By Ted Knutson
So last week, Tancredi Palmeri released his Top 10 Transfers of the Summer on WhoScored. Tanc’s list is full of large numbers and big names, which struck me as a bit lazy, but might have been the entire point of his piece. Maybe it was just supposed to be a recap of the big names that bebopped to new clubs this summer. I would evaluate paying 60 million euros for Falcao as awful business, but he made Tancredi’s list in the three slot. This forced me to dig through all the summer business and come up with an alternative list of my own.
The point of my list is to examine value for money, with at least a nod toward the full cost of a transfer versus just a reported fee. This means that only paying £10M for Carlos Tevez, though fairly clever business on the surface, is mitigated by the fact that he’s 29 and has a huge wage packet. The same is true for Samuel Eto’o, who Chelsea got for free from Anzhi, but who is 32 and allegedly had the highest salary in the world before his move. In Ted’s world you get bonus points for buying younger players that already produce in the top tier, since they tend to get even better as they get older and reach their physical peaks. I also care a lot about the stats you produce, and care not at all about the player’s name.
These are in no particular order.
Max Kruse – FWD/AM – £2.25M
Last season, Freiburg bought Max Kruse for 500k euros from St. Pauli. He repaid that by scoring 11 goals and assisting on 8 others, a fantastic return on such a small investment. The only problem was, Kruse’s contract included a fairly public release clause (I was told by one of my Twitter followers it was actually in Kicker magazine), which allowed Borussia Moenchengladbach to buy the high performer for the relative pittance of £2.25M. In 4 matches so far this season, he has 2 goals, 1 assist, averages 3 key passes a game and is completing 87% of his passes. He just does everything well.
Max Kruse is what started my writing about player analytics(link). He was obviously going to be on this list all along, but it’s nice to see him start the new season like he finished the last one.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – FWD – £11.1M
In a summer that saw massive inflation for goalscorer fees, how did this guy move for only 11.1M? This is yet another example of Dortmund targeting players that can help them and then crushing the market on the fee they paid. Back at the start of the window, I compared many of the notable forwards on the market, and Aubameyang came out very well in the visualization (link).
19G/9A last season, only 23 years old, technically gifted and quick. Yet somehow his fee is so tiny as to barely be noticeable in the heaving tides of cash tossed around this summer.
David Villa – FWD – £4.4M
I think I mentioned in the Liverpool transfer shopping piece that I did The Tomkins Times, that there are two basic sweet spots to find value in the market. The first of these is to sign younger players with established levels of performance, and the second is to sign older players who have been great and are still performing well on giant discounts. (The last one depends a lot on whether you can get a good deal on the wages.) Dimitar Berbatov for £4M was one of those last summer, and David Villa is another one. If Villa is 28 years old, he’d easily sell for £20M+. He’s 31 now, but still put up excellent stats last season (even with Barcelona inflation). There is almost no risk in this transfer, either in fee or expectation from the player.
It’s just another tremendous deal from Atletico, who are hugely talented on the pitch this year and did very well in the summer shopping market.
Mario Goetze – AttMid – £31.5M
Ahhh, release clauses. In cases like Edinson Cavani, they are amazing things for the selling club because it allows them to have a firm negotiating position on a player they might want to sell, but not for anything less than maximum value.
And then there’s Mario Goetze. Already one of the best attacking midfielders in the world at age 20, he was purchased by Bayern Munich from league rivals and Champions League Final opponents Borussia Dortmund directly before their big semifinal battle against Real Madrid. Dortmund clearly did not want to sell him. They especially did not want to sell him to their biggest rival in Germany. Yet there was a pesky release clause written into his contract that let Bayern carry him away.
Goetze’s fee is almost certainly £10-12M too cheap for a player of his calibre and age, and it helped Munich weaken Dortmund this coming season while adding yet another generational talent to their roster.
Tremendous, bastardly business.
Christian Eriksen – AttMid – £11M
There’s a strong indication that producing high levels of assists at a young age (22 or younger) is indicative of special talent. Eriksen is one of those guys. He did it first for Ajax at age 19 (11A). Then again at age 20 (17A). Then again at 21 (13A)! He had 3 assists in four matches this season before sealing a transfer to Tottenham Hotspur.
