By Paul Tomkins.
Well, “Listen Up, Fuckwits” certainly put the rabid cats amongst the perfervid pigeons; feathers and fur everywhere, and a fair dose of faecal matter.
It’s interesting that I only used the term fuckwits for people flying planes and creating nasty and personal “Rodgers Out” Twitter accounts (which tastelessly mock and insult him), and yet people who were simply unhappy with Rodgers took this to include them too. Perhaps that’s to be expected, as they probably didn’t read it properly. Or maybe they are the kind to jump to conclusions. Wanting a change of manager doesn’t make you a fuckwit, but it can do, if you have stupid reasons for it, or act like an idiot.
People also misunderstood or misrepresented my ‘par’ argument. Par is a term I’ve been using for a while, and which has been used by Brendan Rodgers in recent weeks, to much criticism. While I can no longer be bothered with the logic-void that is a Twitter discussion, I wanted to counter some of the attacks on this argument, and to clarify a few points. After this introduction I will list some of the more common counterarguments to my piece, and state my replies.
I tried to make the original Fuckwits piece airtight, and I think it was, to a large degree; but even with 8,000 words you can’t address every angle of some nuanced arguments, especially when referring back to dozens of articles from which the argument had evolved, and an entire book on the subject from 2010. This riposte is also, in part, for those who wanted me to explain things in 140 characters, which just wasn’t possible. Instead, I’ve taken a few thousand words.
As a result I’ve put my Twitter account into stasis, bar automated links. The abuse doesn’t bother me – who can’t laugh at being called a speccy egg? – but the sheer noise is deafening when you’re trying to think straight. It’s worth noting a psychological phenomenon here. A study of refugees on boats trying to find a safe haven, and being turned away, showed that those close to someone calm and serene were also calm and serene; and those close to someone panicky were also panicky. In other words, try avoiding people who bring a sense of doom and panic.
If you didn’t read Listen Up, Fuckwits, then please be warned that this piece isn’t going to repeat all the same arguments. So this piece definitely won’t be airtight. This is to clarify and reinforce some points, and address any omissions; to cover any holes that people think they found in the last piece. You can always refer back to the original if you think I’ve missed something crucial here.
The most important thing to take away from any of my work relating to “5th being par” is that it doesn’t mean 5th is the limit of the ambitions. After all, Liverpool finished 2nd last season.
This point has been either wilfully or ignorantly misrepresented. People have got so angry about this, and even worse, some have said that “Tomkins says we should be happy with 5th, the big-nosed, four-eyed bastard” (I am paraphrasing the last part of that sentence, to combine various insults, some of which were made by my mum). Nowhere have I said you should be happy with par. Par is neutral – neither a success nor a failure. It’s simply what happens sometimes.
You can over-perform. Nowhere have I said that you can’t. However, I have said that it’s very tough to overachieve on a constant basis, and that the title is nigh-on impossible on the budget Liverpool work to (a budget reinforced by the limitations of FFP, but a budget that should, in time, increase as income from things like stadium redevelopment kicks in – although FFP will strengthen Manchester United more than anyone else). Over a period of seasons most clubs regress to the TPI mean, and on average over a ten-year period, the most expensive team will average 1st and 2nd-most expensive team will average second, and so on, in the exact order, down to 10th (below 10th it gets a bit more crazy).
And even over just two or three seasons, most teams will average out where the TPI model places them; certainly in the top half of the table. Over his six seasons Rafa Benítez hit par in the league. Over his three seasons, Rodgers is hitting par in the league. Now, Rafa had two especially good league campaigns, winning 25 games and 82 points in 2006 and winning 25 games and 86 points in 2009, with just two defeats. His first and last seasons were below par in finishing 5th and 7th, and the other two were around par.
Obviously he added two Champions League Finals (one won, one lost), plus an FA Cup. As previously stated, as brilliantly as Rafa did, he had the 3rd or 4th highest budget for most of the time, and so that ‘par’ enabled him to keep the team in the Champions League, which brought financial rewards and added cachet to the club after years in the wilderness. At the same time it made winning the league very tough, partly because, 2006 aside (when he did well in the league and won the FA Cup), there was always a run to at least the Champions League quarter-finals, and often the semis or the final itself (up until 2010, when his team only made the Europa semis). We loved those runs in Europe, as the closest we’ve been to the halcyon days.
