- Squad planning – Big squad, but little depth
- Transfer system – The lucky hand left with Heitz
- Style of play – Offensive flattening
For years, FC Basel was considered the flagship of the Swiss Super League. From 2010 to 2017, the team won eight championship titles in a row. FCB also caused a stir at international level. Teams such as Liverpool FC and Manchester United lost out in the Champions League group stage, and they only narrowly missed out on the Europa League final in 2013. Basel’s players became really popular exports for Europe’s top clubs – international top stars like Mohammed Salah, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri are just the tip of the iceberg. But in the meantime, the glamour of past years seems to be fading a little. At national level, they have only managed to win the swiss cup once since 2017 (2019), and in the league, Young Boys Bern have now clearly outstripped the former serial champion. As a result, the red-and-blue team had to be content with participation in the Europa League, and access to the financially lucrative Champions League was denied them. The most recent low point of the sporting development is the crashing cup elimination against the second division side Winterthur (final score 2:6), in the league table they are the weakest team in 2021! But how can this negative trend be explained? What has changed in recent years in terms of squad planning and transfer policy? And how is the potential of the current team?
2. Squad planning – Big squad, but little depth
FCB’s current squad consists of 31 players, but only 15 of them get a lot of time on the pitch (>500min overall halfway through the season). In contrast, league leader YB has a smaller squad, but 19 of the 26 players make regular appearances. The Basel team also lags behind in terms of market value (ø1.53 million euros / player vs. YB: ø2.15 million euros / player). Although the team has at least two players in every position, it seems to lack depth in terms of quality.
Embolo and Akanji were the last outstanding home grown talents
There are few possibilities for variation, for example, with regard to the two places in central defence. Behind the two established players Eray Cömert and Timm Klose, Salzburg loanee Jasper van der Werff is the only serious alternative. Since he often has to help out on the right defensive wing, only the inexperienced Albian Hajdari (17 years old) remains as a back-up. Similar situations arise in the central attacking midfield, where playmaker Pajtim Kasami is practically without alternative, and on the attacking flanks, where almost all the playing time is divided between three players (Valentin Stocker, Edon Zhegrova, Afimico Pululu). There is also a big gap behind goal-scorer Arthur Cabral, who has already scored 13 competitive goals (0.68 goals/game). Striker No. 2 Ricky van Wolfswinkel has only accomplished one goal and one assist. In comparison: In the last championship season 16/17, top striker Seydou Doumbia scored 21 goals, but with Marc Janko, the FCB had another dangerous attacker as an option (14 goals). The situation is similar for the leaders from Bern. With Nsame (18 goals), Siebatcheu (10) and winger Fassnacht (7), three players are particularly dangerous.
For years, the FCB’s team structure could be characterised by the important role of outstanding home-grown players. Players like Breel Embolo (today Borussia Mönchengladbach) and Manuel Akanji (today Borussia Dortmund) attracted a lot of attention. The current squad also includes some players who learned to play football in the German-Swiss border region. However, these are either returnees who have already passed their zenith (Stocker, Frei) or players who are considered solid squad players at most, but from whom one can rarely expect anything outstanding (Cömert, Raoul Petretta). Youngsters like the 17-year-old winger Chiappetta, midfielder Orges Bunjaku (19 years old) or defender Hajdari (17 years old) are occasional squad members, but they do not get regular playing time at all.
3. Transfer system – The lucky hand left with Heitz
For a long time, FC Basel’s transfer policy has been based on two pillars. On the one hand, the in-house academy supplied the first team with promising talents, who, after one or two good seasons, were preferably transferred to the German Bundesliga (Shaqiri, Xhaka, Sommer, Embolo, Akanji, …). On the other hand, players were signed for moderate fees from comparatively weaker leagues (including the domestic Super League) and, in the best case, sold on to the top European leagues a little later with a huge profit (Salah, Elneny, Elyounoussi). The transfer profit was then reinvested and the process started all over again. For years, this cycle was managed very successfully by the duo of sporting director Georg Heitz and president Bernhard Heusler. After Heusler resigned from his position in June 2017, however, Heitz was also looking for a new challenge. In the meantime, he is working as sporting director for Chicago Fire in the american MLS.
