Should FFA reduce the number of imports in the league?

Should FFA reduce the number of imports in the league? Featured Image
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There’s been much talk lately about the decision from FFA to reduce the number of imports that can be registered by an A-League club from five to four. There have been plans to make this reduction in previous seasons, but it’s been delayed multiple times due to concern from managers, owners as well as the players themselves. Those same concerns still exist, with the topic set to be debated fiercely at a meeting between club owners and David Gallop later this month. Through all the debate there is one question that needs to be considered: Do imports really make that much of a difference to how a team performs in the A-League?

The majority of the best players to ever play in the A-League have been imports. There’s no doubt that these players have played a large part in the success of clubs, such as Carlos Hernandez at Victory, Paul Ifill at the Phoenix, Thomas Broich and Besart Berisha at Brisbane, and Shinji Ono at Western Sydney. While it’s easy to say that players such as these won’t be lost if the number of imports in the league is reduced, I’m not convinced that is the case. When signing any import, there is a fair amount of uncertainty from the club involved. Football has such a large range of variables that can contribute to whether a player will be a success or not in the league, and with only four import spaces to sign players into, there will be much more pressure on managers to sign players that won’t flop. This could easily lead to clubs passing up on players that would have turned out to be very successful for their club. When one of the imports signed by a club in the league inevitably flops, their club’s starting XI will be much weaker, as one out of the four imports turning out to be a flop is much more significant than one out of the current five.

However, this anecdotal evidence isn’t strong enough to suggest that the imports signed by teams really do make a difference to league table positions. In order to answer the question, I needed to find a way to rank the 10 A-League clubs in terms of the quality of their imports. I did this in two ways, and averaged the results of the two to attempt to get a more accurate final result. The first way was an online survey, which asked the participants to rank each of the clubs from 1-10, where 1 is the club with the best set of imports, and 10 is the club with the worst imports. This method introduced a bias where participants tended to rank the imports of the club they support higher than the ranking given to the club by people who do not support that side. To reduce the effect of this, I also used the fantastic and comprehensive Football Manager database, using the ‘Current Ability’ statistic for each of the imports, and found the average rating of the imports of each club.

The results of these two methods are here:

Rank Club Survey ranking FM ranking
1 Melbourne Victory 1 2
2 Adelaide United 2 4
3 Melbourne City 6 1
4 Sydney FC 5 3
5 Perth Glory 3 6
6 Brisbane Roar 4 7
7 Newcastle 9 5
8 Western Sydney Wanderers 7 9
9= Wellington Phoenix 8 10
9= Central Coast 10 8

As you can see, the overall ranking of the teams here is incredibly similar to what the league table looks like at the moment, with two notable exceptions. Melbourne City have the third best set of imports, mainly due to the money invested into the club by the Manchester City Group, however they are sitting in 8th place on the league table after all clubs have played 8 matches. Players such as Damien Duff have not lived up to expectations yet, and Robert Koren is yet to make an appearance, which causes the disparity between the two rankings here.

The other side is Wellington Phoenix, who have the worst equal set of imports according to the survey and Football Manager, yet find themselves in fifth place on the table and 5 points clear of sixth place. However, these exceptions aren’t great enough to show that there is no correlation between quality of imports and league table position due to the rest of the A-League sides each having very similar import rankings and league table positions.

A small amount of statistical analysis on these results shows that there is a moderate positive relationship between the quality of a sides imports and their position on the league table, with a correlation coefficent of R=0.52 (close to 0 would indicate no correlation, whereas close to 1 would indicate a very strong correlation). Basically, this means that the quality of a sides imports does affect their league table position, which shows that imports really are vital to each of the A-League clubs.

The argument could be made that only half of the A-League sides are using all five available import slots this season, and only three of those sides have five imports who regularly make the starting XI for their side. It would be easy to assume that the clubs who aren’t using all five slots had no intention to use them all when building a squad in the preseason, but we as the public aren’t privvy to private negotiations.

I have no doubt that at least a couple of clubs tried to sign a 5th import but weren’t able to successfully negotiate a contract with the import player. The clubs with less money to spend on player scouting and agent fees are also more likely to take risks when it comes to signing players, so the five slots are vital to them because it’s very hard to tell whether some players will ‘make it’ in the league without the scouting staff and databases available to the clubs with more money.

By reducing the number of import slots available to each club, FFA will be reducing the overall quality of the A-League. The 10 import players that could be lost to the league will have to be replaced by Australian players (or New Zealand players in the case of the Phoenix), and there simply isn’t the depth of talent to suggest that these players will be anything other than a young player who will be paid the minimum wage. Is it really worth reducing the overall quality of the league to give 10 young players a chance to play professional football? In my opinion, it’s definitely not worth it, and the FFA should not reduce the number of imports in the league.

Patrick Barnes

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