How do you replace a superstar footballer?
Stars, by their very nature, are hard to replace; that’s why they’re stars. At any moment, there’s only a handful of Ballon d’Or-caliber players out there. Only some of them have their best years ahead of them. Even at a young age, these players tend to cluster at the world’s richest clubs. Only a subset of those clubs can afford to buy a superstar. Every time such a transaction occurs, the selling club must try to replace someone whose value stemmed from the absence of any comparable alternatives.
This remains unfamiliar territory. The blockbuster transfer of a superstar, even in this era of TV deals and rising fees, remains a rarity. Good players are bought and sold in every window, but the transfer record has only been set seven times in this millenium. (The nominal fee for Hernan Crespo, the millennium’s first record-setter, is about what Manchester City paid for Benjamin Mendy.) It’s still unusual for a club to lose a singular player and bring in the kind of money that allows for meaningful squad reconstruction.
Spare a thought, then, for Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2013. The club had just sold Gareth Bale for a then-record €100.8 million. He really was that good, the closest thing to a one-man team and just entering his prime. Now what?
In short, Spurs turned their Bale money and some spare cash into seven new signings, none of whom cost more than 30 percent of the Bale fee. Since nobody remembers what nine-figure fees meant in 2013, it’s helpful to think of what comparable fees netted in the Premier League that summer. Let’s remember some guys:
Nearly six years later, as various mega-clubs look set for serious rebuilds, it’s worth revisiting the strategies implicit in that list of names. Some of Spurs’ signings may have faded from memory or become less interesting, but their stories can help us better understand the value of capital-s Stars and the challenges of replacing them.
Spurs immediately conceded that no available player could match Bale’s production (26 goals and 15 assists in 2012-13). The club sought to spread the responsibility between a nominal replacement (Lamela) and upgrades at other positions. Clubs often tell the press — or themselves — a version of this argument when replacing a crucial player. Spurs had tried it the year before, replacing Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart with the likes of Hugo Lloris, Mousa Dembélé, Jan Vertonghen, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Clint Dempsey, and Emmanuel Adebayor. Bale ironically became part of a similar argument last summer, when Real Madrid claimed its squad could replace Cristiano Ronaldo’s production.
Players like 2013-vintage Gareth Bale are useful in large part because they concentrate so much production in one position. The remaining ten outfield players still contributed but they benefited from the attention paid to their star teammate. Jermain Defoe’s 2012-13 tally of 15 goals was useful to a team with Gareth Bale, but would be insufficient without him. For a team that had given more than 2,000 minutes to each of Aaron Lennon, Dempsey, Michael Dawson, Sigurdsson, Adebayor, Sandro, and Scott Parker in Bale’s final season, versions of this predicament existed at most outfield positions. Signing a superstar is expensive, but upgrading multiple positions to replace the lost production isn’t exactly cheap.
Discussing players’ records in absolute terms obscured the cost of replacing all this production. Roberto Soldado arrived in London talking about scoring 20 goals. The number sounded impressive: 20 goals is a lot more than none and a lot more than what you or I could score. It is not, however, that much more than Defoe’s 15. A five-goal upgrade at striker was not going to make up for the very serious downgrade at Bale’s winger-ish position. What really mattered was the new signings production relative to the players they displaced. A club like Tottenham can buy a 10 goal player. Buying a ten-more-goals player is much harder — and Spurs needed more than one such player.
It’s worth considering something approaching the best-case scenario for this strategy: Lamela contributes half of what Bale did, Soldado scores 20 goals, every signing starts and improves on an incumbent, nobody regresses. Forget for a second that most of these things did not happen. What reason was there to believe that buying two players from the part of the transfer market where title-chasing clubs purchased marginal starters and a handful of squad players would do the trick? This was akin to fielding Manchester City’s weakened team for cup ties for and expecting to compete for fourth.
The players were not unusual flops. With the possible exception of Chiriches, who cost as much as Dejan Lovren (but also Ricky van Wolfswinkel), all of these signings performed about as well as comparable ones made by other clubs. They were improvements on an unimpressive squad, but that’s not all Spurs had hoped for. The strategy of spreading out production, as implemented by Spurs, could only have worked if multiple players improved in unexpected and unusual ways. In that respect, it was less of a strategy than it was an act of faith.
Since the summer of 2013, teams have tended to follow the sale of a superstar with their own near-record purchases. Juventus spent the bulk of its Paul Pogba money on the bulk that is Gonzalo Higuain. Barcelona spent most of its Neymar money on Ousmane Dembélé and Coutinho. Those three replacements rank among the ten most expensive transfers in footballing history. Liverpool, in turn, spent the bulk of its Coutinho money on Virgil Van Dijk, who is also on that list. (These clubs were all richer than Spurs and had more talented squads when making these purchases.) Teams with policies of only buying young prospects have stuck to their guns, as Monaco and Borussia Dortmund did after selling Kylian Mbappé and Dembélé, respectively. Otherwise clubs have behaved as if buying one or two really good players — even if they’re at different positions — can better replace an outgoing superstar than a bevy of marginal upgrades.
