How to Judge a Football Transfer

With the transfer window officially kicking off for most European clubs and with a lot of business already done early, the transfer market is the trendy topic in football’s social media circle. In this article, I figured I’d tackle something I constantly see being misinterpreted: how to judge a transfer.

Let’s talk about why this is important. If you’re in any way part of a club’s staff, you obviously want to analyse your history to see where you went wrong and improve upon it for future transfers. If you’re media and/or a fan, you will want to make smarter comments on said transfers instead of purposeless or disparate claims.

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There are two key baselines you must keep in mind when analysing a transfer. One: barring if you’re part of the club’s staff, you’ll never know everything. We get an increasing amount of information about everything as the years go by but most leagues don’t report the players’ salaries to the public — heck, for some deals even the transfer fee is undisclosed. Not to mention knowledge about personalities and feelings of the ones involved or extra-deals within the deal — club’s (or club board members) relationship with agents, for example. So we can only analyse with what we have access to.

Two: transfers cannot be analysed after a X amount of time of the player at the club. Transfers can only be analysed the moment they happen. Sure, after a year you can say if the player played well or not, but that is meaningless for this case. Remember: “Hindsight is 20/20”. When Recruitment Analysts/Coaching Staff/Scouts work together they’re presumably looking for a player they need and they get him. What we need to analyse is exactly that: what specific criteria was demanded at that very moment, what process was used to get to the player and does he fit in or not. When the season is over you can understand if the player you got ended up exceeding expectations or if he underperformed, but then you’re already analysing the player and his evolution, not the transfer within itself. You’ll ask me how could I classify a move as good/positive if the player ended barely kicking a ball for the club, but that’s because we’re highlighting the process. Nothing’s infallible and some blips are bound to happen but ig the process is right, the result will appear most of the time. And the process is the only thing you can control.

Let’s talk examples: Pochettino’s Tottenham’s very questionable approach to the transfer market. Last summer Vincent Janssen was signed for 22M€ after being the Eredivisie’s top goalscorer with 27 scored for AZ. A second option for Kane was needed and not only did he appear very good in terms of output, but somewhat similar to Harry Kane as well. He had just turned 22 so had time on his side and seemed physically capable and well-rounded enough in his style to fit Pochettino’s demands. He only had one top flight season under his belt but he moved seamlessly between the two tiers in the Netherlands and, as long as he was eased into the team, he should’ve been fine. This is a good transfer.

Janssen’s Eredivisie Shot Map & Expected Goals — via @mixedknuts

This goes both for if he ends up producing the good for Tottenham or for, if like last season, he ends up never really breaking through and having trouble finding the net from open play. The only issue with this transfer that can really be brought up is if where he comes from: it’s now public knowledge that the Eredivisie is a tricky place to buy forwards from, with their numbers often having trouble being reflected into other leagues. So it’s by no means the “perfect transfer” but it is, indeed, a good one.

Janssen was brought in the same summer that Tottenham got Nkoudou, who proved being a very good dribbler in Ligue 1 but literally almost nothing else and Moussa Sissoko of off an overperformance in an international tournament — another major no-no, as overperformances over short periods of time (even more so in a completely different set of conditions like a Euro tournament) are a very bad reasoning for you to consider a player. And should I even mention their combined cost of 46M€? My point is that these two were bad transfers from which the players have unsurprisingly turned out unsuccessful so far as well, while Vincent was a good transfer who is yet to impress.

Moving along from Tottenham, let’s look at other types of situations. Arsenal picked up Lucas Perez from Deportivo last summer after a very decent season in La Liga. He had good output and seemed to fit in. His output the season prior was average and Arsenal ended paying 20M€ for someone who was going to be 28 that year — for these two reasons I could never consider that transfer ideal. That said, throughout the season the biggest thing to force him out of the squad wasn’t him or his quality, but Alexis’s move to a central role which wasn’t to be expected at the time of the transfer. Just want to reinforce that this shouldn’t cloud our judgement of the transfer.

Lucas Perez 15/16 Radar — via @mixedknuts

Further north, in Manchester, Nolito signed for Pep’s City and, after being a prominent feature at the start of the season, ended up with only around 800’ PL minutes and getting his last league start in December. The Spanish winger arrived after two great back to back seasons at Celta — one a lot more shot-heavy than the other — and, while one could question how well he fits in with Pep’s style, his poor season seems to have also been justified by his mental state. Reportedly he and his family didn’t adapt to the English language, lifestyle and weather, finding it difficult to sustain a living in a place that felt nothing like home. Assuming this as true, a player’s personality and capacity to adapt to a new environment is the type of thing the club needs to take in account previous to signing a player and should be specially considered when, like in this case, it’s the first time the player leaves his country — or peninsula– to play. Can’t help but shift a lot of the blame to the club, here.

As a final example, let me switch to someone whose transfer has been leading to more positive comments than negative ones. Seydou Doumbia just transferred to Sporting CP on a loan from AS Roma with a 3M€ option to buy at the end of the season. Now look at the radar below: looks amazing, doesn’t it? Well it’s from 4 years ago. Since then he hasn’t settled anywhere and failed to produce both in Italy and England. Last season he was the Swiss league top scorer, in which he played for Basel — a club that finished top with a 17 pt difference for the 2nd and a 33 pt different for 3rd. No top scorer from the league ended up in a Top 6 league since Doumbia was top scorer there again in 2009/10.

Doumbia 13/14 Radar — via @mixedknuts

Reportedly he’ll have one of the highest wages at the club and his sign on fee was hefty. What are they getting for all this money? An aging pace-reliant striker. No player has a quicker decline than a forward heavily reliant on his speed and, depending on how much you believe in the age rumours that always surrounded his career, this could be even worse. And while Doumbia has always been a great finisher, he always relied on his quickness to get into finishing positions. This, to me, will always be a bad signing. Again, I’m not saying he can’t do well — he might even be very decent, giving Sporting a different option up front that can unlock matches against closed defences that they tend to struggle with. But either he unsurprisingly fails because of everything we previously stated or he has a really good first season, Sporting buy him, and he declines from there while soaking up a massive wage.

To finish up: the problem with a bad signing that does well is that, both to the fans and to club staff, it brings this perception that they could not have done better when in fact they just struck lucky with a situation that had a higher chance of going wrong for them.