Nobody ever said transfers were easy. The potent blend of vast amounts of television money, an army of agents and an industry that has long been prone to inefficiency has meant that plenty of transfers go wrong. They will go awry for human reasons that are impossible to avoid and they will go wrong even when everything looks like it shouldn’t. The Premier League may be slowly starting to think how to make fewer mistakes, but even clubs that appear smart can drop the ball completely and made rash or odd decisions.
So here’s a list of deals that didn’t work in the Premier League this last season, for a variety of reasons, but all have one thing in common: they tally up to being a huge waste of money. Often, these deals were easy to criticise from the outset, for others it took time for the lack of sense to become apparent. With fees rising fast and mistakes now costing in the tens of millions, for the most part, it would have been easy enough for you or I to have sat in on the proverbial cheque signing, grabbed the pen and tossed it out of the window. This key role appears to be one that is understaffed in football.
This is the kind of transfer that lives on the cusp of old football vs new football. Old football watches Jordon Ibe and likes what it sees. He can run, he can beat players, he’s quick, he’s young and he is “promising”. That kind of player is one that many a scout loves, sticks him in the notebook, keeps an eye on him.
New football is looking at some numbers and wondering “what gives?” Now it’s tough to come down on a young player but there were red flags here that were visible from a good distance. Firstly, he came through at a huge club in Liverpool, had loan time, spent time in the first team yet at 20 years old they are happy enough to sell him? This is not a Raheem Sterling situation. Looking at his pre-Bournemouth top-flight career, Ibe played nearly 2500 minutes in the Premier League and European competition, scored just two goals and created three assists, from a general shot contribution (shots and key passes) of around three per game. These numbers are very much on the low side for an attacker of any sort, and moreso for one that has gathered up minutes playing for a reasonably high volume shooting side, while getting a good amount of time off the bench.
Twenty year old Jordon Ibe did not participate in goals. As a buying club, perhaps you’re okay with this, you think you can find a way of fitting him in, work on these aspects? A cheap bid should do it, right? Couple of million? Alright, five million, times have changed. Au contraire, Bournemouth spent a club record £15million.
To spend so much of a budget on a gamble such as Ibe? That is madness.
Ibe’s season has not gone to plan. Thirteen league starts all in, but just two since Christmas, including what looks from the outside to be a “prove a point, mate” selection against Liverpool, for which he lasted an hour and created nothing, not even recording one dribble, let alone something useful like a shot. He’s often been sacrificed at half time, or thrown on when the team is getting stuffed, and all the way along 1000-plus minutes, has recorded no goals and no assists. That he has become so peripheral also raises questions about how he is being managed and Eddie Howe could earn some added kudos by finding the key to his record signing. Ibe might still learn, I guess, and his development could move forward, but there is practically no evidence that he will become a Premier League standard player or live up to a big fee. Liverpool already made that call last summer, and for now he is a bust, and one that wasn’t hard to foretell.
Manchester City could be highlighted in any reflection on last summer’s transfers not least for what they didn’t do rather than what they did. With four aging full-backs in residence, and a slew of senior players on contracts deep into their dotage, obvious problems ahead of Pep Guardiola’s arrival were not solved. They did need centre back cover, and £50m worth of unpolished Stones arrived while the attack was bolstered by Leroy Sané and Gabriel Jesus–expensive young toys aplenty. These deals may well prove very good, but didn’t immediately get to the core of City’s problems.
A broken İlkay Gündoğan for £25m also arrived without a receipt, and Nolito started well before drifting off into the ether but the goalkeeper saga probably represented the worst bit of business of the lot. It isn’t about how good Claudio Bravo has been in his career, or even about how well he has performed in a Manchester City shirt (which hasn’t been good at all: he’s saved 55% of the shots he has faced, the lowest of any keeper in the league this season to play 15 or more games, and sufficiently low to be notable). The crux to why this deal was bad was the price and the age.
City’s rear guard is already chock full of over-30s and the old idea that goalkeepers don’t decline like outfielders perhaps doesn’t carry as much weight as it once did. The modern game is ever faster and reactions fade. For every Gianluigi Buffon thriving into his late 30s we find an Iker Casillas type who has hit the wall harder than a Cristiano free kick. Buying a 33 year old goalkeeper is instantly a risk; moreso when you throw £17m at them. City look like they will pay the price for their knee-jerk signing, as another keeper is surely fairly high on their summer wish list.
