Part 2 of Levy’s Transfer Strategy will delve further into the 12 secrets of the transfer market along the lines of the critically acclaimed book Soccernomics.
By using these transfer principles we try to get a better understanding of how Tottenham Hotspur, and chairman Daniel Levy in particular, have sculpted the club’s transfer strategy and conduct business in the transfer market.
Transfer secrets 1 through 6 have already been covered in part 1, so now we start off where we left it:
7. Gentlemen Prefer Blond(e)s
Strangely enough this has proven to be true. At least one top flight club has noticed that, over the space of many years, their scouts were recommending an inordinately high percentage of blond players. The scouts themselves weren’t aware of it, but it seemed that, when scanning a pitch, players with blond hair tended to stand out more, in a visual sense. This in turn meant that scouts would be subconsciously drawn towards those players and notice what they were doing on the pitch more, than they would others. The club in question began to take this into consideration, when they received scout reports on blond players.
It’s easy to understand how this could happen – I remember being a kid watching football, and being drawn to players with coloured boots (Alfonso Perez Munoz was one such player at Real Betis), and players with crazy dyed hair – Ibrahim Ba, anyone?! Human beings are human beings, and as such, it is hard not to have prejudices of some sort, no matter how small and subconscious they may be. It is interesting to note, that these sight-based prejudices by scouts seem to completely disappear when they were evaluating senior players with already built reputations. Sight based prejudices would stop, but perhaps new ones based on repute, would begin.
It’s very hard to evaluate this one with regard to Spurs, or indeed any other club. One would expect that such prejudices have long been noted and eradicated. The earlier point about ‘Wisdom Of Crowds’ can help to combat any subconscious decision on a young player. For example, Scout A may subconsciously be drawn towards a player, but this would hopefully be ironed out by repeated scouting of the player and final discussions taking place on a committee level. In some respects, this point becomes more valid when thinking about fans – we as fans may be drawn towards sight-based prejudices when evaluating our players, or when choosing who our favourite players are. Niko Krancjar was no doubt very popular amongst female Spurs fans…
8. The Best Time To Buy A Player Is In His Early Twenties
Lyon president Jean-Micheal Aulas famously said: “We buy players with potential, who are considered the best in their country, and aged between 20 to 22 years old.” This one comes straight out of [i]Moneyball[/i] and baseball. The Oakland Athletics, led by general manager Billy Beane (a good friend of Damien Comolli), started to buck the trend when drafting players. They noticed that too many clubs were fixated on taking highly touted players coming out of high school instead of slightly older, solid choices who had gone through college baseball. In doing so, the A’s were bagging multiple players in their early twenties, who had gone through much more development, and were far less likely to go bust.
This can be applied straight to football. Ever heard of James Will or Nii Lamptey? How about Philip Osundo? All three were named as players of the tournament at U-17 World Cups. James Will is now a policeman in the Highlands. Players in their teens can be the most highly talented players out there, but they have yet to experience senior football, their mentalities have yet to grow and mature and they are a long way from the finished article. Only players of the highest level can mature and be a low risk purchase at the age of 18 or under. In contrast, players in their early twenties are far further along in their development of maturity, have been playing senior football for multiple years and are far more less of a risk. Lyon had great success following this principle bringing in the likes of Mahamadou Diarra, Michael Essien, Florent Malouda et al. These players are classic examples, bought for very reasonably fees and sold for massive profits three odd years later.
Spurs have clearly followed this principle for quite a few years now. Luka Modric would be one classic example – bought at the age of 23 for the fee of 16.5 million pounds. The fee may have seemed steep, however, this was a low risk and good value transfer, as Modric was already battle hardened by international football, and was clearly the best player in his entire league. The result was that we got four very good seasons out of him, before selling at a massive profit, which could then be used to re-strengthening the squad. Other players we have purchased under this philosophy include Dawson, Kaboul, Vertonghen, Naughton, Defoe, Sigurdsson, Sandro and Assou-Ekotto to name just a few. Damien Comolli, unsurprisingly, was a keen advocate of this form of strategy, and we have not decreased in following this, since his departure. In the main, this has stood us in very good stead and allowed us to be constantly competing at the top end of the table, when every club around us has a far bigger wage bill and more money to spend on transfers.
9. Sell Any Player When A Club Offers More Than They Are Worth
Aulas was a firm believer of this, stating that “Buying and selling players is not an activity for improving the football performance. It’s a trading activity, in which we produce a gross margin. If an offer for a player is greatly superior to his market value, you must not keep him.” This isn’t exactly revolutionary stuff. Brian Clough was a keen advocate of this theory, believing that there was no room for sentimentality from manager/owner towards a player.
