Some of world football's smartest transfer strategies are anchored and driven by data analysis.
Liverpool are a top-line example; their work with numbers and models flagged up Philippe Coutinho and Mohamed Salah (among others) as ideal additions to the team. That's brought them goals, profit and trophies—in that order.
But most of Europe's top order are incorporating advanced data and algorithms into their hunt for signings in some way, either using their own data-analysis staff or hiring an outside firm.
One such firm is Analytics FC, who partnered with LCP, a leading pensions and investment company, to build TransferLab—a data analysis tool that helps find the perfect profile of player for a team's needs. They work with the likes of West Ham United, Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion to help solve transfer needs, and have given B/R access to the tool for a scouting series.
Last week, we took a forensic look at Arsenal's long-held need for a defensive midfielder; this week, we search for cheaper alternatives to Timo Werner on behalf of Liverpool after Matt Law of the Telegraph's report that Chelsea have secured his signature after the Reds decided against meeting Werner's £53 million release clause.
Liverpool's pursuit of Timo Werner signalled a desire to add quality to their forward corps.
Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino is perhaps the best attacking trident in world football, but while there is depth beyond them, there's a big drop off in quality. Where Barcelona can turn to Ousmane Dembele and Bayern Munich have to leave one of Kingsley Coman or Serge Gnabry on the bench when the entire midfield is fit, the Reds are picking from a less glorious pool.
Werner would have upped the mean quality of the group. His TransferLab profile is off-the-charts good. He's in the 90th percentile or higher in seven key attributes, with short passing at 68 as "bad" as it gets.
The German's enjoying an elite-level goalscoring campaign, netting 25 goals in 29 Bundesliga starts and 31 in all club competitions this season. He's also hit double figures for assists and shown his versatility by often playing centrally but drifting or playing from wide when needed.
That versatility is crucial. There's little point in Liverpool investing in a player who can only play as the No. 9, as Firmino is so entrenched in the playing style, there wouldn't be much scope to use anyone else—and anyone who can do what Firmino does will cost an extortionate amount of money.
But it's fair enough if Liverpool arrived at the conclusion that spending €60 million on a player who wouldn't actually improve their starting XI. Our job is to find another forward option, who can cover more than one position across the forward line and is cheaper than Werner's buyout fee with the help of TransferLab.
We enter TransferLab and start to narrow our search, starting with basic parameters: We set the max age to 26, keeping us in line with Liverpool's usual transfer policy, and set the cost limit to £50 million—if the Reds won't pay close to that for Werner, they won't do so for less established alternatives.
We choose the "Striker - All Round" profile to filter players but include those that have played striker as a secondary position. "This should catch wingers who have played up front, as well as those like Werner, who is the opposite," explains Carlson, and that's crucial to the model of forward we're looking for.
Finally, we begin to tweak the importance of particular attributes, further finessing the profile we want.
Dribbling is raised from one star to three, and both expected assists and touches in box are lifted from three to four. This enhances the chance of catching hybrid winger/forwards who can dribble and create as well as score.
Among the best player fits immediately flagged by TransferLab is Richarlison, who would make a lot of sense but for one rather important reason: He plays for bitter rivals Everton, meaning a deal being reached verges on impossible.
Beyond his name, though, are some excellent options.
LONG-TERM PROJECT: Adam Hlozek, 17, Sparta Prague
Estimated cost: £10-15 million
He's still over a month away from his 18th birthday, yet Hlozek has clocked more than 60 senior appearances for Sparta Prague. A key player in a side seemingly set to win the Czech title at such a young age, it's little wonder TransferLab flags him up as a potential star of the future.
He's already around 6'0" tall and is built strongly. He uses that power and size in his dribbling, going shoulder to shoulder with markers and winning, but he also has burst, allowing him to accelerate out of the blocks and outlast those chasing him.
Hlozek is primarily utilised in a wing role for Sparta—either right or left—and has shown nice variation in how he can receive the ball: to feet, in the channel ahead of him and to his head.
The Czech Republic under-21 side have played him up front, preferring to use him as more of a focal point for crosses and to get him into the box more. He digs in and protects the ball well when he has to, hinting at a long-term future up front with the right coaching.
His TransferLab profile paints a very accurate picture of him: A menacing dribbler, reliable creator and a player who gets into very good goalscoring positions often. His finishing (27th percentile) is not ideal, but his high xG score means he's getting into the right positions, and the way he strikes a ball is glorious, meaning there aren't any connection issues in front of goal.
"Finishing is one of the streakier stats in football analytics,” explains Carlson. "Below-average finishing is as likely to regress to the mean as strong finishing would be, and in the long run getting into goalscoring positions is more important." The case for that belief is best presented here, by Bobby Gardiner of The Ringer, with Raheem Sterling the headline study in it.
It's impossible to say exactly what kind of player Hlozek will develop into, as it will depend on how his potential is moulded, and with what purpose in mind. His size, frame, skill set and natural ability make him an interesting developmental project for a top-tier club, though, and Jurgen Klopp would no doubt create something really special out of him.