Assuming that Liverpool finish 5th, Rodgers will also have hit par for the league across his three seasons. There have been no cup finals, although two semi-finals this season is probably more than you’d expect; it’s certainly not bad, is it? (One was deservedly lost, the other was undeservedly lost.) Of course, he inherited a team that fallen away between 2009 and 2012, although the two cup finals of 2012 were a fine achievement by Dalglish (they just dented the league form to a level that made the team look worse than I feel it was).
As I said at the time, what Rodgers achieved last season was remarkable; to have won the league would have been off the charts, because for me, it was a nigh-on impossible task. Therefore, ‘above par’ doesn’t capture how good it was – winning 26 league games; plus a run of 11 wins a row which, in terms of frequency within the same season, happens as often as a team winning both domestic cups (i.e. each has happened four or five times in the last 25 years).
My aim is to simply look at the likelihood of what will happen, and that can be fairly well judged in advance (and also retrospectively analysed) using our TPI model. In a way it gives you the odds, whilst we also acknowledge that crazy things can still happen in football. If you thought it was Liverpool’s right to win the league last season – that they threw it away – then you weren’t living in the real world. (Sorry about that.)
A metaphor is a glorious thing
If you need a metaphor, then Liverpool are a Mercedes Benz C-class – a fine car – going into the Formula One against the Ferraris, Williams and McLarens of Man United, Man City and Chelsea. To finish above those teams it needs them to require too many pitstops, a crash, or to spinoff into the dirt. As I said last week, and many times before, it’s rare that all three would have major problems at the same time, but if they did, a gap would open up. But, to date, a gap hasn’t opened up; not fully, at least. (To complete the metaphor, Arsenal are a souped-up BMW 5-series, Everton are a Skoda and Burnley are a Reliant Robin.)
United were a car-crash last season, and Chelsea were a bit below-par. Unfortunately, Man City were stronger than Liverpool, as you’d entirely expect; just not by as much of a margin as anyone predicted. Liverpool’s team would need to cost 50% more than it currently does to even be in the Title Zone (based on the minimum £XI threshold of the past 11 champions).
And no one in the Premier League era has won the league without coming in the top three the previous season – but this doesn’t mean that if you have a great season and finish 2nd you’re set for the following season; it may be that 2nd was a case of overreaching to start with. (This was certainly true in 2014 and 2009; but less so in 2002/03, as Liverpool were part of a much greater financial parity back then. Houllier’s business the summer of 2003 proved disastrous, short-term and long-term; we don’t yet know how the Reds’ 2014 business will pan out beyond this season.)
United, City and Chelsea don’t just have the money, they have the experience of winning things that having lots of money provided. Whether or not they spend big or small in any given window, they have the megasquads they’ve already assembled. City weren’t winning anything before they became mega-rich. Chelsea weren’t winning league titles before they became mega-rich. Add United into the mix, and you can see why Arsenal stopped winning league titles in 2004, some 14 years after Liverpool stopped doing the same (for different and varied reasons).
Without having comparable budgets to the Rich Three, the squads of Arsenal and Liverpool gradually lost their winning experience, and were squeezed out of the picture. It then became harder to buy top-end players, as those players go to the Rich Three, where they continue as winners – and reinforce the status quo.
As I’ve said many times, there is more value in 20-22 year-olds than 27-year-olds in the transfer market, but the latter may come with more experience of success; they certainly come with more experience of playing football.
Buying from the more expensive 27/28-year-old bracket does not guarantee success on any individual signing; but if you sign lots of them, you’ll probably succeed. Quantity plus quality = success. (And you need to be rich to buy lots of 27/28-year-olds because by the time they hit 30 their value plummets. You can’t trade them in for anything close to the fee you paid – or, as you can with younger players, sell them for a profit. If they don’t work, you lose them for a financial hit; but the same is true even if they succeed. Manchester City may find it hard to revamp their squad as they’ve let many of their successes get old, and unless they cheat FFP, they need to raise money to buy big. They can’t sell Toure for much of a fee now he’s 32, and the same applies to many of their other older players, while the expensive Milner is leaving on a free transfer. The problem they have is that they won’t want to cash in on Aguero or Silva, and no one will want to pay big for their flops and squad players.)
