Players cannot ‘justify a price tag’

“Football is a results driven business”.

We have all heard those words uttered countless times by pundits, managers, players and fans alike. The statement is appealing because it simplifies the game, making its evaluation a matter of objective fact – after all, teams are either successfully getting results, or they aren’t.

But football, like so much of life, is rarely so binary. What constitutes a successful result and over what time frame is continually changing for all clubs – the goalposts do not stay in one place for very long.

This is particularly true of players who move clubs far a large transfer fee.

TorresFinale12_cropped

Creative Commons (c) rayand

Every transfer window features one or more big money moves in the Premier League. This summer, the new TV deal means we have seen many clubs moving early in the Window and investing to improve their squads.

For those players who have transferred with big price tags, such as Paulinho, Wilifred Bony or Andre Schurrle, the pressure will be on immediately to start providing a return on that investment for their new clubs.

Never mind that these players had nothing to do with setting their own transfer fee: the majority of fans, the media, managers and owners will take the view that having cost so much, they will be capable of making an instant impact. If they fail to do so, they risk going from ‘star signing’ to ‘expensive flop’ in just a matter of weeks.

Yet there are a number of reasons why generating such expectations based on transfer fees alone does not make sense.

First, the amount a club chooses to spend on a player may have very little to do with any assessment of their ‘objective value’. A whole host of factors governs what a club is willing to spend on a new player, including how much they need to strengthen a particular part of the team, whether the target in question is deemed indispensable by their current clubs, or the financial situation of both teams. These factors make judging a player’s objective worth based solely on their ‘cost’ very difficult.

Take the case of Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres. Signed by Liverpool and Chelsea for £35m and £50m respectively, both players have since struggled to live up to expectations and ‘justify’ those price tags.

That both transfers can now be categorically deemed failures has far more to do with their lack of appearances and output for their new clubs, than it does the fee they were transferred for. After all, at £35m, Carroll is the most expensive English footballer of all time. But he isn’t even close to being the best, so any expectations that were driven by his transfer fee were always going to be wide of the mark.

The truth is, the remarkable size of their transfer fees was driven by unique circumstances surrounding the sale of Torres to Chelsea, and the Blues seemingly limitless transfer budget at this time. This meant that Newcastle could essentially name their price for Carroll, safe in the knowledge that Roman Abramovich would be picking up the tab, as Liverpool would simply pass the cost on to Chelsea with a higher fee for Torres.

Alternatively, consider arguably the best signing of 2012/13; Swansea’s Spanish forward, Michu. Signed for just £2m from Rayo Vallecano, Michu stunned the Premier League, scoring twice on his debut, and netting a further 16 league goals for the Swans throughout the season.

Because Michu was signed for so little, it was easy to assume that other, more expensive signings, such as Oliver Giroud (£12m), Shinji Kagawa (£17m) or Moussa Dembele (£15m), would be far more influential during the season ahead.

But Michu’s price tag was misleading. Ultimately, difficulties in the Spanish economy, aligned with the financial troubles experienced by their football clubs, meant that Michu’s true qualities and his previous record (the year before he had been the top scoring midfielder in Spain, netting 15 times in 37 games) were not reflected in his transfer fee, providing Swansea with the bargain of the summer, and catching many pundits and fans entirely off-guard.

Second, across the Premier League, big money signings have a history of not working out. As fans, we can all think of countless examples of expensive players failing to perform for their new team – so why do we persist in holding such high expectations or signings that happened to be particularly expensive?

Although not a comprehensive analysis of how effective more expensive players tend to be, a quick and easy way of demonstrating the folly of this is to look at the current (as of the end of the 2012/13 season) record signings that each current Premier League club has made, and look at the return in terms of games, goals or assists that these players have provided.

Premier League club-by-club record signings (as at 1 May 2013)

recordsigningrecords

Although this assessment is far from scientific, it appears that the instances where “record signings” have actually paid dividends are few and far between. Most have either delivered mixed performances, or have actually flopped entirely.

The expensive goalscorers in this list have performed particularly poorly. Only Darren Bent, Michael Chopra and Dimitar Berbatov averaged a goal every two games, with Peter Crouch, Michael Owen, Andy Carroll and Steve Marlet all failing to find the net regularly for their new club. And although Bent’s record appears impressive, he has simply not played enough games for Villa since signing to be considered a successful signing.

Tellingly, none of the players on this list have achieved over 150 games for the clubs that paid such a large amount for them, indicating that, for good reasons and bad, big money signings may not stick around all that long either.

Third, circumstances dictate everything. There are a huge number of external factors that can impact upon whether a signing performs to their potential, very few of which actually relate to their transfer fee or quality.

Whether it be the time it takes to adapt to a foreign football culture (Fabricio Coloccini at Newcastle), fitting in to a new style of play (Jordan Henderson at Liverpool), or being beset by injuries (Jack Rodwell at Manchester City), there are many factors that can constrain players from living up to their price tag.

And far from being the case only in exceptional circumstances, the Premier League is littered with examples of big money signings that as a result of one external factor or another, have failed to deliver on their promise, or at least take significant amounts of time to do so.

Conclusions

It is not difficult to see why so much of the discourse surrounding the modern game focuses on money and achieving value. The statement, “Football is a results driven business”, not only over-simplifies the nature of success in the game, but in referring to the sport as a ‘business’, it reflects an increasing desire to see football in terms of profit and loss, as much as winning and losing.

