Sterling for £49m? The Gamble and the Curse

Sterling for £49m? The Gamble and the Curse
July 12, 2015 Paul Tomkins

By Paul Tomkins.

Nominative determinism suggests that a person’s name influences their character, and even the profession they go into. Clearly Raheem Sterling was always destined to be connected to a lot of English money.

At £49m, Liverpool are left with around £39.5m to play with after QPR get their cut. And while it’s not nice seeing another star player want out, at least the club are getting good value for their wantaways. If Liverpool’s reinvestment of those big fees has yet to inspire (although this summer will hopefully prove different), at least no one is taking the club lightly anymore.

However, unlike Torres and Suarez, Sterling still has a lot to prove. (Having said that, all players should be out to prove themselves, every game. But you know what I mean.) Luckily, Liverpool sold Torres just as the wheels were starting to come off, whereas Sterling, at 20, has the potential to improve greatly. My personal belief is that he’s gone to City because they’re in the Champions League, are recent title-winners and are prepared to pay him £200,000-a-week. I don’t blame him for that, although the way it was engineered was very distasteful. I also don’t blame Liverpool for thinking “£49m isn’t too shabby”.

How much?!

How much?!

Manchester City need young players, and they need English players. Liverpool have a less urgent need for both. And as soon as any player wants out, you have to weigh up whether it’s better to have a replacement who may only be 90% as good but wants to be there, rather than the better player who doesn’t. Even though they’re very different types of player, I’m happier to have the ‘unfashionable’ James Milner at the club, and willing to give his all, than the Raheem Sterling we experienced from the late winter onwards.

With Coutinho’s rapid improvement, and the arrival of Firmino, Liverpool have two skilful young players, so Sterling was not quite as vital to the club’s future as he might have seemed halfway through last season, when he was arguably the club’s best player. It was then that he started to lose form, and when Coutinho really stepped up a gear.

Sterling went from being one of Liverpool’s best players to someone suffering under the spotlight and attention. I’d rate his chances of success at City no better than the 50/50 at which I’d rate most deals; he certainly has the talent, and is well above almost everyone else at his age, but he’s now got to be a £49m player. He has to be a £200,000-a-week player. He may rise to that challenge – and that can inspire some to greatness – but I’d anticipate some early troubles, and from that point it’s about how he reacts, and also, how City react (i.e. does he get dropped?).

I have many theories as to why less than half of all transfers are clearly successful (based on my study of over 2,000 deals), even when the fees are huge and the talent is undoubted. Why did Angel Di Maria – about as good as you can get – underwhelm last season? Why was Radamel Falcao more disappointing than some of United’s less-heralded signings? So much of the sport is psychological, and the change of environment effectively alters the player. Some lose hunger, some lose fitness. And they all have to cope with this new tag – and the bigger the price it displays, the greater the pressure. Ultimately, it seems safer for players to stay at big clubs once they are at one, as they get consistency. But it’s also easy to see why they can be so eager to move on.

Last week I wrote several pieces about Liverpool’s transfer spending during the Premier League era, which was based on all prices being converted to 2015 money using our Transfer Price Index (which tracks football inflation in the same way that the retail price index tracks how much your shopping costs).

Over the past 23 years there has been a greater-than-tenfold increase in the average price of a player. With that in mind, £49m would only rank as the 24th-costliest deal of the modern era, although only two players (including Wayne Rooney at £82m, aged 18) from those above Sterling in that list were under the age of 21 at the time.

The other is José Antonio Reyes, whose fee could have risen to £58m after inflation, such was the heft of “rising to £17m” in 2004. Like Sterling, he was 20 at the time. But he never played well enough consistently enough at Highbury and was offloaded. He has ended up having a good career, but not quite as remarkable as expected. When Ryan Babel joined Liverpool at the age of 20 eight years ago, for what now equates to £22m, he had already been playing for Holland for a few years, with four international goals to his name. Now, at 28, he’s in the Arabian Gulf League; and there’s only one person to blame.

Sterling doesn’t have to end up like those, but they do serve as warnings to what can go wrong. Similarly, Lazar Markovic has struggled at the same age, when moving club. It can take time to settle, and sometimes the lack of stability, and of fairly guaranteed football, can seem to knock these talents back a few years. Having no price tag (or just a small one) and coming into the side gradually, with limited expectations, can definitely help.

£32m for Benteke?

Having mentioned Milner earlier, another unfashionable player is Christian Benteke, whose £32.5m fee seems fairly steep, but several of Liverpool’s “flop” strikers over the past 20 years have cost more after inflation: £37m for the brilliant/awful Collymore, £41m for the mixed bag that was Emile Heskey, £43m for the erratic Cissé and £50m for the biggest mistake of all, Andy Carroll.