The fact is that Liverpool, and Arsenal during the rebuilding of their side (and the building of the Emirates), couldn’t afford quantity plus quality. Go for quality and end up with an Ozil (as he performed last season and for the first half of this) and you suffer from having one mega-signing who doesn’t quite click, just as United have suffered (so far) by paying £60m for Di Maria. (Fortunately they’ve got tons more good players and an amazing keeper, and that has kept them afloat, while Di Maria may come good, like Ozil appears to have done lately.)
Go for quantity, and you’ll almost certainly get a greater number of flops (on average), but you may end up with some gems, if you’ve scouted well.
But – and this is the key – either approach is likely to see you fall behind those who are buying quantity plus quality. And only three clubs in recent years have been able to do that.
This is the probability outlined in years of work explaining TPI (Transfer Price Index). Unless those with more money are spending it badly, and managed by people making too many mistakes (which drags them below par), you’re probably going to finish below them.
Hopes of overachieving
I’ve said that par, after going two or three places above it the season before, should not be a fireable offence. Assessing the par of performance is something you do when the dust settles. You hope, you dream, you fight, you scheme – and then, when your race has been run, you see where it gets you. If you end up at par, having given your best, and faced setbacks along the way, then you can’t get furiously angry about it. (Well you can, but it’s not justified.)
Equally, as I stated here, it’s the dreaming – the hope – that leads to anger and depression. The more hope we are sold as a society the greater the levels of depression grow. This is no accident. Before advertising sold us perfect lives, and social media showed our friends constantly having a better time than us (because the photos only show the fleeting moments of joy, never the tears in the bathroom, the boredom, the insecurity), there was less depression. Similarly, when we see other football clubs doing great stuff, we think “why isn’t ours doing that too?”. We compare, then despair.
So if you want to hang on to what may be unrealistic hope, that’s fine; just be prepared for how you feel when reality sets in. And I’m not asking anyone to set their hopes at zero. Liverpool should be expecting to win half of their league games each season (maybe a touch more), as a baseline, and having some good runs in the cups now and then. Expecting too much is dangerous, but I’m not asking anyone to set the bar below what is the benchmark I follow no matter who is manager. Sometimes it’s better than expected, as I keep saying.
Why was Istanbul great? Because it defied the odds. It was beyond belief in terms of where the Reds were at half-time. But if you didn’t know that coming back from 3-0 down to a team like AC Milan, or that to do so in a European Cup Final, was a 100-1 outside shot, then you can’t have fully appreciated its significance. You had no right to expect what happened to happen. You just had to sing at half-time, because the better side was walking away with it. (If you were an entitled tosser you probably left the stadium at 3-0 down like a spoilt child.)
If you thought Djimi Traore was a great full-back who cost £50m, you’d be greatly mistaken, and therefore not analysing it correctly – he was some cheap no-hoper who did crazy things with his legs. Ditto the gulf in relative costs and experience between the two sides. You didn’t need to know these things to enjoy it. But you did to make full sense of it.
As stated a couple of weeks ago, you have to expect that the mood/form from end of one season won’t carry over into the start of the next. It’s hard to avoid getting carried away after a great campaign, but so much changes between May and August. My heart told me that Liverpool might go on to challenge again in 2014/15, if all went well, but my head meant I voted for 5th place in the TTT poll ten months ago, and I was expecting about 70 points.
Rodgers and Par
As noted, Rodgers’ league performance at Liverpool is par for the course. It has been up and down, rather than consistently on par, and evened out where I’d expect it to be. It’s been great, and at times, poor. Perhaps 7th, 2nd and 5th is better than 5th, 5th, 5th? And 5th is above the 7th of his first season and the 8th the season before, even if 5th is a dull dream to have. No one dreams of finishing 5th, and I’m not asking anyone to do so.
His league win percentage is good, at 54% – just behind Benítez, and ahead of Houllier, Dalglish MKII and Evans (and obviously Hodgson). The 11-game winning run was a genuine feat, and 10 wins and three draws in 13 league games, having been under serious pressure for his job, was impressive, mainly due to the tactical changes that preceded it. Obviously the 101 goals in a season was an amazing achievement, as was the 40-year best for consecutive away clean sheets. Obviously some of these results and runs relied on individual brilliance from special players, but that is true of all managerial achievements.
