. Bayern Munich can have just about whoever it wants, especially within Germany. Barcelona and Real Madrid are going to outspend the rest of Spain (when transfer bans aren't a concern, anyway). Within England, when it comes to talent acquisition, it's Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool up first, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton after that, and then everybody else.

You know where the money is, and you know that most of the results are going to correlate with the money.

This might feel unfair, but it is what the market demands. Liverpool-United gets better ratings than Leicester-Southampton, just as Alabama-LSU and Michigan-Ohio State do better than Mississippi State-Missouri or Illinois-Minnesota. There is no institutional motivation for changing this system.

Still, Mississippi State and Southampton have to win games. Sometimes they do; others, not so much.

In college football, some teams have figured out that slowing the game down and offering as few possessions as possible shrinks your opponent's margin for error. If the opponent is more talented than you, shrinking the game offers fewer opportunities for them to pull away.

The closer you can stay, the more likely it is that one or two breaks can put you in position for an upset.

Call it the Arkansas principle. Or, in a way, the Stoke principle. In Chris Anderson and David Sally's The Numbers Game, the duo dedicated a chapter to Stoke's downright anti-social tactics under former manager Tony Pulis.

Stoke are happy not to have the ball. In this age where possession is king, they are devout republicans. For [Tony] Pulis, the Pep of the Potteries, less is more. It is as though Stoke believe they are more likely to score, and less likely to concede, if they don't have the ball. And the only possession they really seem to believe in is when Rory Delap is able to cradle the ball in both hands as he gets ready to throw the ball into the box.

Stoke are perfectly happy to play less soccer than anyone else. Not just in the philosophical sense of not being concerned with getting the ball on the floor and keeping it, but in a very literal way. It's simple: the more the ball is in play, and the more Stoke have the ball, the worse they do.

In soccer, the best opportunity your opponent has is when you turn the ball over on your end of the field. In the seconds after turnovers, the sport becomes less like football and more like basketball, with steals and fast breaks leading to easy scoring opportunities. It's like a defender trying to return an interception for a score. The defense isn't settled into formation, so there's more potential for breakthroughs.

(Ed Reed, the NFL's all-time leader in interception return yards, would have been an absolutely hellacious defensive midfielder.)

Pulis is an underdog whisperer who failed at Bristol City and Portsmouth before figuring out an unorthodox way of winning in a decade at Stoke, then led Crystal Palace to its best-ever Premier League finish (11th) in 2014. He decided possessing the ball doesn't necessarily matter, if bad possessions lead to opponent opportunities. If you don't have the talent to possess the ball properly, then don't.

In November 2015, Anderson was named the managing director of Coventry City, a third-tier club outside of Birmingham (the English one). A year earlier, we had a long conversation at a restaurant near Stamford Bridge, Chelsea's stadium in London.

"You have to figure out as a team, what is it that my playing personnel can execute? Some teams have the luxury of having guys who can do everything, like Chelsea down the street here," he said. "The old Pulis teams were not as good with the ball.

"You have lots of moments where you have complete control of the ball. When you have a goal kick, when the goalie has the ball in his hands, any sort of set piece situation. You can practice those. There are routes players run. It's like a play in football. And then there's open play. Some teams, like Pulis' teams, are teams that look for moments when you have complete control, when you have the ball out of play, when you can execute something you've practiced. Then you have teams that have a higher proportion of time in open play; Arsenal is a good example of a team that tries to keep the ball in play and do stuff with the ball there."

But pace can play an alternate role in both sports.

College football teams like Baylor and Oregon push the envelope by running as many plays as they can and assuming they can handle the chaos and fatigue better than you.

For a season and a half, Tottenham has been managed by Mauricio Pochettino. They plucked him from Southampton, which had just made an unexpected run to eighth in the Premier League on the back of some pretty exciting tactics.

"They focused on pressing, on preventing completion percentages," said Michael Caley, an emerging stat head who has written for SB Nation, its Tottenham site (Cartilage Free Captain), ESPNFC, the Washington Post, etc.

They also had a good understanding of how quick conversion from defense to offense and getting attackers up the field can lead to breakdowns in a defense's shape. Think about tailoring talent identification methods to that.

"The key isn't the £30 million players," Colin Trainor, one of the original writers of the incredibly useful Statsbomb, says. "It's how to get the five best players you're going to be able to get for £15 million. Somebody valued at £2 million on the market ... some are going to be worthless to you, and some are going to be worth £5 to 6 million."

And that's where analytics can help.

"The little guy who's half-decent but can be had for £2 million -- you can use numbers to figure out who the smart clubs should be picking."

Numbers might help you figure out where you should look. In soccer, the locals might be overpriced. Trainor:

"I would certainly look outside of England. The Austrian League, the Mexican League, the Dutch League. Mining the data, looking at players who come up really well in the numbers in those leagues. Everybody likes recruiting English players, and there's certainly risk mitigation involved. Somebody from Belgium might be less likely to settle [in England] than somebody from Grimsby. But ... there tends to be less widely known information available on those [from other leagues]."

