“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.
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)
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.
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.