It’s worth noting his Swansea achievements, too. He got them promoted without being bankrolled, and did so by winning the play-off final, so that’s a high-pressure occasion he handled well. They were already a well-run club, but he sealed their rise to the top.
More interesting, perhaps, is that the following season his Swansea side ranked 20th – bottom – in terms of the Premier League £XIs (after inflation the team cost roughly £10m), but finished 11th in the table. It may not be a comparable job to the one he has faced at Liverpool, but not many managers can take the cheapest side in the division to halfway (this season’s 20th-ranked team is Burnley, for example), even if there is more scope for upward mobility up to around 7th place.
Remove Rodgers’ Swansea, and between 2007 and 2013 the 20th-ranked team finished 18th on average, and only one other 20th-ranked side escaped relegation, and that was by finishing 17th. Rodgers’ Swansea finished nine places above their TPI ranking by playing technical football, and kept 13 clean sheets. Anyone else who has overachieved by such a margin did so playing a far more direct game that wouldn’t be tolerated by fans of a big club.
On the back of that success, Swansea have invested to become the 13th-ranking side in 2014/15, with their £XI over three times as costly as it was under Rodgers (in 2014 money).
“Rodgers doesn’t know success”
I had some doubts when Rodgers was appointed in 2012, and he wouldn’t have been my choice at the time. It seemed risky – the opposite to a safe pair of hands. Then again, a supposed safe pairs of hands can get you Roy Hodgson or John Carver.
Rodgers’ team won 26 out of 38 games last season, which is more impressive than some feats that result in trophies. I was critical of the manager in his first season as the Reds seemed capable of only beating the lesser teams, but last season they tore some big names to pieces at times. This year it’s been back to below-par results against the biggest clubs, but Liverpool did play well at Old Trafford (Sterling could have had four or five goals) and against Chelsea in the cup (while today the Reds were good in the second half).
Now, people will always go back and say that “if Liverpool had won this game or that game” they’d have won the title; if they’d beaten more of the top six, or more of the bottom six, or more of the mid-table sides, or won more at home, or won more away, or not drawn so many games, then it would have been better. Well, yes. But pretty much every title-winning side has those games too.
Manchester City also dropped some crazy points last season, but they won 27 games. Chelsea, who may end up winning the title with 25 wins, drew 1-1 at home with Burnley this season, lost away to Newcastle, couldn’t beat Sunderland away and shipped five goals at Spurs. “No team that draws 1-1 at home with Burnley, loses away to Newcastle, can’t beat Sunderland away and ships five goals at Spurs can be champions,” is the kind of thing some Liverpool fans might say after any similar result, but it’s utterly illogical. Because, unless a team wins 38 games out of 38 – and no one ever has – these results happen. Some of the great Liverpool sides got humped by Luton or Southampton, and Southampton also gave Alex Ferguson a few scares.
Again it comes down to the law of averages, but all of the top teams have off days. You don’t judge them on their off days, you judge them by the overall body of work across a season. So anyone who said that Liverpool should have beaten Chelsea at home last season misses the point that the Reds had already won 11 in a row. Once you’ve won 11 in a row you’re in rarified air. You’re already at a stage that only three clubs have matched in a single Premier League season. After 11 must-win games there may be a sense of belief and momentum, but there’s also likely to be some fatigue. Liverpool could afford to lose the first few fixtures, as they weren’t then in a title race; but the more they won, the more the pressure grew. Chelsea arrived under no pressure for that match, and it told. (If only Liverpool had someone like Ricky Lambert on the bench, some fans said. I might have been among them.)
This season Liverpool have fallen short, and I don’t think the performances have been up to par, on the whole. While 5th may be par in terms of position, there have been too many poor games for comfort.
