Nobody is suggesting that player recruitment is a simple task. A team could sign a budding star player but if he misses mum’s home cooking and craves a simpler life, it’s unlikely he will stick around and help you win the league. Sometimes personalities or cultures clash or key decision makers just aren’t too great at their jobs. Maybe a manager is vetoing signings while trying to bring in his old mate’s son, or an agent has got friendly with the chairman. However we look at it, aspects of football’s transfer market are ripe for manipulation and inefficiency is rife.
Should it be this way? Not really, but when money and glory and sport intersect, often times folly is not too far behind. Here with a hefty dose of hindsight put through a blender of logic is a look at the 2015-16 Premier League signings that for whatever reason, either made no sense or just haven’t worked. If nothing else we should be able to identify a few risk factors and ideas of how not to waste the vast Premier League bounty that burns a hole in every chairman's pocket. This list doesn't include all possible options, you no doubt will have ideas of others, but for impact, bad planning and expense, it covers many sins.
After we'll look at a couple of players that will likely land on other similar lists with reasons why really, the jury is still out.
Liverpool finished 2014-15 with a 6-1 defeat at Stoke City and started without a striker. Rickie Lambert emerged from the bench, but with Brendan Rodgers choosing to play a 4-3-3, fluidity seemed to be the primary style in play, for all that it didn’t work.. Mario Balotelli was out of favour and soon to leave, Daniel Sturridge injured and further striking options were clearly necessary for 2015-16. In came Danny Ings while Divock Origi returned from loan. So far, sensible. But there seem to have been twin forces working at Anfield since the FSG takeover and last summer was no different. The easy to like signing of Roberto Firmino--he had the numbers--has over time looked well worth his fee, especially when contrasted with the square peg that is Christian Benteke.
Benteke’s stats are fine, he has averaged around half a goal per game in his first season at Liverpool, precisely what he averaged in his last season at Aston Villa and broadly, he is a reliable mid-volume shooter, so what’s the problem? In all likelihood, Benteke’s signing was the folly of a manager clinging to his post and to be deemed successful, he was likely to have been expected to create greater output. There were immediate concerns that he wouldn’t fit Rodgers’ system, that were loudly amplified as Jurgen Klopp continually selected others instead.
Benteke hasn’t failed, but the selection process that deemed him a viable signing broke down somewhere and he was never the right fit. Who signed off on the deal? Still a more than capable goalscorer, lower placed Premier League teams should have him top of their summer shopping lists and with a loss sure to be made £15m might get the conversation started.
Gökhan Inler and Yohan Benalouane
As much as anything Inler and Benalouane are good examples that even when your recruitment team is as feted as Leicester City’s is, you can still get things very wrong. Inler arrived as a well respected veteran of eight seasons in Serie A and over 80 international caps. A fee of £5m was mooted for a player who at 31 was clearly on the wrong end of the age curve and one might presume that the whole endeavour was an attempt to replicate the successful Esteban Cambiasso experiment. Leicester’s solid and unchanging first eleven has proved unaccommodating for the Swiss star and 195 league minutes in three starts and two substitute appearances reflect how minimal his impact has been that he has been called upon from the bench so sparingly could reflect a lack of trust from coach Claudio Ranieri. Deemed a coup upon signing it must also be presumed that he commands a decent wage but a three year deal for a 31 year old? Ouch...
Even less successful was Benalouane. Signed for a similar fee, he played just 66 substitute minutes and somehow managed to undershoot the team’s already low pass completion rate in completing just 4 of 14 passes before departing for Fiorentina on loan. It is to be hoped that his contract is not lucrative as it is reported to be for four years.
All clubs will miss with transfers and its should be remembered that Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kanté arrived over a series of transfer windows; they weren't a one hit magic spell of uncovered gold. A team that puts more into it's recruitment strategies will hopefully find more of the better players but will always run the risk of finding and overinvesting in a Benalouane or an Inler as well.
Serge Gnabry and Alex Pritchard
Military service was the stick that beat young men into shape for many years in this country and it can only be presumed that an opportunity to see cultural differences led to these two talented young players joining up with West Brom and the Tony Pulis junta. In a move that seemingly benefited nobody, Gnabry got 12 league minutes before being recalled to Arsenal in January, only to be replace by Pritchard--already toughened up from his time in the Championship at Brentford--and on the road to recovery from injury has found just 62 minutes of play.
