Few things prompt existential debate in soccer quicker than a $30 million-plus transfer; Darren Bent was barely out of the door at Sunderland
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.
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.
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).
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
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.