But there are some extenuating circumstances: the loss of Suarez; the extent of the injuries to Sturridge; Raheem Sterling naively talking himself out of his best form by going public about turning down £100,000 a week, which alienated the fans, and only put him under the spotlight – where he had to play like a player worth a fortune every week; Mignolet’s contrasting form, from the dreadful to the surprisingly inspirational (but only after a lot of points were lost during his wobbly phase); the emotionally-devastated Gerrard* who, after the disappointments with Liverpool and England in May and June 2014 (and teams wising up to his new role), was barely 1/10th of where he was at in the second half of last season – from playmaker to passenger; Rickie Lambert trying too hard, being too slow, and falling well short; plus injuries to Sakho, Lucas and Ibe, in particular, at junctures when they were amongst the best performers.
(*Gerrard still takes a great penalty, and, it turns out, is rather good at heading in from corners, when he’s not taking them – so there’s a lot of missed opportunities to score another 50 goals over the past decade. He remains an excellent finisher, but the legs have clearly gone in open play, and he wants to start games. It would be lovely if he stayed on as a squad player, but he didn’t seem to want to go out like that.)
Mistakes were made by both Rodgers and the transfer committee, but again, I’m not sure they were sackable offences (unless the two parties are at loggerheads, in which case something needs to be rectified). Mistakes are always made, and people tend to learn from them. And in the transfer market particularly, mistakes can become successes – see Jordan Henderson, whose poor first season as a 20-year-old with a big fee to justify possibly cost Dalglish and Comolli their jobs (it certainly didn’t help them at the time).
Too green (the players, not the grass)
Perhaps the greatest extenuating circumstance is that, going into the Chelsea game, Liverpool had 132 combined league appearances from players aged 22 or under (ages as of last week); Manchester City had just one. One! That’s one single appearance by someone aged 22 or under. You could add together the league appearances made by 22-or-unders at Man United (56), Chelsea (38), Southampton (40), and City (1) and still virtually match the 132 seen in Liverpool line-ups.
(Indeed, after the Chelsea game Liverpool are up to 137, with Sterling, Can, Coutinho, Ibe and Sinclair featuring, and Moreno, Manquillo and Markovic not involved. Note: thanks to ‘OT’ and Graeme Riley for sharing this information in the TTT comments section: the kind of nuggets our subscribers and authors regularly come up with.)
Spurs had 122 appearances from those aged 22 and under, and despite having a manager who was highly praised last season, have fallen short of fan expectations (but also been par for the TPI model, in 6th). Both Spurs and Liverpool have lost their best player in the past two seasons, and reinvested in young talent, in part from trying to juggle the almost impossible compromise between quality and quantity. It could be that these players need time to develop. I’d argue that both Liverpool and Spurs will be much better over the next two seasons, although I obviously know less about Spurs’ players than I do Liverpool’s.
Arsenal were ‘too young’ for a number of years, but have started to grow older together (as well as Wenger making some older signings, with the cost of their £XI rising year-on-year as a result). Maybe that’s why they are winning trophies again, although they still haven’t actually challenged for the title. They had 75 appearances in 2014/15 from 22-and-unders going into this weekend’s fixtures, and their XI averaged a full year older than Liverpool’s.
On average, very young sides will not do well. I mentioned United’s 1996 team, who “won something with kids”, but the average age was still above 25, and older than the youngest team to win the title in the modern era, Chelsea (in 2005).
This all comes back to the catch-22, and how older, more experienced players tend to cost more, but in and of themselves, as individual purchases, offer only a fractionally better chance of succeeding. The only way around it, of course, is to buy big and buy lots … but only if you have the wherewithal. Perhaps the only route open to Liverpool is to trust in youth, and wait for those players to improve.
The problem with waiting for a young side to mature is that, during the period when there’s some natural inconsistency, the best players get picked off by the vultures (as could happen with Sterling this summer). And yet, of course, it can be tough to hold onto truly outstanding (or simply your best) players if they want to go to Madrid or Barcelona (Owen, Ronaldo, Alonso, Bale, Suarez), or in Arsenal’s case, both Manchester clubs. In the case of players leaving Arsenal for City or United, they left to stand more chance of winning things; and in so doing, they further increased the gap between the buying and selling club.
Unless you have the biggest budget, whatever you do will involve compromises.
Can youth bridge the transfer disparity?
However, it’s very interesting to look at the youngest Premier League sides (average across 38, 40 and 42 games between 1992 and 2015).
