Fans (and owners) misunderstand football transfer market

Yesterday saw theoretically two of the three biggest clubs in the Premier League come face-to-face at Anfield, but both were under pressure from fans having released international strikers and apparently done little to strengthen in obvious areas of weakness. The result, as it happens, demonstrated which club understands the transfer market and which doesn’t; I fully expect the gap on the field to be replicated in the League table at least until the next transfer window.

Liverpool and Arsenal are both what I describe as “budget clubs” – that is to say they are not owned by people willing to throw any amount of money at them (unlike Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea) and therefore they have to budget. There is a skill to this, one the league table has demonstrated consistently for a decade or so that generally Arsenal understands better than Liverpool.

1. The amount you spend on players in the transfer market bears almost no relation to team performance: from 1997-2007, the correlation between a club’s Premier League table position and the amount it had spent in the transfer market on players was under 20%.

2. The amount you spend on player wages is hugely significant: from 1997-2007, the correlation between a club’s Premier League position and its wage bill was over 90%.

3. Players become established at age 20-22 and peak at age 27.

Arsenal “fans” criticized Arsene Wenger last week (I use quotation marks because real Arsenal fans do not criticize him) for not signing a defensive midfielder after the departure of Alex Song. Yet the only one I have actually seen mentioned was Nigel de Jong – available for next to nothing but commanding 125k per week, not the kind of money Arsenal has, unfortunately. Instead, Wenger strengthened his defensive coaching by bringing in Steve Bould, and replaced van Persie with Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud (all three coming to less that van Persie went for, but then probably commanding collectively higher wages – hence Song, pre-peak but in truth generally underperforming, had to go too). Yesterday saw a third consecutive clean sheet, with Podolski and Cazorla scoring and Giroud narrowly missing. M. Wenger will continue to bring in players in the 22-27 age range on the cheap, and sell players who are 29+, because it is the only way he can manage the transfer market on a budget while keeping the wage bill (the really essential bit) relatively high. He will occasionally throw in young players too, although rarely much short of established age (e.g. Carl Jenkinson). Top Four remains a tough ask on a budget, but if there is one man you want to try to deliver it for you, be in no doubt it’s the man from Alsace!

Liverpool, on the other hand, doesn’t get it. 35 million for Andy Carroll was a classic example of the transfer market not working, but he remains a handful, he has not yet reached his peak, and he should have been retained. Once he had gone, to miss out on Clint Dempsey (admittedly passed peak) for want of a twelfth of what Carroll cost, is laughable. The assumption has to be – and here’s the really ridiculous bit – that Liverpool is still paying some of Carroll’s wages. That is mismanagement on a gross scale, and is the reason the team is having to rely on players not even of “established” age (Raheem Sterling is 17, for example) to fill the gaps.

For all that, I genuinely hope Liverpool finds a way through, because I suspect Brendan Rodgers is a seriously good team manager. Much like Arsene Wenger…


4 thoughts on “Fans (and owners) misunderstand football transfer market

  1. other paul says:

    Clean sheets maybe, but was there a half decent striker in any of the teams Arsenal have played so far? It’s interesting that you’re using statistics to criticise Liverpools transfer policy given that they very publicly tried and rejected “moneyball”. There’s a good secret footballer article about moneyball in the Guardian that’s well worth reading.

    The correlation between the wage bill and the performance seems scurrilous. It reminds me of that story going around about Peter Ridsdale signing Seth Johnson (again, google it if you don’t know it).

    I don’t think anyone can dispute Arsene Wenger’s abilities as a talent scout, and I enjoy watching his teams but I’d imagine I’d feel very fustrated with him if I were an Arsenal fan. As far as Brendan Rogers goes, I think it’s very similar to an upstart that’s had one good season in the Premier League, it’s (relatively) easy the first year, but can he reproduce more of the same again and again? It becomes a very different game then.
    And any club that spends 35million pounds on such a player (e.g. Liverpool and Andy Carroll) can hardly be called a budget club. I think we probably will both agree that Liverpool don’t seem to be learning from their mistakes…

    • The jury is certainly out on Rodgers.

      Wenger has proved his abilities time and time again. What is frustrating is the way we have to compete against teams with endless supplies of money! But that’s life.

    • football cliches says:

      Hi Other Paul,

      The Seth Johnson is a great one, and from someone at a big four accountancy practice in Leeds was confirmed to me s true. He’s a reliable man so I cannot question him on it (though you don’t know me, I use an alias so you can of course question my veracity).

      Re Andy Carroll and the £35m spent on him, I’m certain if you are aware, and if you are apologies for repeating something you already know, but this was a tri-partite agreement between Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle which hinged on what Chelsea would pay for Torres; the price for Carroll would be £15m less than this. No one in their right minds expected Red Rom to offer £50m during a January transfer window, yet he continues to astound us all.

      Regarding Moneyball, again, I think it’s a great idea in principal, however, it lends itself more to sports which can be statistically analysed easily and in a more raw sense, ie, baseball. football still largely relies on talent spotting, intuition etc. Baseball is a sport where I can literally mine the raw data and figure out whether t put in a left handed batter against a right handed fast pitcher in the 6th inning, in football, as we know, there is too many imponderables for this to be effectively done.

      Re Arsenal, well I’m a Spurs fan though not one blinded by (too much) prejudice. They lack a decent striker nd Podolski is not the man for the task. He is good at international level, a lot like his partner Klose, but at club level never seems to fulfil his potential. I think they should have thought about bringing in maybe Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Llorente or even try for Osvaldo from Roma (though he seemingly loves life in Rome and the adulation of the Roma fans (btw, a game at the Stadio Olimpico is something every and any football fan should see once in their lifetime)) where he had a great season with them last year and with Espanol the year previous.

      • Inclined to agree re Moneyball, although there are some truths about football which can be gleaned from stars – just not as many.

        On Podolski, he never succeeded away from his home area, so you may prove right. But he’s started brightly enough.

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