Thursday July 30th, 2015

French club Nice knew that defender Jordan Amavi would be leaving this summer. European teams had scouted him all season, and Nice had no intention of standing in his way to further his career. All Nice wanted was to be paid what it thought Amavi, an attacking left back who says he models his game on Patrice Evra, was worth. But what was that figure? Who decides, and how?

Like in any marketplace, the answer is obvious. Amavi was worth whatever another club would pay for him. Senior figures at Nice discussed what this figure might be. He is expected to become a France international, so around €3 million felt a little cheap. Something nearer to €5 million, a healthy amount for a club the size of Nice, was agreed to be a decent fee. In the end, Amavi went for over twice that. Aston Villa paid Nice €13 million for him. Even if that figures proves to be a bargain, the French club had cause to celebrate.

The spending power of English clubs, driven by the success of the Premier League broadcast deals, worth £3 billion (which will go up to £5.14 billion from next season), has provided a backdrop to this summer’s deals. Yohan Cabaye left Paris Saint-German to join Crystal Palace, Andre Ayew turned down Roma for Swansea and PSV Eindhoven’s title-winning captain Georginio Wijnaldum moved to Newcastle.

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Two other deals between Premier League clubs have left fans wondering what represents value in the market these days. Manchester City paid Liverpool £49 million for Raheem Sterling while Liverpool spent £32.5 million of that money on Christian Benteke from Aston Villa. Both selling clubs reached the point at which they could no longer say no. But how they reached that specific number is shrouded in mystery.

For any transfer to go through, it needs the agreement of the club’s holy trinity: the chief executive, the sporting director (or in Liverpool’s case, transfer committee) and the coach. Marrying the needs of the playing side with financial concerns is the primary objective, but many other factors come into play. These include:

Position 

Goalkeepers remain under-valued in the transfer market. This summer in particular, where the futures of Iker Casillas, David de Gea, Hugo Lloris and Victor Valdes have been discussed, the position is still underrated.

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Without De Gea in goal, Manchester United would likely not have finished in fourth place. Petr Cech cost Arsenal £9 million from Chelsea and, at the age of 33, could still have another five years playing at an elite level. If he saves 12-15 points per season, as John Terry suggested he could before the deal went through, that surely represents great business for the Gunners. (This is ironic as Arsene Wenger has long had a blind spot when it comes to goalkeepers.)

Scoring goals remain the biggest and most obvious driver of price-stopping them is still seen as less valuable.

Age 

‘Sell-on value’ is a buzz-phrase when any club signs a young player.

“It’s O.K. to take that risk on him because he’ll have sell-on value in a few years,” say the fans. But that's not always the case. Ask Daniel Levy, the Tottenham Hotspur chairman, how Roberto Soldado’s sell-on value is looking two poor years after he cost £26 million. There is actually not that much difference in players’ value if they are 19 or 25.

Given that peak age is between 24 and 28, it’s only once players reach that upper age that their price starts to depreciate. A 25-year-old in his peak years will fetch just as much as a 20-year-old whose best years are clearly ahead of him. Buying young is more of a risk: of injuries, of potential unfulfilled, of talent wasted, of riches denting ambition.

Manchester City has a team with only one player aged 24 (Eliaquim Mangala), so it’s clear that it is in the market for young players. So that's why you could add another £5 million to the fee for Sterling, 20, or £10 million to the asking price for Kevin de Bruyne, 24. Some teams are not bothered by this: last season, Stoke only used one player under 24 and over the last four seasons, the club has averaged 4% of players under 24 in its starting XIs.

Nationality 

Due to the homegrown quota rule, which states that eight of 25 players in every Premier League squad be homegrown, there is a premium on signing English players. This is another reason Liverpool could afford to wait for City to increase its price for Sterling.

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English players are not the only ones with an additional cost: let’s say Roberto Firmino was actually called Robert Firmin and was from Lithuania. He scored 10 goals in 36 games for Hoffenheim last season: would he really have cost £28 million? Compare him to Kevin Kampl, a Slovenian playmaker who scored 11 goals in 31 games for Red Bull Salzburg in 2013-14 and joined Borussia Dortmund for £8.5 million in January.

