Take a chance on me
Buying a young player always involves risk. Making a move for them before other clubs means less competition for their signature and often secures a lower price. But judging a player based on limited game time can make getting it wrong all the more likely. As with financial investments, stepping into the market for young talent can be viewed in terms of a risk-return tradeoff: pursuing higher returns often requires undertaking a higher level of risk.
We look at clubs who have successfully positioned themselves at different points along the risk-reward spectrum. One thing links clubs who are successful, regardless of their strategy.
Breakthrough: less than 3000 minutes experience (usually aged 19-21)
At this early stage, there is very little evidence to base our valuation of a player on. How have clubs operating in this market succeeded despite the increased risk?
Hoffenheim and Roma’s strategy has been to find players who had accrued more minutes than expected for their age, but outside of European markets. Both have had success with South American talents. Hoffenheim signed both Roberto Firmino (19) and Joelinton (18) after they accrued minutes in the Brazilian league system at an early age. Both were sold on to Premier League teams for in excess of €40m. In Roma’s case, Lamela, Marquinhos, and Paredes were all bought from South American teams and sold for a net profit.
Most profitable signings in this group: Pogba to Juventus, Stones to Everton and Martial to Monaco.
Top clubs: Juventus, Monaco, Hoffenheim.
Calculated gambles: 3000 – 6000 minutes (usually aged 21-23)
Players in this group have accrued the equivalent of roughly one full season of playing time. Clubs operating in this market have seen enough evidence to suggest talent, but perhaps know they can’t wait for the certainty an extra season would bring for fear of being priced out.
Borussia Dortmund are one of the key operators in this market, purchasing Dembélé, Gündogan and Kagawa when they had an average of 4400 minutes’ experience. Of course, they recently signed one of Europe’s highest profile talents in this phase of his career: Erling Haaland seems likely to add to their list of successes. Haaland reached the 3000 minute milestone a few months after his 18th birthday, over four years faster than the average player in this group.
Most profitable signings in this group: Dembélé to Dortmund, Lemar to Monaco, Fred to Shakhtar Donetsk.
Top clubs: Monaco, Borussia Dortmund, Lille.
Proven talent: 6000 – 9000 minutes (usually aged 22-24)
By this stage, players have accrued 2-3 seasons of professional experience. The risk of getting it wrong is much lower, but it comes at a price: players in this bracket cost 3x the price of breakthrough players.
The top performer in this market was Chelsea. De Bruyne, Lukaku and Salah were all brought in at this stage, eventually bringing the club a net profit of close to €30m. The three’s combined worth today would be €300m.
What contributed to Chelsea’s success? Across all players signed with this level of experience the average age was 23.5, but Chelsea’s signings averaged just 20.5.
Most profitable signings in this group: Coutinho to Liverpool, Pépé to Lille and Jović to Frankfurt.
Top clubs: Chelsea, Torino, Eintracht Frankfurt.
Where our club chooses to focus its efforts depends on the level of risk we’re willing to take, our aims in the market and where our strengths in talent development lie. But regardless of the level of experience we’re looking to target, identifying players who have accrued that experience at a considerably earlier age than their comparators is a good rule of thumb.