Finding signal amidst the summer transfer noise
The dust has barely settled on the summer transfer window and there is already feverish speculation surrounding the impact the big money buys will have on the fortunes of teams across the major divisions. Thankfully we can now monitor this objectively, courtesy of our design friends @signal__noise who have created this wonderful interactive Transfer Window analysis tool.
Inevitably, some players who were bought early in the window have already had the opportunity to make an impact, where it matters, namely on the pitch. Shot based analytics had already identified the goalkeeping position as a cause for concern at Liverpool. Incumbent, Pepe Reina, appeared to be a shot stopper who was in decline and summer replacement Simon Mignolet boasted a save percentage which, when corrected for difficulty of shot, suggested he was a definite upgrade.
Merely three games into the season and Liverpool sit proudly at the top of the Premiership, due in no small part to Mignolet’s last minute penalty save from Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters in the opening game. Small sample sizes, indeed, but still a pleasing result for the decision makers at Liverpool, when verdicts can often be as hasty as they can be harsh.
The reality, however, in a low scoring sport such as football, is that a transfer can only really be judged over a much longer period of time. Ozil may catapult Arsenal to the heights of genuine Champions League contender and Neymar may provide the constant change required for Barcelona to stay ahead of the defensive tacticians, plotting to overthrow tiki-taka. Similarly, Mignolet may prove to be a steal at a shade under £10 million. His record at Sunderland, the solitary nature of the goalkeeper’s duties, allowing for player specific analysis and a promising start, gives rise to encouraging early signs, but time alone will be required for a more definitive judgement.
We can look back at each transferred player’s previous statistics to project his likely success at his new club, but so soon after the window has closed, a more general approach can identify some of the broader trends in the transfer market that may reveal universal beliefs current within the game.
With the exception of immortals like Ryan Giggs, football is a sport played predominately by sportsman in their twenties. The ageing profiles of the different positions suggest that goal scoring ability peaks during a player’s mid-twenties. Defenders and holding midfielders can extend their effectiveness into their early thirties and goalkeepers provide the ultimate exception, along with Giggs, by playing at the highest level well beyond thirty.
The transfer market, as represented by the recent summer window, appears to recognise these age related issues. Proportionally, 25 year olds were the most sought after and desired group of players during the recent window. Although they only accounted for 6% of the deals struck, they cost 12% of the total transfer expenditure. So a player who has played long enough to confirm his talent, but is sufficiently close to his prime to potentially have both improvement and longevity guaranteed, is unsurprisingly, a highly valued asset.
24 to 28 year old players, as a group, cost proportionally more than any other age group in the window. Once the average player approaches 30, although his contribution may remain considerable, the realities of the universal ageing curve make recouping any revenue from transfers much less likely. 30 years old players accounted for 3.5% of the deals, but raised just 1.7% of the total revenue and it was virtually impossible to attract a fee for any player of 33 or older.
This highlights the unappealing, long-term financial reality for a side contemplating dealing for a player, who is already in his late twenties. The most hopeful outcome is that they will acquire a productive player, but with zero resale value at the end of his contract. Although the emergence of relatively new markets, such as MLS, prepared to pay considerable sums for older talents, like 30 year old Clint Dempsey, may alter this dynamic.
Of the 10 most costly transactions made during the window, only Fernandinho and Falcao were 27 or older, with Bale(24), Ozil(24), Gotze(21), Neymar(21) and Rodriguez(22) representing the more typical, younger grouping within the raft of big money transfer dealings.
Number 1, but undervalued
So age, as expected attracts a premium, but playing position also sees differing levels of relative pricing. Despite goal prevention and goal production being near equals in importance when determining overall team success, defenders and goalkeepers are valued well below their more attacking colleagues.
Whether or not this price differential is justified or not is still a topic for debate. On the one side, the near equality of importance of goals scored and allowed, suggests that defenders are undervalued. However, a side requires more defenders than attackers to produce their respective outputs, implying that the pricing may accurately reflect the division of productivity.
Regardless of the debate, the reality is that attackers and, increasingly, attacking midfielders are more costly to obtain.
Goalkeepers fare particularly badly under such scrutiny. Despite the current, high profile of Simon Mignolet, keepers as a whole represented nearly 10% of the transactions, but yielded just 2% of expenditure. Unsurprisingly, many keepers move to be mere understudies to the hopefully, injury free first choice, so any fee they may attract will factor in their likely limited playing time.
The trend for attracting much smaller relative transfer fees continues for defenders. Numerically, 29% of the deals and just 16% of the revenue received by the selling clubs and even within this apparently unloved group of players, further division exists, with proportionally more money needed, on average, to buy a centre back compared to a full back.
The financial stars of this window and football in general are the midfielders and the attackers. Respectively, the groups accounted for 34% and 27% of the deals, but cost 46% and 36% of the money that was paid out in fees. Within these broad positional definitions, it was unsurprisingly the attacking midfielder, exemplified by 24 years old, Gareth Bale, who required, proportionally the greatest outlay in this particular window.
Hey, big spenders
The driving force behind these trends remains the English Premier league. Despite seeing the window’s most high profile departure in Bale, England’s top division still spent significantly more than it received in fees. The Primera Division, despite the inevitable spending of its two biggest names took in more than was expended, as did the Eredivisie, another perennially hunting ground for talent spotters.
The Premiership spending was fuelled by the usual big two, as both Manchester City and Chelsea recorded net spends of eye-watering proportions. There then followed a glut of eight sides, whose net spend totalled between around £30 and £20 million, comprising both Champions League contenders, such as Arsenal and less glamorous interlopers, such as Norwich and newly promoted Cardiff City.
As Manchester City, recently and Chelsea in the more distant past has demonstrated, money can buy league and cup success. So it is understandable to concentrate on the often vast amounts spent by the top clubs, but the ambitions of the lesser lights are equally revealing.
The three promoted clubs of, Cardiff, Crystal Palace, and even to a lesser degree Hull, have spent with a view to trying to maintain their Premiership status come May. The Welsh side had the fourth biggest net spend in the window and Palace and Hull were, respectively the 11th and 13th most extravagant spenders over the Premiership. Southampton (5th most spend) and Norwich (8th) also spent out of line with their previous year’s Premiership finishing positions of 14th and 12th, respectively.
Outside of the top four, increasingly now the top six, the difference in quality of each side is relatively close. Over a single 38 game campaign, a side can experience a run of randomly occurring good or bad fortune that can see their finishing position vary from near Europa League qualification to near relegation with little change in the underlying talent of the side.
Historically, a team finishing just outside the top four in the Premiership has, on average, recorded less impressive finishing positions in the next season. For example, in the last two seasons, Newcastle finished 5th and 16th respectively, despite the underlying performance remaining relatively constant. So there is ample evidence that good performance is often a combination of talent, but also good fortune. The latter cannot be guaranteed to persist and so to guard against a complete reversal in fortune and the unwanted outcomes that may accompany such a reversal, a side must continually look to improve the quality of their squad. Talent, well bought or developed organically, may be relied upon, but randomness of scoring patterns or individual outcomes are more fickle.
Norwich and Southampton, in outspending rivals who finished in a similar league position to themselves, appear to be attempting to compensate for any good fortune that may have contributed to their relatively comfortable finishing position last season, by improving the core quality of their respective squads.
Currently, although early in the season, both sides are enjoying higher league positions than they did at the corresponding stage last year. As with the verdict on Simon Mignolet, it is early days, but both Norwich and Southampton will hope to maintain a positive ‘bang for buck’ as the season unfolds…
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