First, there’s the dangerously young: Aston Villa, in 2012/13, who finished 15th with an average age of 23.93 – the youngest in the Premier League era. A year later they had the 7th-youngest side since 1992, at 24.47, finishing 15th in the league once again (that season they were also 15th in the TPI £XI rankings).
This season Villa average 26.7, which is perhaps revealing – only the 7th-lowest average age of the season, and much, much older than they were a couple of years ago. (Their current TPI rank is 12th, and they sit 14th in the table, but have made the FA Cup Final, as we know only too well.) Some of their players have (naturally) got two years older, whilst older players have been brought in.
However, the far more intriguing from the super-young sides are Leeds in 1999/00, Liverpool in that same season, and Manchester City in 2008/09. These are three of the youngest six sides since Liverpool’s history was erased 23 years ago** (with 466 “sides” since 1992: 20 or 22 clubs per season, over 23 seasons).
(** The TPI stuff is Premier League era, as we had to limit the research at some point, and doing so when the money changed made sense. But it’s galling when people say that Liverpool have never been champions.)
These were ‘great’ young sides waiting to emerge. Now, they didn’t always fulfil their potential, and in City’s case, the squad changed a lot in the next few seasons, but they are interesting in terms of looking back at what was bubbling under.
On average, players get better as they get older. Of course, some get injured or lose their way. Overall, however, title-winning teams usually average between 26-28, because, on average, I’m guessing that’s when the players usually still have running power and fitness, but also sufficient experience. So with every year older the team gets, up to around 28, you can reasonably expect improvement – but certainly so when you’re talking about from 24 to 25, and 25 to 26. Once they pass 28 you will probably start to see a decline, although Chelsea averaged out at 30 as champions in 2010. But five fairly fallow years followed (in the league) as they overhauled the squad.
Leeds were a better side a year after 1999/00. In 2000/01 they might have finished 4th (one place below 1999/00), but were a better side because did so whilst reaching the Champions League semi-final – an amazing achievement at the time (they won nothing for it, of course, but most of us remember that team well; just as we’ll remember last season more fondly than 2003, when the Reds won a trophy. Trophies are great, but plenty of great sides never won trophies and plenty of average ones have won domestic cups. Everything needs to be judged within its context).
In 2000 Leeds’ XI averaged 23.97; but a year later they averaged 24.53 – still the 8th youngest out of 466, but over half a year older. Lest we forget, that excellent young side fell apart due to serious overspending, as Peter Ridsdale made forecasts that they’d remain in the top four; a dangerous thing that Liverpool couldn’t afford to do last summer (something that FFP, for all its faults, protects clubs from doing to themselves). Leeds may have been picked off anyway, with Rio Ferdinand, Harry Kewell, et al, destined for bigger clubs sooner or later. It was a side that was never allowed to reach its full potential, but which, in simply ageing half a year as a whole, made great strides.
Liverpool in 1999/00 were Houllier’s great “bottlers” – the team that famously failed to score in any of its last five games, and fell short of Champions League qualification. Presumably some people wanted “the Frenchman” gone, after such a big spending spree the previous summer. But 2000/01 was an incredible season – one of those that you hope for, but only occasionally get (and therefore that’s what you should hope for – the great occasions and seasons that happen every now and then). Third in the league, and three cups won. Brilliant.
Perhaps the addition of 35-year-old Gary McAllister proved the catalyst, but the average age shot up from 24.16 – the 4th-youngest of the 466 Premier League sides to date – to 25.32 (45th out of 466). McAllister didn’t always start, of course; other key players were simply one year older.
Even Manchester City in 2008/09 provide an interesting example. Most of that side was simply replaced by much bigger names – a boat-load of expensive older players, some of whom succeeded and some of whom failed, shipped in before FFP took hold. But standing out are young goalkeeper Joe Hart, young centre-back Vincent Kompany, plus fairly young full-back Pablo Zabaleta, none of whom were that special at the time. (Also, young striker Daniel Sturridge, although he soon moved on.)
Shining hope Micah Richards showcases the flipside – the precocious talent who doesn’t push on. (Ditto Stephen Ireland and Michael Johnson.) But if half of your younger players go on to get much better then, as with roughly half of all transfers proving successful, you stand a chance of moving forwards.