Lyon had it down to fine art, however. Aulas was always prepared to sell any of his players, if the right offer came in, yet you would not have thought this unless you had a window of insight into his strategies. Take the sale of Michael Essien, for instance. Chelsea put in an offer which Aulas declared as unacceptable, also deeming Essien to be “untransferable”. Lyon were aware that Chelsea had tons of money and would quite often just wastefully splurge far more money than was required. Two further offers came in, whereby Essien was once again deemed to be ‘untransferable’. Eventually, Chelsea got bored and hiked their offer up by multiple millions pounds to £24m. Aulas immediately accepted the offer and Essien was sold for what was a very hefty price. In Aulas’ words: “Every international at Lyon is untransferable. Until the offer surpasses by far the amount we had expected.”
I think it’s safe to say that Levy has followed this principle quite rigidly. Mostly, his hand has been forced by the fact that the player wanted to leave. In reality, how long can you keep a player that doesn’t want to be at the club? The same can be said about the players at Lyon, though. They wanted to go, so Aulas set up his strategy to maximise the money he would receive. I’m sure both Aulas and Levy would sell a player that didn’t want to go, if an obscenely large offer came in. Spurs fans have long taken pride in the knock-down prices that Levy buys players for. The likes of Van der Vaart, Sandro, Bale, Dembele, Vertonghen and many others have all come to the club for prices which can be considered as on-value at worst and completely and utterly undervalued at best.
The same is true the other way though. Levy is a master at wringing as much money as possible out of buying clubs when they come in for our players. Carrick for £18m was a very full price at the time, £21m for the trio of Chimbonda, Tainio and Malbranque was daylight robbery, and my personal favourite, buying Mido permanently for £4m only to watch him eat pies and stink the place out for 2 years, before selling for £6m+ to Middlesborough. We had bought Mido for £4m off the back of his initial good form for us on loan. Since that point he had had weight issues, injury problems, disciplinary problems and had done absolutely nothing on the pitch, yet Levy was able to wrangle a profit on him. Lastly, one needs to look no further than Berbatov and Modric, who both left the club for in excess of £30m each.
10. Replace Your Best Players Before You Even Sell Them
Sounds easy in theory. You know that your players are gaining interest from other clubs, due to their good form. Therefore, you know that at some point in the near future, you may be selling them. Makes sense then, to go and scout the next player in his early twenties, who can be brought in, train as an understudy for six months and be ready to step into the team, when a first team player in his position gets sold at a premium. Lyon managed to do this very successfully. Eight years in a row, they won their league, yet they were continuously selling first team players when good offers came in for them. The way they did this was to have ready made replacements, available to come straight into the team and start playing. Essien was sold for £24m and Thiago was purchased for around 25% percent of that price tag, in order to replace him.
This is perhaps where we have faltered, and it is one of the hardest points to get right. Spurs fans still complain about the fact that we haven’t replaced Berbatov. The reality is that we most likely did. Not with Pav as many of you may imagine, but in the purchase of Darren Bent, a full season before Berbatov left. Bent may not have been a direct replacement for him though, it may have been more a case of ‘we will buy Bent, as we expect one of Berbatov, Defoe and Keane to leave’. In the end of the day, all three of those left and we were chasing our tails when the new season started. This rule tends to be a lot more organic, complex and harder to adjudicate. Did Caulker replace the retiring King? Yes, maybe. Do we have a young version of Bale kicking about in our youths? No, but then again, how many young versions of Bale are really out there? On the other hand, we have been able to predict the sales of Jenas, Bentley and Huddlestone and replace them many times over! The problem being of course, that we have failed to sell them to anyone. Oops.
11. Buy Players With Personal Problems, And Then Help Them Deal With Their Problems
Brian Clough used to ask players during interviews “Let’s hear your vice before you sign. Is it women, booze, drugs or gambling?” Clough’s theory was that if you had full disclosure with players, then you could help them treat their problem. Taking an act of ‘you’re paid a lot of money, so just get on with your job’ may seem ridiculous, but this is what the vast majority of clubs seemed to do until recent. One must remember, that footballers are human beings and as such, suffer from the same problems that we all do, whether that be depression, homesickness or liking putting a flutter on a horse a bit too much. Wenger was another man who was ahead of his time, seeking professional help for Merson and Adams, whilst retaining them as players, due to their high talent. Therefore, the theory goes that there is value to be had in purchasing highly talented players, who have personal problems that can be fixed, or indeed harnessed into something more positive. The likes of Cantona and Di Canio were both players who came with a certain amount of baggage when they were signed for well under their value by Manchester United and West Ham, yet they went on to become brilliant players for both clubs.
