Now that the Lions tour and Wimbledon are over, and with the Test series against South Africa yet to grab the attention, thoughts can easily turn to the start of the new football season, which is only two weeks away.
Or rather to the pre-season competition. I don’t mean friendly tournaments, like the money-spinning non-event of the so-called International Champions Cup. But the true sport and drama of the transfer window. A kind of fantasy football for chairmen, it is also a ritual that finds generous space for frenzied media and desperate fans alike. And all to the tune of sums of money that are increasingly difficult to conceptualise, let alone justify.
Flush with even more TV wonga, the Premier League has shown once again that, while it may not have the top clubs in Europe, or the very top players, it can certainly outspend all other leagues. Thus Manchester United have paid £75m, which could rise to £90m, to Everton for Romelu Lukaku, while across town Manchester City have splashed out £50m plus on Tottenham’s attacking defender Kyle Walker.
Walker’s fee prompted Gary Lineker to tweet: “Imagine how much he would cost if he could cross the ball.” It’s a good question but as things stand Walker’s transfer is such that it could pay for Lineker’s not inconsiderable BBC salary for the next 28 years. Or to put it another no-less mind-boggling way, you could afford Alan Shearer’s £450,000 annual cheque for his imperishable berating of slack marking for the next 111 years.
All of which is to say that this is no time for rational behaviour or financial caution. Hence all clubs are encouraged to buy the two marquee signings that will transform their fortunes, or if it’s Arsenal the five or six star names that Arsène Wenger is traditionally implored to acquire.
This bountiful spending is obviously intended to strengthen the team but it also has another function – placating the manager (the ascetic Wenger aside), media and the fans. Like an extravagant anniversary present, big transfers are a token of, if not love, then commitment. As one the football community comes together in the transfer window to echo the catchphrase of Rod Tidwell, the fictional wide-receiver in the film Jerry Maguire: “Show me the money!”
But what does the money show? Or to rephrase slightly, what kind of show do you get for the money? For once the present has been bought and unwrapped, or unveiled, and all the giddy excitement that comes with untrousering a huge wad of cash has been had, then there remains the more niggling issue of whether it is worth the outlay. “Is Paul Pogba good value for £90 million?” is a moral as well as sporting question, though most observers will probably suggest that they carry the same answer.
That same answer – it’s two letters and begins with “n” – might also be applied to John Stones and the figure of £47m. But, of course, it’s early days, and the fans of United and City may well think it’s all money well spent in the years to come.
However, few Chelsea fans would say that about the £50m squandered on Fernando Torres seven years ago or, a few years before that, the £35m lavished on Andriy Shevchenko. Just as only a tiny fraction of United fans believe the £64m disbursed on Ángel Di María represents a nice bit of business. Ditto Andy Carroll and Christian Benteke at Liverpool (£70m worth of misfiring forwards). And remember, these were not untested players. They were not blind punts.
So huge sums do not necessarily translate into valuable assets. Despite all the post-Moneyball statistics-crunching analysis that is done these days, player acquisition is not a science. When it comes to assessing stars, it’s closer to astrology than astronomy.
Nonetheless there is an organisation called the International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) Football Observatory that, in its own words, has “developed a powerful approach to estimate on a scientific basis the transfer value of professional football players”. It is located, inevitably, in Switzerland, home of Fifa and opaque banking.
The Football Observatory observes that the Premier League is over-represented in its list of the highest transfer estimates, which is a polite way of saying players are over-valued in England. But the highest-valued player does not, in fact, play in England. It’s Neymar, the Barcelona forward, who the Football Observatory rates at €210m.
Fair enough, he’s young, only 25, and has performed at the highest level for many years with Barcelona and his national team, Brazil. Yet at number two and three are English players who play in England for the same club: Tottenham Hotspur. Dele Alli is estimated to be worth €155.1m and his team-mate, Harry Kane, a comparative snip at €153.6m.
Leaving aside, for the moment, the obvious question of whether any club would actually shell out that kind of money for the pair (though if their former club-mate Walker was sold for £50m, then …), what strikes me, as a Spurs fan, is how much they cost the club. Kane came through the youth ranks and Alli was bought from MK Dons for an initial fee of £5m.
I mention this not to gloat over the hyper-inflated increase in the pair’s value (another company, Soccerex, rates Alli at a measly £74m) but because, seemingly alone among the top clubs in the Premier League, Spurs have yet to announce a major acquisition this summer. Many Tottenham fans are getting anxious about this lack of activity.
But I say: phew. Spurs’ biggest ever signing arrived last summer. It was Moussa Sissoko. He cost £30m and he scarcely got a game. The club’s second all-time record signing was the striker Roberto Soldado, and he scarcely ever got a goal. Their fifth was Darren Bent. Their sixth Vincent Janssen and seventh David Bentley.
Indeed, if you look at the club’s top 12 record signings, eight have proven at best disappointments, and more often disasters. But imagine if the club announced that its two marquee signings for 2017-18 were a player promoted from the youth team and another bought for a bargain from a lower-league side. Despondency would break out into widespread depression.
The screenwriter William Goldman famously said of the film world that “nobody knows anything”. With the obvious exception of Shearer’s punditry, the same can be said of football. And never more so than during the summer transfer window.
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