Time is rarely kind to transfers. The reality of a player — even a good one — can struggle to live up to the anticipation and techno-scored highlight clips that presaged their signing. Players age, get injured, and suddenly it’s easy to question the process that led to their acquisition. Tottenham’s post-Bale spending spree, on the other hand, has benefitted from the passage of time. What looked like a disaster in 2013 and 2014 has developed redeeming qualities. It might even be good.
Christian Eriksen is the most obvious point in favour of that transfer window. Eriksen’s goodness is the least contentious part of this argument so it needn’t be belaboured. You can read StatsBomb supremo Ted Knutson’s praise of Eriksen from his first season with Spurs, which he recently told me “was SO LONG ago.” He’s still good, by the way: he leads the team in xG assisted per 90 minutes while also doing lots of central midfielder work like progressing the ball from deep and pressuring opponents. Once again, he was purchased at 21 in the same window Cardiff spent a comparable fee on 26-year-old Gary Medel. After six seasons at the club, he will either see out the rest of his prime or be sold for a princely sum. Spurs fans would obviously prefer the former, but either outcome would represent tremendous return on the original investment.
Then there’s Erik Lamela. Sometimes you buy a promising young winger — for argument’s sake, let’s call the selling club Roma — and they suddenly take the leap into Ballon d’Or contention. Other times you buy buy a promising young winger — once again let’s call the selling club Roma — and they turn out to be…pretty useful? Obviously you’d prefer the first outcome, but that doesn’t make the second one bad. Lamela has suffered from the expectation that he, of all the signings, would be Bale’s true successor and blossom into a goalscorer. That hasn’t really happened. But judged on his own term, as a tryhard who creates more than he scores while also fouling and pressing everyone in sight, he’s a good player. The caveat here is that Lamela’s per-90 statistics flatter a frequent substitute. Looking at Lamela’s unadjusted season totals, though, just drops him from being the second-best player in a variety of creative metrics to a decent fourth. (He still has the team’s second most throughballs, ranks fourth in expected goals, and a joint fourth with Dele Alli in scoring contribution.) The suboptimal outcome for a good, young player purchased for £27m, even in 2013, can still be quite good.
Roberto Soldado, who showed some promise under Andre Villas Boas, was the most obvious flop. He was the oldest and most expensive player Spurs signed in 2013, never came close to scoring his promised 20 goals despite being in his prime, and lost much of his value in his two years with the club before being sold at a substantial loss. Negredo and Jovetic — the other strikers who came into the league for similar money that summer — weren’t great either, but Soldado was genuinely bad. There not being an obviously better option doesn’t change that fact.
The other players at least took minutes away from some of the duds in the squad before being sold on at minor losses after a couple years. Nacer Chadli, the pick of that bunch, was a competent player who was sold on for basically the same nominal fee Spurs had spent in 2013. In the case of the more aged Paulinho, Spurs were bailed out by the existence of the Chinese Super League, but that’s what it’s there for. Chadli and Capoue went on to have useful careers lower down the Premier League table. Chiriches offers some depth at Napoli. Other than Paulinho, whose career is decidedly weird, these players appear to have found their levels. A buying club might want more Eriksen-style hits, but the “more is more” portion of the transfer list generally performed as you’d expect.
Spurs, in other words, signed one of the midfield bargains of the decade in Eriksen, a promising young attacker who turned out fine, a dud of a striker, and some squad players who did squad player things before being sold on. One can credibly argue that they more than broke even on the summer’s business. And it was nowhere close to enough. Sixth place flattered Spurs in 2013-14. The new players were supposed to at least competently eat up minutes, but Nabil Bentaleb played more than 1,000 league minutes in that first post-Bale season. Both Bentaleb and Ryan Mason topped the 2,000 league minute mark in Mauricio Pochettino’s first season despite being, well, not very good at midfield things. You can, it turns out, get decent returns on your spending spree to replace a superstar and still end up much worse off.
More than anything else, the lesson of Tottenham’s 2013 transfer travails may be that elite players — even the ones who bring in record fees — can be undervalued. Bale was known to make up for Tottenham’s talent deficit, but the extent of that deficit only became clear after he left. (This is likely less of an issue for other record sellers like Barcelona or Juventus, who have more talented squads.) Spurs made out okay with their Bale money, and it still took a major managerial upgrade, multiple good signings in subsequent windows, and the elevation of one of the league’s best strikers from the youth ranks for them to return to competitive relevance. A club can’t count on a grab bag of signings to replace the production of a superstar in the best of circumstances, but when those signings are purchased with a windfall that doesn’t reflect the lost star’s value the whole undertaking is basically impossible.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association