This current Liverpool side is the 5th-youngest in 23 Premier League seasons, whereas last season it was the 9th-youngest. So it got younger, not older, and that’s always dangerous. (Sometimes I argue that perhaps Glen Johnson is playing because the alternative might be aged just 20 or 22, and then the team gets dangerously young. Having said that, he seems a bit sprightlier in recent weeks – fitness issues have blighted his last few years.)
Equally, the younger signings worked out better, on average, than the older ones, with Can, aged 20, the outstanding buy, and Balotelli, Lovren, Lambert and Lallana, aged between 24 and 32, failing to get even close to matching their previous Premier League form. (As an aside, I’d expect Lallana to be better next season – you can see his quality – and the gifted Markovic should push on, if he can muster a bit more aggression. Manquillo and Moreno are still young for full-backs. I won’t go into how I think buying proven Premier League players is a myth here, as I’ve said it plenty of times before – but equally, it doesn’t mean they will automatically fail. I also think Lovren has been settling down in recent weeks, and Gary Neville still seems to rate him – providing he can cut out the brain-farts.)
What may (or may not) be interesting is that two of Benítez’s three oldest teams resulted in 82+ points in the league. But to further confuse matters, his other “older” team was his worst performing, in 2009/10. Even then, Benítez’s very oldest team (2008/09) was “only” 26.5 – pretty much the perfect average age for a football team, I’d say – especially as the average for all Premier League champions is 26.8, and the highest-ranking in terms of average age is Chelsea in 2005, who ranked 36th out of 466 in this measure. They are the only champion to come from the top 50 youngest sides.
A further note on young players, and how they can be hard to assess, particularly aged 20 or under. A few months back I showed how few goals great goalscorers tended to get under the age of 21. So I’d expect players like Sterling and Origi to become more prolific, even if doubts remain about the way Sterling strikes a ball. To date, Origi’s strike rate has improved in each of his three seasons in France, and his second year as a Belgian international have seen his figures improve upon his first. Right now he’s ahead of Thierry Henry at the same age in French football, with both having also played wide; Henry scored 20 in 105 up to the age of 22 (a goal every 5.25 games), whilst Origi has 14 in 70 (a goal every 5.0 games), despite having only just turned 20 and played in an inferior side. That doesn’t mean that Origi will go on to be as good as Henry, but it’s not a bad precedent.
Defenders and goalkeepers are probably the hardest to judge. Just go back to seven or eight years ago, and look at the players in Liverpool’s reserves. I recently mentioned Gabriel Paletta, now a full Italian international at the age of 29, who recently moved to AC Milan. But there’s also Antonio Barragan, now 28, a regular right-back in a good Valencia side. Emiliano Insúa went to Portugal, did very well, and ended up being bought by Atletico Madrid; it hasn’t worked out too well there but he’s still on loan within La Liga. Mikel San José, now 25, has been a big success in Spain and is now a Spanish international.
These are all the kinds of players labelled as flops by Benítez’s critics, when they were actually all cases of excellent scouting (because they’ve proved better players than the youngsters already at the club). Daniel Ayala, another one of the Slow Giants who actually made a few appearances for Liverpool, is now a key component in a Middlesbrough side that might be promoted to the Premier League. At the age of 24 he’s just coming into what I’d expect his type of player to start reaching his potential.
“Man United have been crap, we should be above them”
That’s right – Man United, managed by the legendary Louis van Gaal, with the league’s best goalkeeper, and a squad containing Rooney, van Persie, Di Maria, Falcao, Mata, Januzaj, Fellaini, Shaw, Young and various other big names (or big-money signings) and/or league title-winners – and which, as a whole cost tons more than Liverpool’s squad (and are paid tons more than Liverpool’s squad) – were there for the taking, apparently. It has made some Liverpool fans very angry indeed.
Whereas to me they’re an example of the struggles big clubs can have, and proof that the biggest-name managers and lots of “world-class” signings don’t make everything perfect.
Now, had Liverpool been as good as people expected them to be they’d now be above Man United; but had Man United been as good as people expected them to be they’d possibly be above Chelsea. If Liverpool fans have their “if only”s, then United can certainly have theirs. Had both clubs had no problems at all, United would be well above Liverpool, as on paper they are well above Liverpool.