Now granted, scoring in Eredivisie is inflated and goal numbers produced there don’t always translate well when players move to bigger leagues. That said, passing skill seems fairly universal. Great passers in one league usually end up being great passers in another league.
Spurs just signed one of the best creative midfielders in Europe, at age 21, for £11M. He produced 41 assists in the last three seasons and had a real chance to set the league record this year if he’d stayed with Ajax. And he won three straight league titles there.
He only cost £11M because he was in the last year of his contract, but how were no Champions’ League teams involved?
Give him a year or two to settle in at Spurs, and Eriksen will make everyone but Baldini look really dumb.
Etienne Capoue – DM/DC – £9M
Speaking of Baldini, I was unconvinced by this one at first. Oh joy, another random French defensive player… those always work out well, don’t they? [To clarify, he’s a highly defensive DM who sometimes played CB for Toulouse as well.]
Then I saw him play a couple of matches and wow, he’s everywhere. Per90 averages of 4.1 tackles and 5.5 interceptions are stunning, especially in a new league. His passing ability is solid, and he’s obviously physically gifted. Given how deep he normally plays, his stats from last year also show the ability to get involved at the offensive end as well.
Spurs quietly shored up their defense this summer with moderate investments, but they already look a lot better. Capoue cost a third of what PSG paid for Marquinhos and looks like he’s every bit as good, if not better.
How did they find him? Well, he was the second highest rated player in France according to WhoScored. The only player who graded out better than him last year according to their algorithm was Zlatan. Sometimes it really is that easy.
Luca Cigarini – DM – £1.9M
It’s likely that I don’t fully understand his actual transfer fee because of some jointly-owned player stuff that Serie A is famous for, and that his deal was somehow a bit more expensive than the £1.9M listed. To me, that is the only way this transfer fee can possibly make sense. Napoli bought Cigarini ages ago for closer to £10M and then farmed him out to learn his trade. He seemed to settle in at Atalanta and I expected Napoli would be very interested in bringing him back this year.
Why should you care? Because his statistical profile looks very much like a poor man’s Andrea Pirlo. That’s not me being glib – he has the same regista abilities that Pirlo has, only he’s not quite as jaw-dropping as the much older Italian maestro (I looked at this in more detail here). At 27, he’s right at the expected peak age for midfielders, and if he stays healthy, he should have another 3-4 years of excellent performances ahead.
Given all the money spent around Europe this summer, £2M would have been an absolute pittance for a central midfielder who was sneakily world class calibre. *cough*ManU*cough*
Mario Gomez – FWD – £17.2M
Higuain? 34M. Cavani? 54M. Falcao? 51M. Liverpool turned down £40M for Suarez. Gareth Bale? £85M
Of all the forwards on the market this summer, over the last two seasons, Gomez was second in Goals and Assist per90 average to Higuain. Yet he was by far the cheapest of the lot. Granted, a small reason for that is due to his age (28), but a much bigger factor is that Mario is boring.
Look, this isn’t my opinion – I’m just interpreting what everyone else seems to be saying. Apparently, goals are boring. Dribbling? THAT is exciting! Beating your man is exciting! Creating tons of shots (for yourself) is exciting, even if you are bad at converting them. Creating shots for others might be exciting. The world is a bit on the fence about that one.
Brutal statistical efficiency? Boring. Even when it leads to goals. Yaaaawn, so what if a guy is always in the right place at the right time. Did he beat two guys on the dribble to get there? No? Fuck ‘em.
In economic markets, boring is cheap. Therefore, in this summer of monster transfer fees for anyone who can score a goal, Fiorentina bought Mario for a pittance. Half of an Higuain. A third of a Falcao. Arsenal should have snapped Bayern’s hand off at this price, but somehow Gomez ended up with the Viola, fighting in the Europa League.
Wickedly good business though. Well done, purple people.
Adem Ljajic – AttMid/FWD – £9.25M
If you followed my Twitter at all this summer, you know that I have a football crush on Ljajic. Only 21, he put up top tier numbers for Fiorentina last season, with goals per90 (.55), key pass (1.6), and passing success rates (88%) that were off the charts for his age. In fact, two of those three numbers are at the top of the charts for nearly any age. Yet somehow none of the Premier League clubs in England could lure him away from Italy. Did they at least try?!? Nobody knows.