Each signing is hard to quantify as both players lack the natural build and fortitude to be converted to centre back and now their futures look no clearer than they were at the start of the season. What was the point? Maybe only Pulis knows.
Scott Sinclair and Micah Richards
Aston Villa’s blend of Tim Sherwood and an analytics department created a two tiered summer recruitment drive that ultimately found the best of neither world. For the future, Ligue Un was liberated of Jordans, Idrissa Gueye was secured ahead of fellow suitors Leicester and Barcelona were pillaged for Adama Traoré. Every team needs to think of the long term and within a strong base of a team, these signings may well have paid off. Indeed, their futures will be interesting to follow, be they at or away from Villa Park. The general perspective is that they “weren’t good enough” but there is sufficient evidence to presume that it’s too early to make final judgements here.
The Sherwoodian side is less worthy of praise. From Emmanuel Adebayor’s rejection of the club due to advice from a pastor--who may well have correctly foretold their impending failure-- to the signing of 33 year old car enthusiast Joleon Lescott, there were elements that seemed far from on message with the rest of the recruitment arm.
Most criticism can be reserved for the unfortunate gambles on Scott Sinclair and Micah Richards. Sinclair last played anything like a full season in 2011-12 and although young enough to be deemed worthy of a four year contract, has failed to impress in 18 starts, so much so that he has been tried in nearly every attacking position in the team and has not managed to make any his own. Two goals from sixteen shots in 1500+minutes and ne’er a goal assisted from five whole shots created and all we’re left with is a phantom contribution.
For Richards it’s more of a sad tale having been long beset by injury problems, but his recruitment screams of a Sherwood gambit; you can envisage the conversation: “Helluva player was Micah, if we can just get him back to his best…” and boom, a four year contract lands in the post. He too was young enough to hope for but also hadn’t managed anything like a full season or even a half season since 2011-12. The possibility of his retained fitness seemed remote, and to his credit he has achieved that, but certainly he is not the player he was, and even a cursory review of his recent career and problems with injury would reveal that. He may well now continue his career at Villa and find the Championship more to his current level.
Norwich saved the pennies in the summer and ended up spending the pounds in January. Did they spend them wisely? It seems more likely that blowing £8m plus wages on a three and a half year deal for a 29 year old squad man from a mid table Premier League club was a sub-par allocation of resources.
One goal and a shade over one shot a game suggests that Naismith might not have been the saviour Norwich’s misfiring attack were wishing for, and what may be a standard Premier League contract will look quite expensive if as seems likely they return to the Championship.
Radamel Falcao, Alexandre Pato et al
Chelsea have had some delightful talents in their squad over the years but the loan signings of Falcao and Pato have felt more like a case of buying museum piece cars-- 2010 vintage-- to keep in the garage and occasionally marvel at. With two league starts and under 400 minutes between the pair over around 14 months of generous wages, it becomes puzzling to ascertain the purpose of signing multiply injured former talents.
Chelsea have found a diverse level to their recruitment this last year and the entirely logical and smart signings of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas now look more a blip among a series of more unfathomable choices. Pedro gets a free pass as at least he had recent credentials but nobody knows why they signed Michael Hector, a player who may be a reasonable gamble for a lower half Premier League team but who seems incongruous in among the elite. Papy Djilobodji came from so far out of left field that he might as well have been sitting in the stands with a hot dog and a beer and has already joined the loan army.
Plenty of young players have arrived or been reintegrated, Baba Rahman, Matt Miazga, Kenedy and Bertrand Traore to name but four, but with a huge season of transition coming, Chelsea need to accelerate their future into the present and their recent transfer record is decidedly mixed.
Newcastle: team award
When you spend the best part of £80m over two transfer windows on seven 20 to 25 year olds and look like getting relegated, it’s probably worth conducting a quick review of your processes. Newcastle have had obvious weaknesses for years, at centre back Fabricio Coloccini at 34 is long past his best-- note how many relegated teams have past it centre backs, it’s a theme--and pairing him with Chancel Mbemba was a baptism of fire for the younger man. They have also posted a seriously sub-par save percentage for four years yet haven’t seen fit to get into the market and buy a new bone fide first choice goalkeeper. These are the major holes in the squad so what did Newcastle do to solve it? They bought attackers, lots of them.
