The Era of Big Transfers and Even Bigger Fails


Football, and the controversies involved, such as transfers, for the foreseeable will take a back seat but last weekend showed it can act as somewhat of an escape from the grim reality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Liverpool defeated Chelsea on penalties to win the League Cup after the best 0-0 draw in recent memory. Manchester City returned to winning ways in controversial fashion at Goodison Park and Manchester United, well, did Manchester United things.

But it was what transpired, or didn’t, in each game that pointed towards a growing trend and theme in football. Kepa Arrizabalaga came on, saw and didn’t conquer. Romelu Lukaku’s sticky season continued with a disallowed goal. Harry Maguire was dropped, or “rotated”, with Victor Lindelof being preferred. Jack Grealish was absent once again through injury – to compound his current irrelevance, his top Brummie status was then taken by Tommy Shelby, who returned to our screens on Sunday night.

Outside of not making the starting lineup, these four also have something else in common; they’re the most expensive players in their position in British football history, and world in the case of Kepa and Maguire.

While this might seem like a hatchet job solely on these four so far, they’re just a few of the many high-profile, big-money blockbuster fails of recent times. To be fair, Grealish is likely just in the process of being “Guardiolafied” and should be far better next season. See Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva for previous examples.

The Era of Big Transfers and Even Bigger Fails

Why Has There Been So Many Big-Money Moves Lately?

An easy place to begin is the near out-of-control finances in football, with state and oligarch (for how much longer?) ownership, eye-watering television deals and the other many revenue streams being rampant, most of which are of little benefit to the match-day fan.

With the obvious out of the way, the actual start point of this recent deluge can be traced back to the summer of 2017 and the biggest transfer of all time: Neymar joining Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona for £198 million.

Not only did this completely obliterate the previous transfer record previously held by Paul Pogba (another failure), it also entirely disrupted the marketplace – something that has been rumored to have been part of PSG’s masterplan. It changed how we view player values, and more importantly how selling clubs do. Simply put, if Neymar is worth X, my player must be worth Y.

Knock-on Effect for Transfers

Its impact has been startling. 30 of the 50 biggest football transfers of all time have taken place in the four and a half years since. In no way do these players represent the best of the best either, just the marketplace clubs have been operating in.

So many of these players have been bought for way over the odds, and will either never hit the levels expected of such expenditure or prove to just not be good enough. Nicolas Pépé, Arsenal’s club record signing, joins Maguire and Kepa in the latter category, with speculation rife Lille played up other interest in the Ivorian to ramp up the fee.

None of these players chose to be this expensive, with Maguire being a victim of both “English Tax” and United’s general incompetence and Kepa, like João Félix at Atletico Madrid, only being sold for the release clause in his contract. In contrast to Kepa, Félix is still viewed as a key part of his club’s future.

Bought After Their Best Before Date

Other of these so-called superstar signings haven’t worked out due to being a year or two too late in their completion, with Real Madrid and Barcelona both falling foul of this in 2019 with Eden Hazard and Antoine Griezmann respectively.

Hazard was courted for years but remained loyal to Chelsea for seven seasons prior to departing for the Spanish capital. Unfortunately for Real, his form stayed in London as the wear and tear of English football, as well as a questionable diet, caught up with Belgian. He’s scored just six goals in an injury-plagued stint so far.

Griezmann went about things slightly different, going as far as to recreate Lebron James’ “The Decision” in 2018, where he committed his future to Atletico on live television. Well for a year anyway. Two seasons with Barcelona came before financial issues and an odd fit resulted in the Frenchman returning to Los Colchoneros. A waste of time for all involved.

Club Transfer Strategy, or Lack Thereof

He was far from the only odd fit in Catalonia, being joined by Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé in this department. All three players were bought using the money Barca inherited from the Neymar sale – the only problem being they seemed to be bought without any semblance of a plan on how to be used alongside Lionel Messi. The money was just thrown at the first shiny thing on show.

Like Griezmann, Coutinho is out on loan, this time at Aston Villa, Messi left on a free for PSG and Dembélé could soon follow with his deal up in the summer. Historically bad investment.

On the flipside, clubs with a coherent transfer strategy like Liverpool have been an exception to the big money transfer rule. Allison and Virgil van Dijk have been worth every penny and more, both being signed with a proper plan in mind and without the superstar tag already attached to them. Maybe a suggestion to other clubs with deep pockets.

Success Has Been Rare, Unlike in Previous Transfer Eras

It isn’t hyperbolic to suggest that since Cristiano Ronaldo’s £80 million transfer to Real in 2009, of the truly mega, game-changing deals only Kylian Mbappe (£168 million) has fully lived up to the hype. And he could walk for free this summer.

Neymar? He’s missed 101 games, not played over 20 Ligue 1 games in a season, and now plays third fiddle to Mbappe and Messi. Gareth Bale? Initially yes, but injuries and issues with Zinedine Zidane have tarnished his legacy at Madrid.

It’s a far cry from previous eras where the biggest deals were mostly reserved for the biggest and best players – Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo (the original), Baggio, Maradona, and value for money was a guarantee in transfers.

Who’s Next?

Looking into the next few years, the only players who seem certain to be successful blockbuster transfers are probably Borussia Dortmund duo Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham. It’s no wonder the free transfer market is thriving. The stakes, and fees, are just too high.

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