The monumental amount of cash now involved in football means it dominates almost every aspect of the sport. It has become a short hand through which to understand success and failure at all levels, whether as a means to demean the success of a particular team, or to praise the performance of an underdog.

But when we think about judging the success of a particular signing, it generally makes little sense.

Given that the quality of a player often has little to do with the price a club is willing to pay for them; that the list of expensive Premier League flops is almost endless; and that the range of factors that affect the performance of new signings is so vast, fans and the media should resist the temptation to obsess about whether a player has justified their transfer fee or not, and focus simply on whether they are performing on the pitch.

Follow Ben on Twitter.

Also, read “How to Survive in the Premier League, also by Ben Harrison.

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Comments

  1. Well thought out, nice job.

  2. Cheers Matt – out of interest, who do you support? Optimistic for the new season?

  3. where's_the_white_ball_going? says:

    Good article Ben, but I think the owners of football clubs have more to consider than simply whether a costly signing performs well on the pitch. Let’s be clear – (some) football club owners are not in the game because they love football.

    I hope you find this article from the Economist interesting reading:
    http://www.economist.com/news/international/21581724-football-clubs-can-easily-be-used-stealing-machines-here-instruction-manual

  4. Thanks mate. And agreed re. range of considerations owners take on being spending their money on new players.

    I will check out the economist article and come back to you. Judging by the title, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a pretty story!

  5. This is a very good website. You have just got yourself another reader.

    • Thanks Elliot – really appreciate the feedback. Lot’s of exciting plans for the site as the season gets going, so stay tuned for more!

      And tell your mates to do likewise!

  6. I’m pretty sure Jose Antonio Reyes is Arsenal’s record signing and he was most definitely a miss!

    • Cheers for the comment Mark – yep it’s difficult with examples like Reyes.

      It depends which source you look at as to whether Arsenal (and some other clubs) ended up paying the full amount for some players, so I accept some of the list is contestable.

      Agree that Reyes was a miss though!

  7. Simpleton says:

    When Ronaldo went to Madrid, a Spanish friend claimed he had re-couped his fee in shirt sales before he kicked a ball. It might be an urban myth, but it is certainly a factor.

  8. Calling Darren Bent a miss is harsh. Yes the loss Villa will make is enormous but his goals saved them from relegation 2 seasons running – exactly what he was bought for.

  9. Nice article but one that misses a key point within the modern game; sponsorship. Clubs often hold sponsorship rights to certain players – certainly shirt sales alone generate huge amounts of revenue both for club and kit manufacturer, but wider than that the club owns many of the players sponsorship rights where the club is concerned. By linking them you change the face of the transfer fee altogether. It no longer becomes what the player is worth to a club based on ability alone, but on the add on revenue from sponsorship. Bale was a prime example of this. Bale was never worth €100m simply as a player. However, he had 3 years left on his contract and so was worth at least €50m in sponsorship to Spurs alone.

  10. Another reason for such a hike in interest in the game as an investor is the money from tv rights. 15 years ago in China only 1% of the population owned a tv. Now it’s something like 80%. If just 1% of that 80 percent paid a subscription, at the Chinese monetary equivalent of what we in the UK pay to Sky, then that would be the equivalent of adding another UK to the Sky coffers. Imagine the revenue growth in just 10 years!

    To grow and maintain your support base you need to be seen to be the best. Shirt sales help this, but the real test if not on the pitch is in your signings.

    Throw in the article above from the economist and it starts to paint a picture of why clubs are prepared to pay and risk hundreds of millions for players. It’s not all about the player’s ability on the pitch but more his potential off it.

    • Great reflections Ross – thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Agree with your additional factors too. Do get in touch if you ever fancy contributing to the site – I’m sure you’d have some great contributions to make.

Trackbacks

  1. […] As the season progresses, we all start to see how well suited new signings are to their clubs. On paper, Torres seemed to be worth every penny of his £50m transfer fee, but a tricky start turned into intense media scrutiny causing an uncharacteristic lack of confidence in a player who had already scored over 60 goals in the Premier League. Equally, on paper, £2m Michu’s arrival at Swansea last was low-key but turned out to be the buy of the season, and Laudrup has done well to hold onto him this summer. Integration into a squad, adjusting to the pace and physicality of the Premier League and culture adaptation away from the pitch will all play a part in a new signing’s success. And luck perhaps? […]

  2. […] As the season progresses, we all start to see how well suited new signings are to their clubs. On paper, Torres seemed to be worth every penny of his £50m transfer fee, but a tricky start turned into intense media scrutiny causing an uncharacteristic lack of confidence in a player who had already scored over 60 goals in the Premier League. Equally, on paper, £2m Michu’s arrival at Swansea last was low-key but turned out to be the buy of the season, and Laudrup has done well to hold onto him this summer. Integration into a squad, adjusting to the pace and physicality of the Premier League and culture adaptation away from the pitch will all play a part in a new signing’s success. And luck perhaps? […]

  3. […] Bringing in a big signing, especially after such an important win against Fulham, might’ve just been the kick-start the club, the fans and an under-fire Alan Pardew needed. The noise when Remy made his debut helped a gung-ho attacking display that eventually killed off Martin Jol’s side and provided a rare moment of escapism for the loyal home fans after the JFK saga and last season’s flirt with relegation. […]

  4. […] as we have previously explored at Hit Row Z, signing players is an inherently risky business, particularly when big money is involved. Many marquee signings flop, and given the host of factors that can impact the performance of a new […]

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