A quick game before we get started: two of these statements are false, while the other is undeniably true. Can you pick out the correct one?
- The only way to stay in the Premier League is by spending hundreds of millions of pounds, no matter who the money is spent on.
- Aston Villa were clearly the best team in the Championship last season and would have clearly won it had Jack Grealish not been injured.
- Stuart Webber is a football genius.
The correct answer is statement three! I know, right? Oh, you’ve got Alan Brazil on the phone and he says he doesn’t believe me? I’ll quickly run you through it then…
Well, Fulham proved statement one to be incorrect last season. Remember when they decided to dismantle the squad and manager that got them promoted in favour of Ryan Babel? That went well.
And of course, Aston Villa were not the best team in the Championship last season. That’s why they finished fifth. Norwich, the actual champions, beat them home and away. Villa might do better this season; they could just as easily do a Fulham (as it will now forever be known.)
So, by default, Stuart Webber is a football genius – case solved. But if you’re looking for a little more evidence, allow me to elaborate.
Well, it turns out Norwich’s sporting director is probably a student of game theory.
Game theory, in simple terms, describes any event where there are two or more competitors as a game. There are two types of game – finite and infinite. A finite example would be your typical football match or football season – there’s a definite endpoint. An infinite game is, well, infinite. Norwich may get relegated this season but the game will go on, albeit in a different league.
The best example (courtesy of Tifo Football) is at Manchester United between 2004 and 2007 – Alex Ferguson’s side went three years without winning the title but signed young players such as Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, and were soon back on top (ironically, Ed Woodward couldn’t now be further from that model at Old Trafford.)
Norwich themselves are another great example of the success of game theory: Daniel Farke was hired two years ago with little hope or expectation of achieving promotion that season. Webber and the Norwich board recognised that football would continue beyond Farke’s first year, stuck by him, and they duly reaped the rewards, sooner than expected.
What we’re now watching at Carrow Road is game theory pushed to its absolute limits.
We all knew Norwich weren’t going to do a Fulham, spend £100 million and hope for the best. This makes sense – if it didn’t work and City were to be relegated, the club would have risked their chances of ever succeeding in the infinite game again – stuck back in the Championship with less money and more debt than ever before.
Meanwhile, it’s interesting to watch Aston Villa spend upwards of £125 million this summer (according to the BBC). Villa fans will tell you it has to be done – they lost a lot of players, including their top scorer – Tammy Abraham – at the end of last season, plus they only went up through the play-offs. Their owner is much richer than City’s too, and they’re not dependent on a self-sustaining model. I guess we’ll wait and see on that one.
Norwich have, at time of writing, spent 83 times less than Villa in this transfer window (again, according to the BBC). Not including loan fees and undisclosed fees, they’ve splashed out just £1.5 million on transfers for their senior and youth sides.
Instead of signing new players, 13 of their first-team squad have been tied to new, lengthy contracts in the last few months: every cog in the Farkeball machine has been freshly oiled in preparation for what’s to come.
We all hope, of course, that what we have already will be enough. It’s a good team – for many of us, the best Norwich side we’ve ever seen – and the four new senior additions mean it now has strength in depth too. But, if it isn’t, we’ll have a squad capable of winning the Championship already, while those good enough to remain in England’s top tier will be sold on for astronomical fees.
Meanwhile, for slightly more than £1 million, City have signed seven youth players, all with the potential to be the Ben Godfrey or Max Aarons of the future. For these prospects, the path to the first-team is clear, while every sale of a fully-fledged youth player will only allow the club to fund itself better in the future – helping with those big-name signings we all love.
Webber and Farke will be fully prepared for the drop back down to the Championship but we’ll be more equipped than ever, even if the worst does happen. The club won’t go bust, it will retain most of its players and, hopefully, it will also have the money to fund another promotion charge.
In an infinite game where league status is so fragile, this is all more important than the short-term success of our club – and will bring long-term success with it, should all go to plan.
“But”, I hear you cry, “where’s that CDM we desperately need?”