Probably, the most valid example that we have for this is Adebayor. Whilst his low fee was in some way connected to astronomically high wages, we would never have been allowed to purchase this player at all, if it weren’t for question marks surrounding his attitude at Arsenal and Manchester City. However, when one inspects closer on both occasions there were extenuating circumstances – Adebayor only reacted negatively when he sensed that he had been wronged, and not before. In the instance of City, Adebayor signed for them and was scoring goals and playing well. When he was part of his team, he wasn’t a problem. Man City’s policy at the time though, was to buy someone for big money, play them for six months, then get bored and look for the next flashy new toy to replace them. Adebayor only kicked off when he had been dumped out of the team, not for bad form, but purely because City had spied yet more strikers that they desired.
At this point, I am only hypothesizing, but Levy must have noted this and been confident that, under the right manager, and in being given a starting place more weeks than not, Adebayor would be fine and rise to the challenge. This was proven last season, and in my opinion, this season has only been marred by injuries and extreme pressure from the Togalese government. Yes, Adebayor has looked slightly ‘off’, but he has has not been found wanting for effort or application. In fact, it emerged last season, through Harry Redknapp, that Adebayor’s biggest weakness was his brittle confidence and that he needed and arm round his shoulder every now and then to keep this confidence high. Whilst AVB is a technically astute coach, with many plus points, he is perhaps not quite so primed for taking each player individually, and melding his approach to them to get the best out of each and every one of them. Harry had his weaknesses, and he annoyed many of us with his endless talking, but he was most definitely adept at sensing what kind of characters he was dealing with.
One most recent example of value in problematic players, is the case of Yann M’Vila. If rumour is true, then Levy was very keen to bring him in to the club. AVB was against it, as his preferences lay elsewhere. Only a year ago, M’Vila’s value was up at around the €18m+ mark. Fast forward a year, and numerous media outlets reported personal problems, and he has just been sold for less than £10m, in what is a very undervalued deal. The reality is that M’Vila is a young and volatile man, but his footballing abilities are potentially supreme and that has not changed. For us, we would have been buying a player in his early twenties, with a potential that far exceeded his value. There always would’ve been a risk, but bringing him in and placing him under the wings of the French captain Hugo Lloris, and French international Younes Kaboul, might have gone a long way to helping him buckle down and turn it on, on the pitch. Levy would’ve been licking his lips at this particular target.
12. Help Your Players Relocate
Seems very simple, but you would be amazed at how little clubs have paid attention to this aspect of transfers. Players moving to other countries are often very young, and are often moving to countries that are completely different to the ones they came from. Furthermore, incoming players are also often treated with disdain by their new team mates, who see them as little more than competition. One example would be Anelka, when he moved to Madrid in a very expensive transfer worth around £22m. When he turned up to the club, there was no one to show him around. After eventually finding the changing rooms, he was given no locker. On several occasions he took a locker that looked empty, only for a player to walk in and take it back off of him. Furthermore, he was offered no help in finding a new home, no representative from the club to help him adjust to his new country and no consideration given to him concerning language, his family that came with him and giving him a team mate to help him settle. Chelsea in the early 200s, were very much the same. Spending large fees on multiple players, alll of the players were simply dumped in hotels and left to their own devices to acclimatize to their new surroundings. Some of them had kids that needed schools, some couldn’t talk English and some were simply very shy, and needed the help. Even more surprisingly, Wayne Rooney complained of the same thing when he moved to Manchester United.
All of these problems could have very easily been fixed. Lyon were of course, very much ahead with regard to this. They had translators attached to each player to help them adjust, had minders that would help the players find a new home and even had people employed whose business it was to find out what kind of person the player’s wife was, and find them things to do that they would enjoy, like going out to good restaurants. Furthermore, and more at the root cause of the issue, Lyon would only buy players that they felt had the correct personalities and maturity needed, in order to adapt to their new surroundings. English clubs simply didn’t do this, yet they wondered why only a low percentage of Brazilians adapted well to the country and the league. Very lazily, English clubs preferred to buy players from areas such as Scandinavia. Even though the players were nowhere near as good, the results on the pitch in terms of standards were very similar, because they had far less adjusting to do.
Again, this is quite a hard one to apply to Spurs. However, in recent years most top clubs, including ours, have followed the case of Lyon and employed all the necessary staff in order to make new acquisitions succeed. When was the last time a player came to our club, and completely failed because they couldn’t settle and had come from a far flung country? M’poku is the only one that comes to mind and he was a very young player at the time. It appears that we have our house in order here. Sandro has adapted brilliantly from Brazil, no doubt helped by having a few other Brazilians in the squad, as have players from a wide varieties of countries. In essence, we can be sure that everything is being done, that can be done, in order for our new transfers to succeed.
So…. it appears very much so, that Daniel Levy operates with a clear and distinct mandate that is very similar to the twelve point system listed above. The question is: does it work? Are there other ways to succeed? Does this rigid system mean that we are missing out on some players that are within our reach? Part 3, will delve into this early next week.