Because analytics are sparse and unreliable at the high school football level, schools aren't able to scout in the same way. But being able to unearth the proverbial diamond in the rough, either locally or in a heavily mined state like Florida, Texas, or California, makes an immense difference for those who cannot rely on top-10 classes. At their peaks, programs like TCU, Virginia Tech, Missouri and Boise State have done that. It is difficult to maintain, but for most it is almost the only option.

Soccer and college football are nothing alike. Dealing with the relegation threat is a whole different type of risk.

"To me, I've always felt that the MLS should be the laboratory for innovation in soccer," Anderson told me. "It's a league that doesn't have relegation. You can try some unusual stuff and see if it works. If not, oh well, we lose some games. But you don't see that. Maybe the quality of players just isn't where there to do creative things. And the league, for a number of years, tried to be as European, as 'authentic' as it could be. So it was played like that as opposed to 'weird' soccer, which might have given the league a bad name.

"The perverse moral of Moneyball in English football," Anderson says in regard to the Oakland Athletics' famous money-conscious, inefficiency-exploiting tactics, "is that the biggest teams do the most of it. They have the most money to do it. They probably have the best management talent to see the value in it. They have owners -- sometimes Americans like John Henry, Stan Kroenke, people like that -- who get it and want to do it. So Moneyball's played at the top end, where it's probably the least needed. My 13-year-old can pick out the players who Manchester City should sign next year, playing Football Manager or FIFA 14 or whatever. It's a very odd state of affairs."

We glorify the idea of promotion and relegation in college football.

It would clean up a lot of college football's problems. There's too much dead weight at the bottom of the power conferences, and teams' lots were determined as much by the teams they grouped with 80 years ago as by anything they've done on the field. If the sport adopted a promotion-and-relegation system tomorrow, I would cheer.

But as I acknowledged in last year's relegation opus, there's a dramatic downside. So much of what we love about college football was derived from a lack of fear. Kentucky hired human air raid siren Hal Mumme in the 1990s, in part because the Wildcats were already finishing near the bottom of the SEC standings. There was no harm in trying an experimental offense. But if the Wildcats had to worry about getting dropped to the Sun Belt, they might have played it safe with an endless selection of Bill Currys, hoping to finish eighth and stay in the SEC.

"If you have a bad season, you don't get a better draft pick," Anderson says. "You'll go out of business, essentially. The average revenue for a Premier League team is probably something around £100 million per year, and the average revenue for a Championship team is probably something like £10-15 million. There's no comparison.

"It totally affects the level of risk when it comes to acquiring talent and everything you do inside the football club. Outside of those top seven teams, for the bottom 13 it becomes about not losing instead of winning."

Instead of trying to beat Chelsea, you're trying to make sure you don't lose to Sunderland.

"It also affects how innovative you are more generally. Decision making gets harder when the business is on the line. So while Moneyball is an awesome idea, it doesn't apply in the same way. If you try something unconventional, and it goes south ..." then you get fired, and your club makes £90 million less next year.

"What happens is that the lower 13 then hire coaches that aren't quite as potentially good, staff that aren't quite as innovative, chairmen who are more risk-averse. And the whole thing kind of conspires to become, not an anti-Moneyball, but very conventional ball."

Fear of relegation has contributed to one club's imminent relegation.

Birmingham has given us the Football League, Ozzy Osbourne, tennis, UB40, the Cadbury egg and J.R.R. Tolkien. Birmingham is Chicago, a working-class city, a second city by name and a first city in sport. It has had as large an historical impact as any British city that doesn't start with "L."

At the moment, it really isn't giving us good soccer. The city is the Big Ten West of the Premier League -- good enough to place clubs near the top flight, but too flawed to draw elite talent.

After a run of seven Premier League seasons in nine years, Birmingham F.C. are in the middle of their fifth consecutive season in Championship; they nearly fell to the third tier in 2014 but are putting together a decent promotion push this winter. West Bromwich Albion, from the northwest corner of Birmingham and currently managed by Pulis, have settled into the lower half of the Premier League table.

Most notably, Aston Villa has fallen into a massive funk.

In my 2014 England trip, I asked nearly every interviewee the same question: Who is English soccer's sleeping giant? We talk about the Big Five or Big Seven teams in the Premier League, but that list fluctuates. What club is most likely to be in the ruling class 10 years from now? Almost everybody's answer began with "Well, Aston Villa ..."

Old doesn't equal good, but Aston Villa is really old and has been good for much of its history. Villa Park was one of our favorite stadiums of the trip; built in the 1890s and still sporting a brick facade that screams "built in the 1890s," it has modernities, but it's colorful and old.

In so many ways, Villa are the Michigan of English soccer. Villa were the first dominant member of the Football League, winning the title five times in seven seasons in the 1890s, and that counts in a sport so grounded in history.

Since 1975, Villa has spent just one season below the top level. But after finishing sixth in the league for three straight years (2008-10), the results have diminished: ninth in 2011, then 15th or worse for four years running. They avoided relegation by just three points last May, and they are currently in a massive hole, dead last on the table and 10 points below the drop zone. AVFC has dug a hole for itself that hiring a Jim Harbaugh-esque favorite son won't fix; the club will almost certainly be playing in the second tier next year.

