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…