With only one season left on his contract, Fiorentina were forced to sell him or lose any value whatsoever, but they were desperate not to sell him to AC Milan, who stole the last CL place from Fiorentina on the last day of the year with an extremely dodgy penalty award. Eventually Roma stepped in and bought him as a replacement for Erik Lamela, pocketing £20M in the process.
Let’s look at that again in a different way. Roma sold Lamela to Spurs for £30M, which was actually a fairly good buy in and of itself. Roma then bought Ljajic, who is nearly s perfect replacement for Lamela’s production and the exact same age.
For £9M. Grand larceny.
Your honor, I rest my case.
Mesut Ozil – AttMid – £42.5M
I debated leaving this one off because I am inherently biased. Ozil is my favourite player. He was purchased by the team I have rooted for since I started following football back in 1998. He has a beauty and grace to his game that are hard to quantify, and yet advanced metrics absolutely love him. There was no way I could evaluate this one objectively.
Then the complaints from Real Madrid players began filtering out. Ramos and Khedira both seemed tremendously sad and frustrated that Ozil was sold. Uppity ups in the German National Team quietly cheered that he moved out of the Madrid pressure cooker into a more supportive environment where he was sure to get playing time. Even Ronaldo took a moment away from contemplating himself in the mirror, and said he was angry that he’d get fewer perfect balls to put away.
Seriously, Ronaldo complained.
The fact of the matter is, they are right. Ozil has the most assists of anyone in Europe over the last five seasons. He clearly makes his teammates better and is a footballing genius. His genius is recognized by his now former teammates, who have gone out of their way to bitch to the press about his sale. That’s pretty usual.
I’m fairly agnostic about the value of goals versus assists – to me they are all scoring elements that differ slightly by the end result. In my opinion, it’s probably best to measure offensive contribution by combining the two numbers into one value. Ozil had a higher G+A per90 than Gareth Bale last year and in fact, every year, but is only one year older than Bale. Yet Bale sold for twice as much. Ozil’s non-penalty stats were similar to Cavani’s, but Cavani cost more. They were better than Falcao’s, but he also cost more. And that only addresses the direct scoring contributions, when Ozil actually plays a much busier and more active role.
Overall, £42.5M is fair value for an attacking midfielder who is one of the best in the world. On the other hand, he probably is the best in the world at that position and is just entering the prime of his career. This summer especially, getting Ozil for less than £50M and convincing him to go to Arsenal was a shocking piece of business. It doesn’t make up for the rest of Arsenal’s donkey-do this summer, but it’s a start.
A few quick hits about the following guys before I sign off
I am uncertain if free signings are allowed to count toward best transfers, but Llorente was damned handy before Bilbao punished him by sitting him on the bench for an entire season just for wanting to leave. He’s big, but skilful and will provide Juve with some extra punch they have needed for at least two seasons now.
Good right backs are a scarce commodity and Fulham grabbed Riether after renting him last season for a measly £1.3M. If you read my OptaPro piece (link), you’ll know he was quietly one of the best fullbacks in the league last year.
I would have included Norwich’s Nathan Redmond above, but I don’t have stats for him from last season and we’ve only had three matches so far this year. That said, he has terrorized opposition with his dribbling ability, and looks like he might even pick his head up from time to time to pick out a teammate on the pass. If he even comes close to living up to his potential, that fee will be a fifth of his next one.
Illicic posted good numbers on a bad team last year in Italy(Link). Initially rumored to be going to Leverkusen, Fiorentina somehow latched on and added his abilities to an already potent attacking force. Compare the 7.6M spent on him to the dross picked up around the Premier League for similar fees and you can immediately understand where I am coming from.
As for Toulalan, he has long been a handy player in the center of the park, and brings a ton of Champions’ League experience with him. Monaco hoovered him up as part of their massive summer shopping spree, but he was one of the few names they grabbed that did not also have a massive price. He’s another example of older national team players that were grabbed for a nice discount versus what you can expect from his performance.