In Defense of Everton's Richarlison Purchase
If there’s one piece of transfer advice that should be tattooed on the inside of the eyelids of everybody even remotely connected with football it’s this: Pay for what a player is going to produce, don’t pay for what they’ve already done.
That isn’t as easy as it sounds of course. Projecting performance is hard! What a player has done, isn’t necessarily indicative of what they will do. There are all sorts of things to take into account. How will a player react to a different system? Will changing leagues impact their performance? Have they played with really great teammates who flatter them, or really poor ones who held them back? If they are moving countries how will the adjustment impact them? Will there be language barriers, either on the player or coaching side, which slow down the bedding in process? And that’s all before trying to take the fickle nature of the football gods into account.
Throughout all the complication though, one thing is easy. Aging. Young players tend to get better and older players tend to get worse. That’s simply the way of things. Too often teams make the simple mistake of looking at a 27 or 28 year old’s production and assuming that they too will continue to get those goals. It just doesn’t usually work that way. There are exceptions of course, the Cristiano Ronaldo’s of the world. But, for the most part it's Wayne Rooney, not Ronaldo who is the norm. A player who is getting signed to play through age 30 is a player who is going to get worse.
The flip side of the coin is also true. Young players get better. They don’t all improve of course. There’s no such thing as a sure thing. It’s hard enough to predict how a player will perform when they change teams, but add in the uncertainty of aging and things get very fuzzy very fast. All players eventually get worse, not every young player gets better.
And so we come to Richarlison, who Everton just spent something like £40 million on. To judge that transfer solely on what Richarlison has produced to date would make it loot absurd. In the year since Watford acquired him for £10 million from Fluminese he scored five goals and assisted on four more and that’s supposed to quadruple his value?
The place to start, as always is a quick look at his expected goals. His xG numbers are much more promising. A 21 year old who racks up 12.05 expected goals is actually quite an exciting prospect.
That’s not to say that Everton should assume Richarlison is nailed on to bounce back to his underlying numbers. That’s a pretty big gap, it’s certainly possible there was a reason the young Brazilian attacker was so wayward. But, what is nailed on is that you’d much rather buy the player who had five goals from 12 expected than the reverse. In the absence of more data the default assumption should be that Richarlison’s xG is a more faithful representation of what he will produce in the future than his actual goals. In a world where Richarlison took exactly the same shots but 14 or 15 of them ended up in the back of the net, nobody would bat their eye at this price tag.
The fact that Richarlison is 21 years old suggests that he’s likely to improve. The fact that he scored fewer goals than expected is a sign that what Everton are getting is a player likely to produce more than he did last season. The fact that he’s already performed at a promising level for a year in the Premier League alleviates some of the adjustment concerns. Everton are operating in an environment considerably more definitive than Watford were. Watford took on the risk of buying Richarlison without having any guarantees about how moving from Brazil to England would impact the young player. Everton are not.
Then there’s the issue of teammates. Richarlison was the most prominent attacking force for Watford. He led the team in expected goals per 90 minutes (players with at least 1200 minutes) with 0.36
Despite playing from the wing, he took the most shots on the team with 3.02 per 90, and had the second highest xG/shot with 0.12. He also had the third most touches in the box with 8.82 per 90 (virtually tied with Andre Gray’s 8.92 and really only trailing Troy Deeney’s 10.30). Contextually these numbers paint the picture of a player who was pushing at the edges of what he could do given the teammates around him.
Everton aren’t world beaters, of course, but they do certainly have more talent than last season’s Watford side. Players like Gylfi Sigurdsson, Theo Walcott, Oumar Niasse, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin aren’t, for various reasons, elite players, but they’re certainly a better attacking corps than Troy Deeney and company. It’s yet another sign post pointing towards Richarlison being a player who will likely be better in the future than he was in the past.
And finally there’s the matter of the actual specific skills Richarlison brings to the table. He’s a scoring winger, but he’s not small. At 179cm he makes for a surprising aerial presence as well. Last season there were only seven players who played over 1000 minutes and averaged both more than one successful dribble per 90 and more than one aerial duel won. They’re an interesting group, Romelu Lukaku is the only star in the mix. And Salomon Rondon is the only striker besides Lukaku. Serge Aurier, the forever frustrating Spurs right back is the lone defender on the list, unless you're like Slaven Bilic chose to count Michail Antonio there for some reason. Then it’s Mikel Merino, Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison. That’s a weird list, but at the very least it’s indicative of an interesting and relatively unique skillset.
Does that all add up to a player whose worth the hefty price tag? Well, there’s a lot more that goes into evaluating a transfer fee than a player’s potential. Were there other ways Everton could have spent the money better? What will the market look like in three years’ time? What are Richarlison’s wages? All of those things are important factors in weighing whether Richarlison is worth what Everton spent.
There are absolutely reasons to be skeptical of Everton’s purchase of Richarlison. It’s just that the fact that he only has five goals and four assists isn’t one of them. Richarlison profiles as an exciting prospect, one who has buckets of talent and a reasonable chance of turning that talent into stardom. Everything about his last Premier League season screams that his production is likely to improve, and quickly. Young players, with numbers and experience that suggest that their best performance lies ahead of them are exactly the kinds of players that teams should be pursuing. Richarlison fits that profile to a tee.
Image courtesy of the Press Association