Or how about Gylfi Sigurdsson, brilliant for Swansea last season (nine goals in 35 games), and from Iceland? We may not admit it, but there is some unconscious bias.

International recognition, and form, plays less of a role and in some cases, particularly with African players who can miss up to six weeks of the season if on duty at the African Cup of Nations, can push down a price.

Injury record

Any player could suffer a long-term injury in a training-ground challenge at any time, but many players with complicated injury histories represent a different type of risk in the market. When Manchester United bought Robin van Persie, did it consider his injury record? His debut season at Old Trafford, when he won United the league, almost rendered the next two injury-filled seasons moot: he had done what he had been bought to do. 

How about Jack Wilshere? He’s a supremely talented midfielder but struggles to get through a season without injury. In fact, he has not started more than 25 league games in a season since 2010. If Manchester City wanted to buy him, would it factor that information into its price? It should.

Length of contract 

This only makes a difference if a player is in the final year of his deal, and then there is an opportunity for a buying club to ‘find value’—even more so if it’s the last six months. Smart-thinking clubs always look to tie down their assets to long-term deals to protect their price, as Levy did with Gareth Bale and more recently Harry Kane; on the other hand Arsenal sold Van Persie with one year left on his contract while Bacary Sagna left on a free transfer.

Intangible qualities 

These cannot be measured by metrics but are often a mark of the true greats; qualities like leadership, motivation, ambition, team ethic, professionalism, mentoring skills are impossible to quantify but can have a huge impact on a dressing-room.

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United is already benefiting from the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger in this department (regardless of his patchy injury record, there’s no doubt that his mere presence will help a young squad), while Arsenal has had the same experience with Per Mertesacker.

The flip-side comes from buying a more complicated character who can affect the dressing room in a less positive way. (Hello, Mario Balotelli.)

The other intangible that greatly affects value is potential: the presumption that a young player who has had one or two good seasons will continue to improve. But he might not (as anyone who bought the Freddy Adu hype could tell you).

Situation of buying club

This is perhaps the most important factor of all in fixing a price. How desperate is the buying club for this player? Manchester United wanted a marquee player last summer and overspent on Angel Di Maria and Marcos Rojo. The fact it was not in the Champions League made it a harder proposition to convince players to join; a factor Liverpool might be suffering from this season. Is the team desperate for a center forward, is the first-choice goalkeeper injured one day before the window closes, or has the best player had a dressing-room bust-up with the coach?

The more desperate the club, the higher the price; which is why prices in January are often higher, because clubs hit the panic button when the season is not panning out as expected (even champion Chelsea is not immune to this: witness recent January flops Mohamed Salah and Juan Cuadrado).

More and more clubs are using data to cut out the variables in the minefield of player recruitment. Cantor Fitzgerald, the American investment bank, now offer Player Valuation reports which compare player’s market value to their intrinsic value. [Declaration of interest: Soccernomics, the football consultancy I work for, has advised Cantor.]

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Using more than 150 in-game data-points, the intrinsic price uses "permutation analysis" to calculate just how much each player contributes to his team’s chances of scoring—a Holy Grail for data junkies. One club that relies heavily on data analysis called this methodology “the best work I've heard of this field” while other teams have praised the Player Valuation reports for their objective intelligence in what can be an emotional part of the business.

If the market price far exceeds the intrinsic price, the selling club is encouraged to act; on the buying side, clubs inevitably want players whose intrinsic value is worth more than their market value—and plenty of those exist in the market, if you know where to look.

Some clubs resort to more old-fashioned methods of driving prices up and down—simply making up a figure and letting the media do the rest. Crystal Palace coach Alan Pardew said last season that winger Yannick Bolasie was worth £20 million after one match-winning performance. It was clearly a joke, but it would have made a club think twice if it had fancied Bolasie for £5 million. Maybe nearer £10 million would do the trick?

Liverpool fans should know all about value anyway. Many of them derided Damien Comolli when he was sporting director for wasting the money that he derived from selling Fernando Torres to Chelsea on Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing. But Comolli was also the guy who bought Luis Suárez and Jordan Henderson. He joined Liverpool just after it signed a young kid from QPR named Raheem Sterling. That’s the thing about value: you can only recognize it years after the deal. 

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