Spanish C and B teams, Ukraine, Greece and then a hot couple of years as the main goal getter for a relegation threatened La Liga side are not the general career path for an Arsenal forward.
Then again, nor is non-league football, playing with an electronic tag or racial abuse in a casino, but that didn’t stop the early summer bids going in.
Already well blessed with attacking talent, it appeared that Arsene Wenger and/or his team had identified a role to buy for; once Jamie Vardy was missed, a Vardy type seemed on the menu. So they turned to Lucas Pérez. Two weeks after signing for Arsenal he turned 28 years old. This was not a signing for the future. Yet what future Perez has at the club already appears in doubt. Having started just two Premier League games and one Champions League game and played around 400 minutes in those competitions, he can hardly be said to have had much of an opportunity to make an impact. When he has featured he’s looked a tidy player–and has seven goals littered around cup appearances and his sporadic league and European outings–but has simply not found favour, even as the team’s form careered into the bin. The curiosity is why they signed him, only not to use him?
Arsenal have as smart a unit of analysts as any team around. If they signed off on him, he must have shown up exceedingly well somewhere, and one hopes beyond his headline numbers. If Wenger went with his own gut feeling or took other advice, then how could he identify and sign a player who he would then routinely ignore? Perhaps £17m is small change for Arsenal, but regardless, the signing has been almost entirely pointless beyond the enrichment of Pérez and his long term security. That is not to cast an aspersion on him but it will likely be his last (only?) big contract, and a black mark against Arsenal’s generally sound recent recruitment.
Moussa Sissoko and Georges-Kévin Nkoudou
Vincent Janssen gets a pass here despite a tough year because he’s young, but mainly because it was possible to create an argument that he might have been a good signing prior to his arrival. No such case exists for Moussa Sissoko or Georges-Kévin Nkoudou.
It has been tough to break into Tottenham’s first team this season, but on paper, you might expect a £30m French international signing–no, not N’Golo Kante–to knock hard on the door and look to make an impact. Sissoko, has not managed to do this. An ironic season highlight was his shepherding the ball near the corner flag as Tottenham eked out a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace last week, it represented a rare tangible benefit to his being on the pitch. The main problem with the Sissoko signing isn’t so much that he has failed to have any impact–he hasn’t, having started just ten games in all competitions–it is that it was entirely foreseeable.
As the transfer window came to a close last summer, Newcastle fans couldn’t hide their glee that Everton and Tottenham appeared to be battling for their erratic midfielder. Buoyed by an apparently successful Euros (one wonders how he made that squad given France’s depth of talent) and despite having just participated in relegation, he was in demand.
But why? During his three and a half years at Newcastle he averaged around two goals and four assists per season and was rarely creative. He had an engine, sure and he could run with the ball, a bit, but nothing about him suggested he had anywhere near enough end product to justify such an elevated fee. Add in that he was 27, significantly older than Tottenham’s generally youthful transfer focus and everything about the deal made no sense. For those who expected little, he has not disappointed. And the fee! Daniel Levy came through for his manager here, but may not again, at least not like this.
Having arrived for £9m from Marseille, N’Koudou could not be easily quantified either. He has made just six substitute appearances in the league for a combined 47 minutes. Is he for the future? It seems unlikely. He’s quick but that’s about it. Like Sissoko, nothing in his stats from his time at his former club suggested that he was a player that could fit in or thrive at a top six Premier League club, and sure enough, he hasn’t.
Tottenham have made great strides in recent years and often found gems in the transfer market. However, Victor Wanyama apart–a player already known to the manager– the summer of 2016 was a car crash. If anything changed in the player selection process there, it might be advisable to change it again.
In recent seasons, Salomón Rondón is about the closest thing the Premier League has to a successful signing out of the Russian League. Otherwise, it hasn’t been a very fertile hunting ground. By now, you might expect that knowledge to have permeated slightly further than it has but Leicester, ever creative in their recruitment, cocked a snook at such an idea and splashed out £17m of their summer budget on Ahmed Musa.