"Aston Villa is an interesting story," Anderson told me in 2014. "American owner, spent a ton of money when he first came in, finished sixth three years in a row, then stopped spending a ton of money. And then it didn't go very well for any number of reasons, including the money and off-the-field things. Villa should be a club that belongs up in that generic top-seven region, but they've made too many bad decisions on the manager side. There are a number of people who are good managers if you are willing to spend lots of money. Martin O'Neill [Villa's manager from 2006-10], his model was to spend high and achieve in line with what you're spending. Spend sixth-most, finish sixth. If you look at the numbers, that's what was happening. Of course, that's better than spending sixth and finishing 12th.

"But then you had Gerard Houllier, that period. Probably not the right person. Paul Lambert [who was ousted in October 2015] is probably not the right guy either."

So who else might belong in the sport's ruling class?

"We don't know," Anderson admits, "but here's what I'd like to see: I'd like to see an Oakland A's type of club to emerge ... a smaller club that does some really smart things and beats the big boys. Are those clubs out there? I think there are some clubs who have developed at a really good trajectory. West Brom was on a good path for a while, and so was Swansea. But as so often happens in soccer, that came to a grinding halt. In the case of West Brom, the guy who was sort of the G.M. Billy Beane equivalent, Dan Ashworth, left for the FA." (He's now the Football Association's Director of Elite Development.) "Swansea has had a consistent playing philosophy for a number of years, going back to [former Liverpool manager] Brendan Rogers, [Everton manager] Roberto Martinez, several people. And then that's kind of gone pear-shaped, as they say.

"So I would like to see a smaller club do the right thing and get there. Now, structurally speaking, it's harder to do that outside of the football centers.

"If you look at a map of England and just put on the map where the football clubs are, where the football industry is located. Now, Silicon Valley is where all the tech is. When Google is trying to hire people, where are they going to find them? You're probably not going to go to St. Louis, I'm sorry to say. You're probably going to go somewhere in the Valley. People are going to gravitate there. So if I'm a football professional, I'm probably going to be located in the greater London area or the greater Manchester area. There's an infrastructure set up there for professional players to feel comfortable. And if you're Italian, you can live in Manchester or Liverpool and enjoy it. The same's not quite true in other parts of the UK."

With Anderson now playing a dominant role with Coventry, I guess we'll find out whether infrastructure rules apply to the Birmingham area.

College football throws teams a socialist bone. It is the sport that most allows you to adjust your goals.

  • "OK, we lost, so we're not going to be national champions. We still have a shot at the conference title."
  • "OK, we're not going to win the conference title. We still have a shot at a Jan. 1 bowl."
  • "OK, we're not going to make a Jan. 1 bowl. We still have a shot at the [semi-attractive Dec. 29 bowl]."
  • "OK, the season's kind of a bust. Screw it, just get to 6-6 and go to [Shreveport/Boise/Albuquerque]."

You can fail to clear all of those bars, but there are at least different heights to attempt along the way. It's like a high jump competition, backwards.

With soccer, the only definable goals are finishing in the top six (which is difficult with a seven-club ruling class) or just not getting sent down.

But as Anderson points out, the ruling class can change in soccer, perhaps more than in college football.

"What you observe about the top six to seven teams being cast in stone, it's sort of true and sort of not. It seems that way right now, but it's easy to forget that Manchester City [purchased by the absurdly rich Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008] was a nothing club not too long ago, and Everton were one of the top four clubs 20 years ago. Everton now is very good, but not quite at the very top. So there is some fluidity, there are eras."

But when you're in the middle of an era, it's hard to see the end of it.

Months after securing their fourth Premier League title, defending champion Chelsea stumbled. They were flirting with relegation when manager José Mourinho was fired, and though they have begun to rebound under an interim coach, they still sit in just 13th place, one point behind a laboring Everton.

Meanwhile, upstarts have been making waves. Crystal Palace were threatening to steal a top-five spot until a recent funk, West Ham United are currently sixth, and Pocchetino's Tottenham are in fourth, as close to first as they are to fifth-place Manchester United.


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Not two years after promotion from Championship, Leicester -- Leicester! -- sits in first place, with 13 wins to only two losses. And unlike with Iowa's run to 12-0, the Foxes have backed up their standing statistically. They probably haven't been the best team in the Premier League overall; their plus-16 goal differential is third behind the plus-22 posted by City and Tottenham. But this hasn't been a run of luck. The longer the Foxes play a role, the more credence it gives to the idea that the have-nots can win not only matches, but titles.

Caley's projections say City and Arsenal are most likely to finish atop the table. If Arsenal were to do the deed, it would be a lot like USC re-emerging as a title contender; while they're always in the top four, they haven't won the league since 2004.

In the 2015 college football season, upstarts like Iowa posted excellent records but were overtaken by sturdier programs. A Leicester title would upend much of what we think we know about England's power structure. But with 15 matches to go, that structure will have something to say about the winner.

Large portions of this piece were taken from my England journal, published in September 2014. All photos via Getty.