If we are learning anything from this crazy Premier League season, it is that maybe football can actually be about a little more than money…

And what a relief that is! The recent 3-1 Leicester City away victory over Manchester City at the Etihad subverted our expectations completely. Wait, so passion and organisation does still matter? Big names don’t necessarily guarantee success? There is more money in the Premier League than ever before, and yet it seems that it is not being spent all that wisely. Teams are wholesale remoulding squads year after year, but to varying degrees of success. With this in mind, the big question I wanted to ask is what even makes a good transfer fee in the English Premier League these days?


In his first decade at Chelsea, owner Roman Abramovich spent over £700 million on player transfer fees

Players these days are being bought and sold for more money than ever before, and earning more than previous generations could ever dream of.  But it is important to note that the quality of player hasn’t necessarily been improving with this cost inflation. It isn’t happening because the players are getting better, but because the clubs are getting richer. With takeovers at clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City, there is a lot more cash to throw about and in a competitive market the clubs are not afraid to pay more to guarantee that they get their players. It’s not just in England of course, Real Madrid and PSG often do the same. But the consequence of this is that player values have gone up, not because they are worth that much, but because the club selling knows that the buyer will pay it. And it seems that whenever teams break the rules with regards to player wages, or illegally approaching a player, the punishments aren’t especially tough – or in Barcelona’s case, they just buy a load of players while they appeal against the charge. So without any consequence for this overspending the rich owners can just keep on financing the clubs. What was once an unusual fee is now standard, to the point where we have no idea anymore whether the transfer fee is good, or far too much.


Raheem Sterling signed for Manchester City from Liverpool for £49 million in 2015, making him the most expensive English player in history

The worst example of this is with English players. It arguably started in 2005 when Shaun Wright-Phillips signed for Chelsea for £21 million. At the time this seemed a hell of a lot of money for a player that, while talented, was not the finished article. But the big one was in January 2011 when Liverpool bought Andy Carroll for £35 million from Newcastle United… £35 million?! I wonder if Newcastle are still pinching themselves about that one. It was in the same transfer window that Liverpool had just sold Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50 million – this certainly raised a few eyebrows price-wise, but he did have a good reputation (at that point). Even better, that same day Liverpool signed a certain Luis Suarez, for £22.8 million. While not the nutty superstar he is today, Suarez had a good reputation having scored 81 league goals in 110 appearances for Ajax, and he certainly went on to prove his credentials to Liverpool over the years. Andy Carroll on the other hand had enjoyed a good season in the Championship with Newcastle, before scoring a healthy 11 goals in 19 games in the Premier League. Impressive yes, but half season of form couldn’t possibly equal £35 million? But apparently it did, and the system was forever broken. Now all English players cost way more than they should, and the fees that are demanded for them just to continue to confuse the question of what makes a good fee. Just last year, Raheem Sterling was signed for £49 million by Manchester City – a young talent yes, but that price is ridiculous! Especially when you consider that Riyad Mahrez cost Leicester City £400,000

To put that into context, you could buy 122 and a half Mahrez’s for the price of one Raheem Sterling.


Anthony Martial holds a Manchester United shirt after his 2015 transfer from Monaco

What’s worse, English clubs overspend on foreign players too – Liverpool paying £20 million for defender Dejan Lovren was a bit much, and although Kevin De Bruyne is good the £55 million fee Manchester City paid was huge. Manchester United took the biscuit though by paying £36 million (which could possibly rise to £58 million in future) for the talented but completely unproven 19-year-old Anthony Martial – that is mental. Surely this is just going to prompt more clubs to overcharge because they reckon the buyer might actually pay it. Still though, I think the overpricing of English players over the years has been the biggest and most obvious transfer fee blunder. What’s worse, it puts unnecessary extra pressure on the players to perform to prove the transfer fee was worthy in hindsight. Carroll has been sold on after a disappointing time at Liverpool, Shaun Wright-Phillips was sold on after not quite proving himself, and as for Sterling? Only time will tell…


Crowd favourite Sergio Aguero has scored 92 goals in 139 Premier League appearances for Manchester City

Now this is not to say that there shouldn’t be big money transfers, often they are necessary and, in the current climate, appropriate. Arsenal paying £35 million for Alexis Sanchez and Manchester City paying £38 million for Sergio Aguero totally makes sense, they are both world class players in my opinion… But note that Andy Carroll cost the same as Sanchez, and Sterling cost more than Aguero, does that make any sense? Adam Lallana cost more for Liverpool than World Cup winner Toni Kroos did for Real Madrid, and I’m not even going to ask who you think is the better player of the two. England are not really a frontrunner at major international tournaments at the moment, they don’t have a world class player, so why are clubs paying world class fees for English players? Again it is not because the players are better than Alan Shearer was (once the world’s most expensive player), but simply because clubs can afford to pay these ridiculous fees, and this sets up a terrible (and terribly expensive) cycle where you don’t necessarily get what you paid for.