First the positive: players that still have enough value that other teams may want to purchase them in the future. Andros Townsend, given a run of games for the first time in years has done well and Georginio Wijnaldum at least looks talented but Aleksandar Mitrovic is the only one player on the team to have created any kind of shot volume this year and in contrast, the miss list won’t look pretty playing Championship football next season.
That same miss list might not seem so damaging were Newcastle not in the business of giving out abnormally long contracts in an attempt to maximise the resale value of their investments. Henri Saivet has more years on his contract (five and a half) than league appearances (four) and Florian Thauvin has already returned to France with a five year deal in his back pocket. Beyond this, Seydou Doumbia, thankfully just a loan signing, has managed just 29 minutes of league football. His failing at Roma and now near absence for Newcastle poses a question we will return to about Russian League form.
Newcastle’s strategy has long seemed scattergun, but only this season have they sunk significant investment into their signings-- and it hasn’t worked.
The pitfalls of writing this kind of article were highlighted to me in the research stage when I chanced upon a Telegraph article from January highlighting 20 “flop” Premier League transfers. A few names from here featured but the starkest member of the list was Roberto Firmino. While it took time for the former Hoffenheim man to settle, that he would now easily be considered for a signing of the season list shows that patience and acclimatisation are often requisite for expensive signings, maybe moreso if coming from a different league or with a language barrier to overcome. As someone who has followed Erik Lamela’s career up and down through rose tinted glasses, it's a situation I know well. Hence for these two, the jury remains out:
It remains to be seen if the signing of Oumar Niasse is the last big folly of the old regime or the first mistake of the new Farhad Moshiri era. Maybe that’s harsh on a player that had work permit issues, a wrist problem and a lack of match practice but thus far he hasn’t looked like £13m well spent. Two shots in his two starts and 142 total minutes is a far cry from the lethal striking seen at his former clubs and Everton must hope that the often difficult transition from the Russian Premier League to the English version can be successfully negotiated long term. He was a four shot a game man in Russia and contributed to over a goal per 90 minutes played and must have impressed key influencers at the club to have secured such a lucrative move. With any large fee comes a long contract, this time four and a half years, but in a team that has far more problems at the other end of the pitch, it seemed strange to use up so much of their budget on another striker, and especially mid-season.
But really, it’s too soon to call him an absolute flop. With a reasonable chance that Romelu Lukaku could leave in the summer, pre-purchasing a replacement may end up smart and your view on the likelihood of success may well rely on how highly you rate the standard of the Russian League and the risks associated with taking statistics there at face value. Only Salomón Rondón seems to have escaped the recent curse of the transferred Russian League goal machine, managing eight goals for a Tony Pulis team is more than reasonable. In order to get an idea of what type of player Niasse is I took the liberty of joining the scouting ranks-- I cued up a couple of Youtube videos. A lot of his goals appeared to involve his breaking free of unset defences, with plenty of space around him. How well will he be able to perform in a more defensively robust league where space and chances are harder to find? Signs of settling will be required quickly next year, or else his time on Merseyside may well be short.
With every goal that Anthony Martial scores, it appears that Memphis Depay becomes further away from the spotlight he was expected to occupy upon joining Manchester United last summer. A statistical outlier in Holland, a rare mega shot provider (over five per game), some concerns were raised around his shot selection, but he looked a genuine goal talent in his final year at PSV and sure to progress.
And maybe he will, for although the goals have dried up and his coach appears to have lost faith in him, he has still provided a solid shot volume (around 3.5 per 90) and at 22 years old has a ton of time to find out how to play in a bigger league. Possibly that leap from Holland to England has been more difficult than expected and it is well documented how Louis van Gaal’s systems limit a player’s shooting volume. Whether he stays at the club or is deemed (unwisely) to be surplus to requirements, it is more likely than not that the best of Memphis Depay will be forthcoming and found somewhere, long term. He may not end up the next Ronaldo, but he sure won't end up a bust either.
Thanks for reading.
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