Stocker, Frei and Lacroix already passed their peak when signed
His successor Marco Streller, who was promoted directly from an intern to sporting director, had less luck on the transfer market in the following years. The winter transfer period of 2017/18 was an example of the great work done by Heulser + Heitz – a home grown talent was sold for a huge fee: Borussia Dortmund snapped up Manuel Akanji for € 21 million euros. But it also showed the problem that occured under the „reign“ of Streller. Dangerous winger Renato Steffen was basically gifted to VfL Wolfsburg for only € 1.75 million euros! In return, Valentian Stocker, Fabian Frei and Leo Lacroix were signed, players who already passed their peak at that time and whose resale value was limited. Contrary to public declarations, in recent years players with potential to develop were not started regularly. Although lucrative deals have been made since then, such as the 18 million euros transfer of Elyounoussi to Southampton FC, they were only able to make huge profit with externally signed players. By their very nature, such deals are more risky – players who are signed increasingly cost higher fees. Three of the five most expensive additions in the club’s history were made in the last two years (Silvan Widmer, Arthur Cabral, Dimitri Oberlin). If the subsequent performance is not good enough, the chances of a profitable resale decrease (Oberlin, transferred to Bayern II on a free transfer). The current lack of sporting success also means that the players do not have the opportunity to offer themselves at the highest international level (e.g. in the Champions League). While the FCB was still able to generate a transfer plus of over € 18 million following the last championship in 2017, it is currently showing a minus of € 4.5 million euros. On the other hand, the transfer balance of rival YB is +€7.75 million euros.
After several personnel changes, the position of sport director is now occupied by Ciriaco Sforza. His most recent signings suggest that in the future, more emphasis will be placed on talents: Central defender Goncalo Cardoso (on loan from West Ham), midfielder Matias Palacios (€ 5.2 million euros from San Lorenzo) and attacker Darian Males (on loan from Inter Milan) are all U21 players. Furthermore, these transfers are based on the hope of filling the positional deficits described above (centerback, offensive midfielder, striker). Whether and to what extent these newcomers will be integrated into the team also depends on Sforza. The 51 year-old is also the head coach of the team, and thus mainly responsible for the playing system and formation of the team.
4. Playing style – Offensive flattening
FC Basel has increasingly lost offensive power in recent years. While 2.56 goals were scored per game in the 16/17 championship season, the figure in 20/21 is only 1.61. The number of offensive actions per season has also dropped significantly in recent years (average for 2017-2020: 856,000 vs. 2016/2017: 902,000). Compared to the previous season, the team increasingly creates fewer chances per game (20/21: 5.78 vs. 19/20: 7.28), plays fewer key passes (7.72 vs. 11.06) and crosses less successful (19% vs. 28%). In the period from 2017-2021, just under a third of the created goal scoring opportunites were converted, compared to almost 50% in the championship season. There are many indications, that the departures of the top scorers Doumbia and Janko could never be fully compensated. The sale of the wingers Steffen and Elyounoussi, as well as the end of the career of playmaker and club legend Matias Delgado, also play a role here.
Defensively, the team has been able to keep its performance standards relatively constant over the last few years. Accordingly, the current team is characterised by a well-rehearsed and compact defensive centre. In central defence, former Bundesliga player Timm Klose excels with 85% aerial duels won and a strong duel rate of 74%. At his side plays mostly home-grown Eray Cömert, who falls somewhat short of Klose (60% aerial duels won, 66% tackles won), but stands out for his clean play (90% passing rate). In addition, he loses the ball much less than his partner (0.44/game vs. 1.35/game).
