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The Soccer Team That Refuses to Play Moneyball

Despite an impressive track record of developing top prospects, Schalke keep allowing their best players to leave for free. Do they know something we don’t?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Manuel Neuer gets the nod in goal. Rafinha slots in at right back, next to the center back pairing of Joël Matip and Roman Neustädter, with Sead Kolašinac flanking them on the left side. Then, it’s a three-man midfield: Max Meyer protects the back line as the defensive midfielder, with Leon Goretzka and Ivan Rakitic playing central box-to-box roles in front. And up top there’s a rotating trio of German internationals: Julian Draxler, Leroy Sané, and Mesut Özil. The lineup lacks a true goal-scoring striker, but the efficacy of this particular arrangement doesn’t matter. While it may look like the starting 11 of a team that consistently makes it to the knockout stages of the Champions League, the only connection these players all share is that they once wore a Schalke jersey.

Your best player is going to leave your club. It’s an accepted reality of the ever-stratifying, near-free market of European soccer. Unless you’re one of the Manchester teams, Bayern Munich, PSG, Real Madrid, or Barcelona, there’s a club out there that can afford to pay your top talent more than your balance sheet permits. (And not all of those clubs are immune to a sovereign nation dumping multiple hundreds of millions of dollars on a superstar’s doorstep, either.) However, there’s a system in place that forces some of the wealth to trickle down: Thanks to the transfer market, Barcelona had to pay £94.50 million to acquire Ousmane Dembélé from Schalke’s Ruhr-region rivals Borussia Dortmund, who could then use that money to buy a handful of players who, if everything goes to plan, Barcelona will again try to buy in a couple of years.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

According to Transfermarkt data (which isn’t precise but stills serves as a useful guidepost), the market value of those 11 Schalke players totaled £179.6 million. Yet, the club brought in only £124.65 million in transfer fees for their departures. Why the inefficiency? Over the past few years, Schalke have often opted out of the transfer market. Two summers ago, Matip ran out his contract and signed with Liverpool, while Neustädter did the same and linked up with Fenerbahce in Turkey. Last offseason, Kolašinac let his contract expire and joined up with Arsenal, while Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting (£5.40 million in value) went to Stoke City and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (£1.35 million) went back to Ajax in Amsterdam. And now for this summer: Goretzka (£36 million), a 23-year-old who has 12 caps for the German national team, is letting his contract expire and has already signed a pre-contract with Bayern Munich. Meanwhile, Max Meyer (£14.40 million), a promising, proactive 22-year-old defensive midfielder, is reportedly going to sign elsewhere, too.

From the player’s perspective, it makes sense to run down a deal. If a club can sign you without also paying a transfer fee, then it can put more of that money into your wages. Just look at Goretzka: Reports from Germany suggest he’s getting a €20 million signing bonus from Bayern Munich, in addition to a deal worth upward of €10 million per year.

But for a team, the logic of seeing out the length of a player’s deal — well, it doesn’t exist. If the transfer market can suppress player earning power, it also creates artificial value for clubs. As any team can try to buy any player from any other team, there theoretically exists a near-infinite market for talent.

“The market is usually above what a player is truly worth to a team,” said Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at the consulting firm 21st Club. “If we assume Coutinho is a three-point hit per season to Liverpool, the revenue hit is a lot less than £142M over the rest of his contract, so it was a no-brainer to sell.”

Just three points for one of the best players in the Premier League? Yes, we tend to overestimate the impact of individual players. As Chaudhuri explained it to me: The best team in a top European league typically wins around 85 points in a season, while the worst teams come in around 30. That’s a 55-point gap, and if you split that by 11, it comes out to five points per player. However, the replacements at a top team, like Liverpool, are better than relegation-level. Hence, the three points.

Historically, Schalke are one of the biggest clubs in Germany — if not the world. The so-called “spinning tops” sides of the 1930s and ’40s pioneered the slick-passing style that Ajax and Barcelona famously went on to perfect. A couple of sources with knowledge of Schalke blamed the recent run of expiring contracts on front-office dysfunction. The club is on its third manager and second sporting director since mid-2016. And the upheaval has had an effect: After reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League three seasons in a row, Schalke haven’t finished higher than fifth in the Bundesliga in any of the past three seasons. Last year, according to the annual Deloitte Money League report, they were the 14th-wealthiest team on the planet — but they ended the season as the 10th-best team in Germany.

This year, they’re in third, and their manager, the 32-year-old Domenico Tedesco, looks like Germany’s latest millennial master tactician. But if Tedesco keeps bringing in results, some bigger club will soon come calling — much like they did for Southampton’s Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman. Since there’s no transfer market for coaches, Schalke will be confronted with a familiar situation: Top talent will head for the exit, and they’ll get nothing in return.