Photo: Matt Boulton / Chance illustration
Perhaps more than ever, this transfer window has been dominated by debates over the value of football transfer fees. My initial aim was inspired by Everton’s quick start in the transfer window, buying Jordan Pickford, Davy Klaassen and Michael Keane in a price range of £20-25m, with hot takes declaring Everton had the best transfer window out of all Premier League clubs. Then we had that Neymar fee, was it a fair fee considering footballs hyperinflation or is he is entirely overvalued? And the Siggurdsson Saga finally reached its finale, after we discussed every set piece he has ever kicked, as he moved to Everton for around £45m.
I was hoping to find an answer to what a starting-level talent should command from a transfer fee, as some commented whether these players deserved the high transfer fees. I was also intrigued on how to objectively define transfers as “successful” considering how relative they can be. I used transfer figures from transfermarkt.com and minutes played from FoxSport.com to attempt a factual answer to my two questions. I’m still not 100% sure of an answer to what a starting level talent should cost, but I have some interesting findings from the journey that I wanted to share.
I wanted to analyse the transfer market properly so I included differing leagues, a range of 2 years (2013-15) and teams with different objectives (winning the league, competing in Europe and surviving relegation). Here is the list of teams that I included.
Some of the clubs included ended up being relegated by the 2016/17 season (perhaps in part due to bad transfers) but I thought to include them as bad transfer policy would have been partly to blame for their relegation. I have only looked at transfers involving money, so have excluded free transfers, loans and internal movements. My database has more Bundesliga transfers but I am satisfied with the almost-equal distribution between the 3 leagues.
So let’s start with Age, one of the most important factors of a transfer. As you probably expect, there is a curve whereby the youngest and the oldest are the lowest averages and the highest are between the peak athletic years.
What surprises me is that the highest average is age 28, when I expected it to be a much earlier age. My guess towards the lower sums for 22 and 23 yrs is that they are seen as ‘fulfilling their potential’ and reaching their talent peak as football players. The chart above are all averaged figures, which means that for every Bale £85m transfer there is Augsburg’s £170k signing of Mathias Fetsch. I wanted to look further into the amounts paid, as averages can only show so much, so I calculated the 25th, 50th and 75th percentile for transfer fees at every age and plotted into a candlestick chart.
This graph shows that every age has a transfer fee floor below the £1 million fee, and that the peak athletic years have the biggest range of fees. It also follows the same shape as the average fee chart with dips between the ages 22-23 and 26. The high peak at 24 reflect the huge sums paid for Gareth Bale (£85m), Kevin De Bruyne (£62m), Mesut Ozil (£39m) and Christian Benteke (£39m). Yes I also forgot that bentekkers went for that huge sum.
Perhaps teams should look at the 22-23 drop as an opportunity to grab undervalued players? Look at the most expensive signings in this period at those ages.
Some of these players have significantly exceeded their price tag in terms of performance. Griezmann for £25m, Sadio Mane for 19, KDB for 18. Even Shaqiri and Wanyama, who are definite starters for their clubs, were purchased for way below the fee they would demand on the market right now. Of course 3 of the 5 players I have just mentioned have moved on from mid-table teams to title-contenders, but did develop as players despite the conventional wisdom of player development ending after 21.
Let’s move on to another critical factor of transfers, Positions. Now Transfermarkt uses “left midfield” and “left wing” as differing positions so I thought (alongside being a bit fun) I would list all the positions alongside the most expensive transfer at that position.
Whilst you are still thinking about some of those dreadful transfers, here is the average fee per position.
Before making this I believed that Centre Forward would be the most expensive position, but the average is actually higher for Left and Right Wingers. It is also interesting that Keepers had one of the lowest averages considering it is one of the most important positions (or perhaps that is my defence-biased thoughts). When grouping some of the positions together, these are the averages.
So if we were to assemble an average level club from the transfer markets of 2013-16 we would end up with a £128 million bill, which feels like a (relatively) fair price for a mid table team in the top divisions.
Now another vital factor is the League. A lot of commentators assume that the Premier League outspends its rivals in terms of fees so I thought I would test that assumption.
I was expecting the average fee for the Prem to be higher than just £3m, but everything changed when I looked at total spend by the leagues.
This shocked me. Not because of the Premier League’s outlandish spending, but because looking at the top of my spreadsheet I assumed it was an even mix of the three leagues. I knew that Premier teams overspent, but looking at the top transfers and it seemed a fair combinations of the big European clubs. I decided to count all of the transfers above and below the almost average fee (although it is actually £6.45m, I did the split at £6.38m).