He has now made two league starts since Christmas, both 3-0 home defeats (to Man Utd and Chelsea) in which he lasted a half and 71 minutes respectively and beyond that he’s played 41 minutes since February. Neither Claudio Ranieri or Craig Shakespeare appear to have found faith in the Nigerian attacker and he is starting to look very much like an expensive mistake. A percentage call would have been to pass; all transfers involve risk, but it’s important to get an idea about league strength when evaluating future signings, in particular ones that clock in at this kind of fee.
Islam Slimani narrowly missed the cut here, but his record of actually scoring saved the easy criticism of his club forking out a huge £35m on a striker who turns 29 this June. He has also missed time for injury but Leicester have struggled to nail down their forward line this season, so much so that they have often found well over £50m in transfer fees warming their bench. Strength in depth, or the folly of wealth?
Manuel Lanzini’s contract became officially permanent at some point within or after the 2015-16 season. This was a good idea. Subsequent summer transfer dealings were less so. West Ham may have long since waved goodbye to Harry Redknapp, but the tendency to do a bit of transfer business has not left them. Ten players arrived in the summer of 2016, for a variety of fees, some on loan, some permanent. Around £40m was invested on these players, who arrived from such varied locations as Uruguay, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, England and Wales.
One can only presume West Ham have an excellent scouting network to be able to cover the globe so broadly, as the players acquired rarely stood out in the numbers. Indeed Donald Trump would be impressed with such committed deal making. Sadly, this extensive preparation has not proven a successful blend, with the ten new players logging just 58 league starts between them. By January, post-Brexit, the hatches had been battened down and recruitment brought intra-league with Robert Snodgrass (29 years old and 30 soon) arriving for £10m on a three and a half year deal and José Fonte, a sprightly 33 years old and a European Champion no less, signing on for two and half years and an £8m fee.
Leroy Fer is the… Relegator
Hull arrived in the Premier League and spent £13m on Ryan Mason and then bought nobody else. Metaphorically this was the equivalent of drunk guy climbing into the rhino pen at his local zoo armed with a can of lager and an urge for a fight. The Premier League, a couple of early blips apart, duly mowed them down. One manager change and a cartload of January loan signings later, they might just sneak survival. It will be no thanks to their summer transfer strategy.
So bad was Sunderland’s recruitment that an entire article could have been conceived using just players they acquired.
While at Everton, David Moyes had a reputation as a man who had an extensive knowledge of players and was skilled in recruitment. David Moyes reputation as Sunderland manager is that of a guy who has no knowledge of players beyond those he has already worked with and that he is extremely unskilled in recruitment. It’s a stark transition.
Sunderland spent money too. Launching most of your budget on a goal shy central midfielder is pure Moyes and the £17m capture of Didier Ndong echoed the failed “Fellaini gambit” from his Man Utd tenure. That deal ate most of the budget yet is possibly one of the better ones–Ndong at least has future value in the market. Doubling Chelsea’s money on Papy Djilobodji was a little perplexing but meant Younes Kaboul was replaced. That’s the money spent, but what else?
Paddy McNair, Donald Love and Adnan Januzaj arrived from the depths of Man Utd’s reserves and may have had better seasons had they stayed there. The ghost of Steven Pienaar and free agent Victor Anichebe formed the first wave of throwback Everton signings, while by January Darron Gibson and Bryan Oviedo found the opportunity to get the band back together too much to resist. Joleon Lescott, a bad signing last year for a truly dismal Aston Villa team, rounded out the fab five and played half an hour all in.
Perhaps money became tight but what was left wasn’t well spent. Moyes’ desire to bring in trusted guys who presumably were thought able to “do a job” echoed everything bad in modern recruitment. The overall malaise hasn’t been confined to just this season, but the cumulative effect of years of incoherent policy and endless changes meant that a season of abject greyness, the like of which only Moyes could produce, rooted the team firmly at the bottom of the table. His retained presence is a localised cartoon cloud that continues to precipitate.
Overall, the Premier League is awash with cash, but not always awash with sound judgement. Pray that your club is doing the right things and not just indulging their manager’s follies or buying off agent lists. There are still huge benefits to be gained by just putting together a sound process, and as we have seen, even big clubs aren’t necessarily on top of it.
Spend your money wisely owners, for these are the good times.