Neymar has formed a deadly attacking partnership with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at at Barcelona

A team like Barcelona seems to strike a good balance that the Premier League fails at, in that they buy the superstars… And they keep them. Unlike the Premier League, when they buy big, they consistently buy quality. Barcelona was already a quality team that would never dream of selling their superstar players like Lionel Messi or Andres Iniesta, and when they paid big transfer fees recently it was for Neymar and Luis Suarez. They paid a lot for them, but they were very much worthy of the transfer fees, and they were adding to an already great team. Now of course Barcelona are better than any Premier League club – when they buy a superstar they are getting them to add to the team, whereas in the Premier league such a purchase would often be to make a team. But if English teams keep paying large amounts for unproven or average players, and teams like Barcelona save their money for signing genuine world class players, then that gulf in quality is just going to keep growing.


This raft of signings at Spurs in 2013 was labelled ‘The Magnificent Seven’ – but two seasons later, just three of the players remain at the club

An even more depressing question, how many superstars does the Premier League actually have now? In the English Premier League we are now losing the superstars that we do have early to La Liga. And when we aren’t overspending on inferior players to counter this we are making another transfer blunder: trying to replace a star player with multiple signings at once. When Spurs sold Gareth Bale and Liverpool sold Luis Suarez a year later, they tried to invest the large fees they had received into strengthening the squad. A good idea in theory, but teams were aware that they had the cash to splash and overcharged for players. Furthermore it meant that Spurs suddenly had seven players in a team who spoke five different languages and had hardly trained together – not exactly a guarantee for success. You can’t wholesale replace a team all at once, it has to be a slower process, and once again the English clubs ended up paying more than they should have anyway. Roberto Soldado cost £26 million for Spurs, but the far more successful Christian Eriksen cost £11 million – the latter was a far better transfer fee, but it shows that clubs are still getting it very wrong in evaluating a player’s worth when they buy them. This further complicates what makes a good transfer fee, because when we look at how much better the top La Liga sides are at the moment, and the transfer fees that they pay compared to us relative to the player they get, it seems like we are missing a trick.


Didier Drogba celebrates the 2012 UEFA Champions League win, arguably the crowning moment of his Chelsea career

But I would say that this season has given us some hope. Leicester City paid £1 million for Jamie Vardy, the current Premier League top goal scorer. Meanwhile Tottenham Hotspur paid £5 million for Dele Alli who has been a revelation for them. Perhaps learning from the Bale cash investments they are not buying a whole new team, but instead buying some players to form a part of a team, with successful academy products like Harry Kane. Elsewhere Southampton buying the English player Charlie Austin for £4 million was another brilliant deal, and Stoke City have been signing Champions League players left right and centre – so it is possible to get good deals. And this isn’t to disregard big money transfer signings – Didier Drogba cost Chelsea £24 million, and was a hugely successful investment who played at Chelsea for nine seasons and became arguably one of their best ever players. But another important factor in what makes a good transfer fee is how the players are managed. I look at Sir Alex Ferguson, and yes he made some big money transfers, but he also had Premier League winning teams that featured players like Park Ji-Sung and Owen Hargreaves. His man management was so good that he made them good signings, and they functioned successfully within the team. Players like Mahrez can make a transfer fee look incredibly good by performing well, but a lot is owed to how they are managed. Robert Huth wasn’t exactly thought of as a marquee player, but the reported £3 million that Leicester City paid for him sure looks like a good transfer fee when he plays so well under the system that Claudio Ranieri has set up. Huth, and the entire team, are playing incredibly well and are an inspiration to all the so-called lower teams in the Premier League. Things like this have led to a 3-1 victory at the Etihad, where the victorious Leicester City team that day cost a total of £22 million – the Manchester City team cost £244.6 million. Who do you think got their moneys worth that day?


Between them Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy have scored 33 goals for Leicester City so far in this Premier League season

The incredible inflation in pricing means it is near impossible to determine whether a transfer fee is good or bad, we just can’t tell any more. When the player has a superstar reputation, then a large fee may seem more appropriate – this may seem obvious, but overspending everywhere (especially on English players) often blurs how we relate quality to price. Don’t get me wrong, often players prove their worth in hindsight with their performances, but in the past it seemed a lot clearer from the get go whether a club had gotten a good deal. So I’d hope that in future fees aren’t paid simply because a club can afford it, but because the player is worth the money – it would remove the debate, and lessen the pressure on new signings to prove that they were worth the price. Is this a pipe dream? Completely. Of course big money signings will happen, but wouldn’t it be nice if the first reaction to a new signing was excitement, and not, “is he worth that”? Wouldn’t it be nice if teams like Leicester City continued to thrive due to some smart signings combined with team passion and good management, as opposed to clubs reacting to a team failing by just replacing them all with a new team? Can we learn from Leicester’s success, or are they just an exception in a system that can’t be stopped? Because if players treat your club like a revolving door, will you really still feel like you’re supporting a club, or a business?