REALISTIC OPTION: Donyell Malen, 21, PSV Eindhoven
Estimated cost: £20-25 million
Malen emerged over the course of 2019 as one to watch, cracking the PSV starting XI earlier in the year, then going on to make his full Netherlands bow in September. He scored his first goal for his country in that game, a 4-2 win over Germany.
He's impressed both as a No. 9 and as a left forward cutting in, just like Werner, making him the kind of movable attacking piece that we're looking for. In fact, of all the players on this shortlist, he might just be the most at ease moving between the two roles.
If deployed wide, he'll make out-to-in runs towards the box, becoming an extra body in there. If deployed centrally, he'll do the opposite—though not to the same extent, given his presence through the middle is required.
His dribbling ability and smoothness on the ball in tighter spaces mark him out as a player who can flit between positions easily. Short passing games in deeper areas don't come naturally to all strikers—another one scouted for this piece, Patson Daka of RB Salzburg, notably struggled in this area, excluding him from the final cut.
Malen's excellent short passing score in the TransferLab indicates a reliability to his short buildup game, while his touches in box and expected goals scores point to a player consistently and positively involved in PSV's most effective moves.
The tape backs up those numbers; he's proved capable of dropping in to receive the ball with his back to goal and switching play, keeping the attacking move flowing (though he might find himself in need of more strength if he's to manage it consistently at Premier League level), and he often drifts into good goalscoring locations.
The only issue Liverpool would have to be cautious of is the knee injury he sustained at the end of 2019. He had "minor" knee surgery shortly after, and there's been no suggestion of any setback so would likely be ready to play now were the Eredivisie still running.
INTRIGUING IDEA: Memphis Depay, 26, Lyon
Estimated cost: £25-30 million
We didn't check a box that brought up injured Dutch players, honest.
Ordinarily, a player of Depay's skill and stature couldn't possibly cost as little as £25-30 million, but there are two factors playing into that reduced price—one to the buyer's advantage, one not.
Working in the buyer's favour is the fact he'll enter the final year of his contract in July. That typically means clubs are willing to sell, so they don't run the risk of losing a top-tier asset for free the following summer.
Working against the buyer is the fact that Depay is working back from an ACL tear suffered against Rennes in December. He has since joined B/R Football live on Instagram and reported full health—and he's made a NSFW music video showcasing his recovery and re-found ball skills—but clubs will likely still want to see him hit the pitch at least once before spending on him.
Presuming he re-finds his typical level, though, this is a great fit for what Liverpool want—and the data backs up what the eyes love.
He has always been a goal threat from range—that's what marked him out as such an impressive prospect at PSV Eindhoven—but at Lyon he's also developed into a stone-cold finisher from closer ranges and has steadily morphed into more of a centre-forward.
Add that to his speed and direct play, and you've got the makings of a very dangerous forward, one that aligns quite closely with the Mane/Salah model of winger/forward hybrid.
Depay's TransferLab profile looks perhaps a touch underwhelming in certain areas—short passing, dribbling and carrying are all around the 70th percentile, while key passing, expected assists and touches in box are in the 50s—and that's something we raised with AFC.
"Via our league adjustment model, his stats compared to Tier 1 will be adjusted downwards slightly as France is the weakest of Europe's Big five," Carlson explains. That means you can excuse a drop here and there if you believe in the talent; it also means that his finishing and expected goals are really good given they still rank around the 90th percentile.
DREAM SIGNING: Marcus Thuram, 22, Borussia Monchengladbach
Estimated cost: £35-40 million
Gladbach made one of the savviest moves of the 2019 summer transfer window, signing Marcus Thuram for €12 million from a Guingamp side relegated from Ligue 1.
There weren't many bright spots in that team, but Thuram was one; he caught the eye thanks to some rangy dribbling and attacking work. Plus, his name—he's the son of legendary World Cup-winning defender Lillian Thuram—carries some natural intrigue.
It didn't take him long to find his feet, and since October he's been electric: 10 goals and eight assists in the Bundesliga speak to his productivity, and he's proved an incredibly useful, movable piece for manager Marco Rose, who can shift him around the front line to great effect.
He's quite the physical prospect: 6'4", a fluid mover, great in tight spaces and strong on the run. He's incredibly difficult to handle one-on-one because he's capable of breezing past you as well as producing flicks and backheels that take markers out of the game.
When playing from the left, he's repeatedly shown a striker's instinct for space and converts lots of Raheem Sterling-type chances: close range, back post, exceptional movement and timing.
|Thuram vs. Liverpool's forwards, for comparison|
|Name||Expected Goals||Finishing||Expected Assists||Dribbling|
|TransferLab percentile scores|
When playing up front, he can stretch teams in behind, provide a reference point for midfielders while coming short and become an option for aerial crosses—he's scored four headers this term, three of which saw him generate immense power to direct them home with.
He represents just about the perfect fit for Liverpool's needs: Happy up front or on the flank, can be switched game to game (or mid-game) at will, has plenty of upside given he's 22 years old, projects well for the Premier League and while he's good enough to play for Liverpool now, he's not so high-profile that he'd demand a starting berth from the off.