There is a brilliant scene in the 1997 tragi-comic documentary ‘There’s only one Barry Fry’, a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of his disastrous time in charge of Peterborough Football Club, which reveals a bygone age when the wheeler-dealer manager was still a thing. Fry is sitting in a cluttered office negotiating the contract of potential new striker Miguel De Souza, repeatedly swatting away his agent’s demands with: “You ain’t gonna get that, fuckin’ hell!” As the talks are finally concluded, Fry shakes the player by the hand, smashes a gavel on his desk, looks down at himself and shouts: “Sold to the fat bastard in the blue blazer!” before laughing maniacally.
You suspect that, for better or worse, managers like Barry Fry are few and far between in football these days. The recent documentary All or Nothing: Manchester City revealed a slightly more considered approach – City’s executives are sitting in a swish suite discussing transfers and although their target list is blurred out, with hindsight it is easy to trace the shape of the letters spelling out the top name in the summer of 2017: Aymeric Laporte. With clinical efficiency, City signed their first choice and he played a key role in their 100-point season. Few clubs have the money to be as decisive, but across football Fry’s method of engaging in enthusiastic discourse has been replaced by something more subtle, and more precise.
The principals of valuing a footballer haven’t really changed over the past few decades. We already know the broad markers: performance, experience, age, contract duration. It’s just that now every touch of every ball in every major league is monitored, and it means that value is something fluid which can shift in an instant. Take the Burnley winger Dwight McNeil, who had barely started his career when he began making a statistical ripple a thousand kilometres away in Switzerland. What looked like promising performances to the eye had translated to a raft of key passes and dribbles in the complex algorithm of the CIES Football Observatory in Geneva.
“His performance statistics showed after only two games that he was clearly a very talented player,” says Dr Raffaele Poli, the organisation’s head. Not only was McNeil showing high performance metrics but he was young and contracted to a Premier League club; from almost nothing he was valued as a multi-million pound asset.
Dr Poli says game time at each level of the game is a crucial and telling variable — minutes translate to experience and indicate performance — but he believes CIES are nearing the limit of their modelling accuracy. The transfer of Diego Costa from Chelsea to Atletico Madrid was impossible to model, he explains, distorted by Costa’s very public fallout with Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, while CIES pitched Tyrone Ming’s market price far below the £25m Aston Villa paid Bournemouth for the defender whose career has been stalled by injury. “We are at around an 86% correlation [with actual transfer prices], and I think we are near the limit. If you try to do a model to correct Mings, it will be wrong for many more players.”
CIES often mediate between during disputed negotiations, while several consultancies have established themselves as advisors on transfer recruitment with a raft of tools to disseminate big data. One such consultancy which works with Premier League boardrooms, 21st Club, predominantly uses two methods for valuing players: the first is to benchmark a transfer target against not just one or two players that spring to mind but a deep pool of 15-20 comparables to gauge how likely the transfer is to be a success; the second is to pitch the player’s value in the context of the buying club’s financial muscle.
As Omar Chaudhuri, 21st Club’s head of intelligence, explains: “You can look at Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona and see that his transfer fee was roughly 18% of Barcelona’s revenue. What you find is that, let’s take Everton buying Gylfi Sigurdsson — who is almost as important to Everton as Coutinho was expected to be for Barcelona — his fee is in a similar sort of range, around 18-20% of Everton’s revenue. So you get this rate card depending on the importance of players within an individual team. A lot of the advice we give clubs is ‘OK, if you’re going to spend 10% of revenues, this is the kind of impact you should expect the player to have on your team’.”
Part of the advisory role is to find the cheat codes that will unlock value and potential upside, like ignoring the stigma around relegated players, something Liverpool have used to great effect in the signings of Andrew Robertson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Xherdan Shaqiri. “Relegated players are usually disregarded by mid-table Premier League clubs,” says Chaudhuri. “But actually if you look at players that have been signed from relegated teams, they’ve disproportionately grown in value over the past few years.”