In front of the defence, ex-Mainz player Fabian Frei is a set starter. His strengths come to light in ball possession: 85% of his passes are succesful, and he regularly finds his team-mates in dangerous field positions (2.2 received passes into the penalty area/game). On the other hand, he wins only 44% of his defensive duels. Accordingly, Basel strengthened their squad in the winter transfer window with Amir Abrashi from SC Freiburg. It is hoped, that he will increase the physical power alongside Frei. The linchpin of coach Sforza’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system is playmaker Pajtim Kasami. The 28-year-old is characterised by his high presence on the pitch (80 ball actions per game) as well as his goal-scoring skills – eight goals and 2.2 shots/game speak for themselves. As a dynamic box-to-box player, he often looks for the dribble (3.7/game, 64% successful). At the same time, 5.5 intercepted balls/game are exemplary for the good anticipation ability of the Swiss international. On the other hand, Kasami rarely finds his teammates in dangerous finishing positions. Just 0.24 succesful key passes per game are a weak value for his field position.
Kasami is supported by alternating wingers. On the one hand, there is the former Bundesliga legionnaire and captain Valentin Stocker, on the other hand the Kosovar talent Edin Zhegrova, who was signed from Genk half a year ago and home grown youngster Afimico Pululu. Both, Stocker (4 goals/6 assists) and Pululu (1/8) are distinguished by good scorering rates. Stocker, in particular, regularly succeeds in finding his teammates in promising finishing situations. As a left-footed inside forward, coming from the right wing, he plays 2.3 key passes, creates 1.23 chances and delivers 0.5 xA (expected assists) per game. However, of his 2.3 crosses/game, just 9% arrive. Zhegrova lacks efficiency compared to his colleagues – what is striking, however, is the frequency with which he tries to dribble past the opponent (12x/game) and also wins these 1 vs. 1 situations (61%). The young Brazilian Arthur Cabral (22 years old) is the leading striker, with eleven goals this season, he currently leads the Super League scoring list. The physically strong attacker is a classic target player (27 duels/game, 11 aerial duels/game) and is also mobile enough to get past his opponents via dribbles (4.2/game, 54% successful). He also converts 46% of his chances and thus scored three goals more than expected (xGoals), what also underlines his finishing ability.
The Swiss FCB has lost the national supremacy of former years. The current squad lacks qualitative depth, the offensive play has been flattening out for years. The exodus of dangerous attackers (Doumbia, Janko, Steffen, Elyounoussi) has never been fully compensated. Moreover, since the departure of sporting director Heitz, it has not been possible, with one exception (Akanji), to capitalise on highly talented youth players from the own academy. The pillars of the current team are aging, and with goal-scorer Cabral only one young player really stands out. In order to get back on track, it is now necessary to strengthen the clubs academy with great coaching staff in order to integrate more youth players in the first team in the next years.
Very interesting analysis and read! I think you identified the main reasons for Basel’s decline over the last years. On the point of their outgoing transfer policy I would add that for a Swiss club they continued to do a tremendous job in terms of capitalizing on their own youth players and players they signed for moderate fees from smaller clubs. For example they were able to sell Albjan Ajeti to West Ham in August 2019 for EUR 11m and Noah Okafor for EUR 11m to Red Bull Salzburg in January 2020 (both are at least no. 7 and 8 in the clubs outgoing transfer history). I would therefore argue that they were able to continue to sell one top player each year a ta fee of >EUR 10m – something that is part of the business model for a Swiss football club and required to not be loss-making. The main issue in the transfer department I believe was (as you rightfully point out) that they were unable to replace the outgoing players with enough players of sufficient quality to maintain their level of play.
Thanks for your feedback Moritz! Yes, the replacement of key players is the main issue – Cabral will be the next guy that has to be replaced (which will be extra hard, as Esposito will leave too). But you are right, at least the transfers of Okafor and Ajeti kept the business running.