In some ways, Benteke would arrive with a better track record than those guys; twice as prolific as Andy Carroll, and far more of a goalscorer than Emile Heskey; with better awareness than Cissé and a better attitude than Collymore. Benteke has pace – an essential difference from Andy Carroll, with whom he seems to be constantly compared – as well as skill and an eye for goal, but like any other player he could collapse under the weight of the pressure. You never know. (Although clubs can of course do their homework into a player’s mentality. But each situation is new, and nothing is ever guaranteed.)

Alexandre Lacazette seems the more fashionable name being bandied about – and yet he’s the same age as Benteke (24) and, in a relatively stronger side, has only had one excellent season, which followed one very good season. This might be an upward trajectory – so it’s easy to see why he’s ‘hot’ – but he scored just nine goals in his first 70 league games for Lyon (albeit many early ones from the wing), and has one in eight for France. Benteke’s record has been more consistent since he broke into Belgian football as a teen, and he offers the physical presence at 6’4” that Lacazette wouldn’t, at 5’9”.

However, my point here is not to say that Benteke is better than Lacazette – which I can’t say, as I’ve not watched either extensively; simply that his record isn’t that different. Fitting with another theory of mine, relating to the prolific nature of strikers in international youth team football, and how it will drop off for the first few seasons of senior football, before they start to repeat it again aged 22-24, both of these players had excellent records for the various age groups representing Belgium and France respectively.

My sense is that if, right now, Benteke was playing for Lyon and Lacazette for Aston Villa, Benteke would be more respected; ditto with the difference between being French and Belgian. In a better team Benteke could become even harder to handle, but of course, he has to prove he could cope with the pressure – and that’s what it almost always comes down to.

We also need to remind ourselves that Divock Origi – another who fits that youth progression/scoring category – is younger than Raheem Sterling, and at the age of 19 (which he was until the end of last season) had a goalscoring record that Lacazette only started to match at the age of 22. Origi’s record as a footballer isn’t that different from Sterling’s, but he cost a fifth of the price.

Origi’s relatively small fee reduces the pressure on him, although any move can present problems. I also think that getting small communities of 3-4 players from one particular nation can help, although maybe this is just something that sticks with me from the three-foreigners rule in Italy in the ‘80s, and how Inter had three great Germans and AC Milan had their three immense Dutchmen (not that Liverpool can currently compete for the three best players from such elite countries).

At £32m, Benteke would cost less than half what a 26-year-old Drogba (£73m) cost Chelsea once TPI inflation is taken into account, and Drogba was virtually unknown until the age of 23/24. At £32m, even if you ignored inflation and simply based it on the British record, it’s just over half what United paid for Angel Di Maria, who is now 27 and offers an example of a player who probably didn’t want to be at United in the first place (though he may settle).

My belief is that larger strikers peak later in their careers, but that doesn’t automatically mean Benteke’s best is yet to come. The giant (but mobile) Belgian has also already made a big “upheaval” transfer, having joined Villa aged 21, and that could help; just as leaving London at 15 could help Sterling now (whereas Andy Carroll seemed far too insular).

None of this is to say that Liverpool should sign Benteke, as I haven’t seen all the alternatives out there; and part of me thinks that there must be better value, somewhere. But with players like Coutinho and Firmino feeding him, and with his ‘pace+height+goals’ a rare combination (you usually get big nuisances who help smaller strikers get all the goals), I’d definitely be excited by his acquisition; but only if the manager was happy with it. I’d quite like to see what Liverpool could be like with a genuinely aerial threat up front, but one who can also run in behind.

As for Sterling, Liverpool already have Jordon Ibe and Sheyi Ojo, two players of similar natural ability to Sterling, but who are a year and two years behind him, respectively. My sense is that Ibe will become a better finisher than Sterling, and is certainly more powerful. And Ojo’s recent display in midfield for England U18s against Russia was breathtaking; a better performance than I ever saw Sterling give at any level, even when scoring five against Crystal Palace all those years ago.

Neither is as good as Sterling is right now, but if they work hard I feel that they can be. Then there’s Joao Texiera – much older, at 22, but a special talent who should be able to offer something to the squad this coming season. So it’s not like Liverpool must go out and buy a direct replacement. The aforementioned Markovic may offer more in his second season, now that he’s settled – as just one further young player with real pedigree.

While I’m not exactly happy with Sterling leaving, I’m excited by the signings Liverpool have made so far, which shows a real blend of talents, ages and experiences. And I think the backroom staff is strengthened, with the three new arrivals(/promotion) also representing diverse talents, ages and experiences. Liverpool have bought early, and appear to be selling Sterling at a good point in the summer, rather than letting it creep on too long. And the spending isn’t over.

But as with any summer’s business, it’s easy to get excited with shiny new players. The key will be how many of these new players succeed – and maybe only 50% will. But also, which preexisting players will do what Sterling (and Henderson) did just three years ago, and go on to become important first-team players?