I established earlier that we have an equal amount of transfers between the 3 leagues, with the Bundesliga having 39%, the Prem 34% and La Liga 27%. This graph therefore shows that the Prem pay above the overall average fee for 50% of their transfers, so you can see why other countries expect high sums when British clubs ask for their players.
And to end the piece I wanted to have a look at how “successful” the transfers have been. Successful in quote marks because it is a subjective question. There is many opinions about the most expensive signing in this period, Gareth Bale, with some viewing his time at Real as not worthy of the bill, although I doubt anyone view him as a inferior footballer or view the last few years being unsuccessful for Real Madrid. Whilst thinking about how to qualify a transfer as “successful” I came up with 2 factors that I thought would be accurate and doable by my laptop and skill.
- Are they still at the club?
- Are they still playing?
I believe that if they still playing regularly 3 years after their transfer to a team then it shows that they are still seen as a talented starting-level player. The first criteria obviously favours those who moved in the 2015 summer window (as they moved sooner than 2013) but I am satisfied with these factors. Think from a manager’s / director’s perspective: if you signed a player for £20-40m, you are expecting him to be a starting level talent for the next 3 years, especially depending on the age you signed him. So I decided to go through FoxSports Standard statistics (as they are helpfully set out in table format) and added the minutes played in the 2016/17 season.
I’ll admit that it took ages going through 3 leagues of player’s minutes so I decided that anyone who played under 750 mins would get a 0. This just helped shave half the time and results in the same outcome – we are looking at starters who played multiple thousands of minutes a season not those who overall played 8.3 games.
Here is the final graph:
Now some of those 0’s laying on the horizon will be the Mane, KDB and Wanyama of the world, who have moved to other clubs and so are technically nills (although you can still see KDB’s move to Man City). But this graph raised a few (edgy) questions when I saw it for the first time.
- Are football clubs (generally) bad at transfers?
- Are the best signings those that cost the least?
I think the answer to both of those is no, as transfers are hard and that this graph doesn’t entirely show quality. Gareth Bale played the same amount as James McClean, and who would you rather have? I also made individual scatter charts for each league but remember that the Transfer Fee scale changes for each league:
My thoughts comparing these graphs is that the Bundesliga have the cheapest successful transfers out of the three leagues, with an overwhelming majority of players in between the £0-10m range. La Liga has a similar shape, with a huge gap between the highest transfer fees and the majority of transfers, but they also have multiple 20m transfers that were successful. The Premier League is very different, with successful transfers across the scale and no huge gap between, but has a similar trend line to La Liga. The Bundesliga have a far flatter trend line which reflects the lower sums being paid, and all 3 of these charts show that there is a high amount of unsuccessful transfers with the low position of the trend line.
So what is the percentage of unsuccessful transfers? here is a table going through
the percentage of transfers that played 0 mins during the 2016/17 season.
Is it weird that all of the leagues have a similar percentage? I suppose with 18 clubs per league it makes sense that they have a similar number. But for a sport that spends millions on transfers, it is astonishing that 65% of transfers failed my simple 2 rules for a successful transfer.
Finally, I wondered what differences there is between positions. Here is a chart of the average minutes played split up by grouped position types:
It is very surprising to me that Strikers have a significantly lower number than the other positions, despite being one of the most expensive positions. Perhaps that is due to being the second highest count (which will drag the average down) but this does show the difficulty in finding a successful striker.
Thank you very much for reading my article, if you have any comments or criticism then contact me on twitter @frost29v. Thank you also to everyone at Chance for the feedback and letting me post this. If you like the content from this website, then please consider supporting us via Patreon.
Here is a summary that I gathered whilst writing:
- 65% of transfers are “unsuccessful” resulting in the player either leaving the club or not playing as a starter.
- The Premier League lives up to its reputation, outspending the Bundesliga and La Liga significantly.
- Half of the Premier Leagues signings are above the average transfer fee, with La Liga and Bundesliga having 29% and 13% likewise.
- Bundesliga starting-level talent is cheaper than the other leagues.
- Wingers are more expensive than Strikers.
- Strikers and Wingers are the most expensive transfers but (on average) play less minutes than other positions.
- The ages 21 and 28 are the most expensive, with dips between the ages 22-23 and 25-26. All ages have a transfer fee ‘floor’ of around 1m.
- A mid-table team *should* cost £128m.
- Stewart Downing was once the World’s most expensive “left midfielder”.