Liverpool have had problems this season, some of which were self-inflicted (much like some of United’s, and indeed Man City’s), but even allowing for the failure to find a suitable striker, the loss of Suarez and the injury to Sturridge were tough to deal with. There was always the chance Suarez would be off (although the World Cup bite altered things), and there was always the chance that Sturridge would be injured. But in his career the latter has usually been fit for around two-thirds of the games. This season he’s featured 12 times in the league, and barely been match-fit for any of them. Equally, even though Balotelli and Lambert relied on penalties to boost their tallies, their finishing has been unexpectedly bad. You’d expect 15-20 goals between them, rather than three.
“Rodgers is stubborn”
When a fan says that the manager is stubborn he is essentially saying that the manager won’t do what he (or his mate) want him to do. Rodgers has fielded a lot of players in a lot of different formations. This hardly reeks of being stubborn. But every manager is accused of this, and therefore it’s rarely a valid accusation – simply a ‘go to’ response of outrage.
The opposite is to constantly change your ideas and ideals. Perhaps Rodgers is actually guilty of this charge. However, with key injuries, the diminishment of the ageing playmaker and the turnover of players, it needed a range of XIs and formations to find the perfect solution; and when that was hit upon, injuries and suspensions occurred.
Perhaps this summer there needs to be recruitment in line with what worked best this season, to reinforce those ideas. And if it doesn’t work next season, then the time will probably come to change managers.
“It’s not how much you spend, it’s how you spend it”
This is a common refrain, which totally misses the point of everything I’ve written on the subject. The more you spend, on a greater number of players, then yes, the better your chances of success. But virtually no transfer, whatever the cost, is a no-brainer. My studies show that even the wisest managers in the game rarely get anything like all their signings right.
Even the biggest names flop or fall short. Bale. Ibrahimovic. Di Maria. Shevchenko. Torres. Falcao. Veron. Ozil. They have all failed, or failed to justify the hype or price-tag. Ozil has been better this season; Bale did well last season; and Ibrahimovic wasn’t too shabby at Barcelona – he just didn’t excel, when they paid for someone to excel. But all of these players are/were below what was expected when, with the exception of Ozil, they cost (or were valued) in excess of £50m (after inflation). These aren’t the overpriced likes of Andy Carroll or Shaun Wright-Phillips, whose English premium made them over £40m in today’s money, but genuine world-class players (or Footballers of the Year) who, after a move, ranged from merely pretty good down to pretty awful.
To further confuse things, Torres at Chelsea didn’t even look as good as Carroll did at Newcastle, and Di Maria hasn’t looked as good as Wright-Phillips did at Manchester City over a decade ago. And has Falcao been any more of a success at United than Lambert and Balotelli at Liverpool? United got him on a loan, but imagine if Liverpool had paid £50m and £270k-a-week for that kind of return? (That’s £30m more than Balotelli and Lambert combined, plus over £100,000 a week extra in wages.)
I’m not just cherrypicking examples. On average, cheaper buys succeed 40% of the time and more expensive buys still only succeed 50-60% of the time.
To further investigate, I looked at the 30 most expensive Premier League transfers in 2014 money, and rated them in the binary terms of clear success or not a clear success (to remove the subjective term ‘flop’ – although some of the non-successes were pretty dreadful).
Sixteen of the thirty were clear successes. Just 53%.
With inflation, the average cost of the 16 clear successes was £52.2m, and the average cost of the 14 non-successes was £49.9m – virtually identical. So basically we’re talking about 30 players averaging at £50m apiece: the super high-end signings. Weirdly, both sets of players had identical average ages (24.6).
The successes started on average 149 games for their clubs following the transfer in question, whereas the non-successes started just 35. Remember, same price tag, same age: but over four times as many starts.
Overall, more value can be found in overseas signings across the 3,000+ the TPI database covers, with some great bargains found on the continent – these are just the mega-deals, which are split 15/15 in terms of from within this league and from overseas. But out of these top 30 most expensive signings, 10 of the 16 successful deals were from within the Premier League (63%), with nine of the 14 “flops” (64%) from overseas. (More on this, complete with details of the players, will follow in the summer.)
The key, as ever, is that you never quite know what you’ll get, even when you’re sure you’ll know what you’ll get. And rather than just relate to transfers, the same can apply to football as a whole.
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