Georgina Turner
Friday January 21st, 2011

Few things prompt existential debate in soccer quicker than a $30 million-plus transfer; Darren Bent was barely out of the door at Sunderland with his move to Aston Villa before it started. He's only doing it for the money ($127,500 a week), people said, stabbing a finger at the Premier League table, in which Villa is 11 places beneath Sunderland, as if they would never consider doing the same job elsewhere simply for more cash. What's happened to loyalty? some wondered, reckoning Steve Bruce was owed at least the rest of the season.

Most, though, focused on the question of value: is Bent really worth $38 million? While it's tempting to reason in abstract terms -- is anyone? -- the first wave of opinion highlighted the recent transfers of flair players such as Rafael van der Vaart: at $13 million, two thirds cheaper than Bent but arguably more exciting. The second wave struck back with figures showing that only Didier Drogba ($38 million) and Wayne Rooney ($43 million) have scored more Premier League goals than Bent in the last five years (he has 81 to their 82).

These are difficult figures to quibble with but, although value = goals/cost is probably a reasonable enough equation to begin with, calculating the value of a striker can't really be such simple arithmetic, can it?

For a start, we need to factor in appearances -- ideally a number producing as high a goals-per-game ratio as possible. Bent has made 186 league appearances since moving to Charlton in 2005, which gives him a ratio of 0.44 goals per game -- in his time at Sunderland, it was actually 0.55. Which puts him in the same ballpark as Drogba (0.50 at Chelsea), Carlos Tevez (0.44) and Rooney (0.48 gpg since 2005), as well as Andrew Cole (0.45 gpg in his first five years at Manchester United, 0.58 gpg in his two years at Newcastle) and Michael Owen (0.55 in his last five seasons at Liverpool).

Thierry Henry (0.65 in his first five years at Arsenal), Ruud van Nistelrooy (0.63 in five seasons at Manchester United) and Fernando Torres (0.63 at Liverpool) enjoy better returns, though few can match Alan Shearer's 0.81 goals per game with Blackburn. Unsurprisingly, Bent's goals-per-game figures are better than Robbie Keane (0.37 in the last five years) and Jermain Defoe (0.35 in the same period). But this on its own seem a slightly less solid indicator when you consider that past favorites such as Dennis Bergkamp averaged 0.27 goals per Premier League game. Clearly we need to include more variables.

Popularity -- Bent's popularity among Charlton fans was pretty high when he made the switch to Spurs in 2007, when he'd been in eight of the previous nine England squads, which helped push his price to £16.5 million ($26 million). Tottenham sold him on for only £10 million ($15 million) two years later, despite being the club's top scorer (and that despite starting from the bench more than any other player), after a spat with Chairman Daniel Levy. Having engineered a move to Sunderland via Twitter and been so consistent since arriving, Bent's popularity was probably higher than ever ahead of this latest, most expensive, move.

Not an easy thing to quantify, popularity -- perhaps we'd need a scale based on shirt sales, the frequency and eloquence of crowd chants or something. But it ought to be considered: Roman Pavlyuchenko and Nicklas Bendtner have exactly the same goals-to-games ratio in north London (0.25), but one is considered "enigmatic" and the other is "arrogant." It may not be the most significant factor in a player's value, but ask a salesperson which adjective they'd prefer to work with.

Work-rate -- though there's not a direct causal relationship, this certainly contributes to popularity: everybody loves a trier. Bent is generally an on-the-shoulder striker, but players like Rooney, who'll run back to his own goal line to pick up the ball if he has to, will claw back points here if the goals dry up (see: most of this season). Tevez has never gone more than four games without scoring for Manchester City, but in his less prolific spells at United and West Ham, it was the ground he covered unsettling opposition defenses that kept him near the top of chairmen's wish lists.

A decent work-rate (calculated using distance covered and touches made, maybe?) can do wonders for lesser lights, too. Blackpool's Marlon Harewood has a goals-per-game ratio of just 0.21 in his Premier League career, but is fondly remembered by fans of Nottingham Forest and West Ham for the relentless effort he put in. The Hammers sold a £500,000 ($799,000) player on for £4 million ($6 million).

Inventiveness -- a player's popularity and value can be given a considerable boost by a penchant for moments of jaw-dropping skill. Take Bergkamp: he only hit double figures in four of 11 Premier League seasons with Arsenal, but earned legendary status thanks to the delightful dinks and flicks that invited others forward and left defenders' heads spinning.

Dimitar Berbatov has worked harder, season on season, since being embarrassed by Manchester United's ProZone rankings, but many of his performances at Tottenham were, not unfairly, considered lazy. Part of what convinced Alex Ferguson to spend more than £30 million ($47 million) was the exquisite skill and inherent unpredictability that the Bulgarian offers in the final third -- running is overrated when you can fashion something from the merest sniff of goal.

Big game dependability -- some of the most viewed footage of Ruud van Nistelrooy's career must be shots of him being leered at after hitting the woodwork with a penalty shot, but he scored 34 goals in 64 games for the Netherlands and popped up consistently in domestic and European competition for United. Even after van Nistelrooy turned 30, the club recouped more than half its $30 million outlay.

Bent isn't widely considered a big-game player (underwhelming performances for England haven't helped), but his goals won Sunderland 19 points last season, including five taken from Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. That is surely the kind of thing to encourage Villa (whose named strikers have scored only four league goals between them this season) to dig deep.

Already we've got a cumbersome calculation in hand but here we've hit upon the crucial element in economic alchemy -- and one that is so easily forgotten when headline-grabbing numbers are involved: market conditions. Ultimately, soccer is a market like any other: you pay your money and take your choice. A player's worth fluctuates on a transfer-by-transfer basis, settling temporarily at the point just after the seller is tempted (Bruce has admitted that he "didn't think Villa would get to the money levels required") and just before the buyer balks.

Gerard Houllier has laughed off suggestions that he paid a panic premium on Bent, saying: "I've been talking about him for a long time ... he was in our plan." Still, when Randy Lerner was doing his sums, he had the $80 million minimum cost of relegation to consider -- Villa is in terrible form, having won one, drawn three and lost six. In this context, he may have considered it a gamble to spend less on a player he was less convinced could turn the season around; Villa has wide players pinging crosses in from both sides, conditions in which Bent has consistently thrived. At 26, there's no reason (other than potential wanderlust) to think that he can't lead Villa's attack for the next four years or more.

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