Buying Assets at the Right Time
When it comes to center forwards, players seem to reach peak performance at 24 and start to decline after their age-27 season. Back in the early 2000s, when Italian clubs spent money freely, the richest clubs tended to spend large sums on attacking players 26 years and older. Maybe it was the stereotypical lack-of-faith-in-youth of Italian clubs, a desire to win now, and/or the belief that the money would always be coming in. While some investments paid off, such a transfer strategy often results in a waste of club resources. If one purchases a center forward at 27, like Edinson Cavani, and assume that it will take a year for him to adapt to a new league and/or new teammates, then you take a hit in the value you can get out of the player in year one and pay for decline years of his age 28, 29, 30, and 31 seasons¹. For some players, particularly ones who depend on work rate and athleticism (Cavani) or an explosive burst/pace (Falcao, Fernando Torres) these decline phases can see a player fall off a cliff. This can leave a team with a hole they need to fill in their squad and an immovable asset (see Fernando Torres’ entire career at Chelsea). This type of purchasing policy requires a vast expenditure to consistently replace declining players and possibly buy-out/sweeten the pot to ship out bad assets. This constant roster turnover also hurts the quality on the pitch, as it prohibits the creation of an intimate understanding between the players on the pitch.
In more recent times, we can see that the richest clubs have focused on purchasing players age 25-and-under. The most striking example is Real Madrid. In the first Galacticos era, they purchased Luis Figo at 28, Zinedine Zidane at 29, an already past his prime Ronaldo at 26, and David Beckham at 28. In the second era of the Galacticos, Real Madrid purchased Cristiano Ronaldo at 24, Karim Benzema at 21, Mesut Ozil at 21, Angel di Maria at 22, Luka Modric at 26, Gareth Bale at 24, Isco at 21, James Rodriguez at 23, and Toni Kroos at 24. In fact, the one time they acted like they did in the early 2000s led to an enormous waste of resources on a past-his-prime Kaka, who they purchased at the age of 27².
This policy makes more sense for a club looking to maximize on field success over a longer period. By purchasing players at the very beginning or pre-peak, a club can extract more value out of the player. Also, the year that may be spent acclimating to the league and/or teammates happens further away from the decline phase of the player’s career. It allows the team to grow together, to develop that familiarity and cohesion, with the system and each other.
Manchester United and Arsenal: A Tale of Two Different Agendas
Given what I have just written above, why would a club look to invest in a center forward who is in the decline phase of his career? The most obvious case would be if a club has a strong preference for their team to reach a certain goal in this season. If football ended after this season, I would love Arsenal to blow all their money on a Cavani. To quote John Maynard Keynes (I understand the irony of my referencing of Keynes), “…this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run, we are all dead.”
When looking at Manchester United, they are desperate to get back into the Champions League for 2015-16. Whether it is due to clauses in commercial deals that effectively penalize them for not being the in the Champions League or the realization that the allure of Manchester United is not as powerful of a recruiting tool as they thought, especially when it comes to players outside of the British Isles, United seem willing to ignore the future costs of their accumulate-points-now strategy. With Robin Van Persie’s health always a concern and Wayne Rooney making Alex Rodriguez’s contract look good, United decided to pay a loan fee of 6M pounds, according to the BBC, and rather high wages.³ Essentially, United have decided to gamble on the idea that three supposedly world class strikers can make up for extreme deficiencies at the back, especially if they play a back three, at fullback/wingback, and in holding midfield.
One might say that this gamble is worth it. Falcao is an elite goalscorer who can help Manchester United score their way to a Top 4 place. That may be a fine argument if Falcao was an elite goalscorer. However, a deeper dig into the numbers by some in the analytics community has shown that Falcao’s production is not particularly special. Before the Summer of 2013, Benjamin Pugsley wrote a three piece breakdown of Falcao (Part 1 Part 2 Part 3) that gives you the feeling that Falcao is a very good player, who stats are inflated by a large number of penalties, but at the wrong point in his age curve to make a significant investment desirable.
Michael Caley confirms this suspicion in these two figures, showing that Falcao has produce good, but not elite goalscoring numbers.4
The simple problem with Falcao’s stats: a lot of his goals are penalties. (Even this year, it’s 1 of 2). pic.twitter.com/VSda6wIqEY
— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) September 2, 2014
Here’s a better version of the Falcao chart. NPG/90 + A/90, La Liga 2011-2013. Good, again, but short of elite. pic.twitter.com/aua5qBtzfG
— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) September 1, 2014
It is not that surprising that Atletico Madrid and Colombia looked much more dynamic without Falcao, who appears to lack the elite goalscoring ability to make up for all of his other deficiencies and the sacrifices an XI need to make when playing with him.
Maybe Manchester United did not know about how penalty fueled Falcao’s stats were. But with the resources at their disposal, it would seem unlikely that they would be unaware of this. Instead, I would posit that their desperation to make the top 4, combined with a lack of acquirable targets to strengthen defense and midfield, due to a lack of Champions League football and United being in what appears to be a three/four team fight for 3rd and 4th place, led to their higher valuation of the potential production now of a Falcao5. It also led to their lowered evaluation of Danny Welbeck.
Arsenal seemed to operate in a completely opposite manner to Manchester United during this transfer window. They upgraded at right-back (if you do not believe me, watch Manchester City-Stoke to see how much of a liability Bacary Sagna is going forward at this stage in his career), goalkeeper, 3rd center-back, and in the attacking trio/quartet, and did so without a hint of desperation on their part.
In reality, it would take quite a bit of good fortune for Arsenal to win the Premier League this season. With Chelsea making massive improvement in areas that previously represented major deficiencies in their roster, this is their title to lose, especially with the African Cup of Nations damaging City’s ability to compete.
Realistically, with all these new signings, the goal for Arsenal is to figure out how to play with one another and figure out which system works best, while finishing in the Top 4. With so many players age 25 and under in this squad, there will be quite a few players who will improve or still be in their prime for the 2015-16 season. You would also believe that, with likely fewer areas of need to address in the transfer market, Arsenal will have a better time trying to find the right holding midfielder (maybe William Carvalho in January or a move for a stop-gap like Daniel Baier) and center-back to fill out the squad. Also, with the ticking time bomb that appears to be Manchester City’s squad, the path to the title may prove easier for an improved Arsenal side next season.6
Given that viewpoint, the signing of Danny Welbeck makes plenty of sense for Arsenal. In Welbeck, Arsenal have purchased a player before he hits his prime, who can grow with the young core at the club and has many of the attributes one would want in a center forward. He is remarkably quick; he is strong; he has a work rate that would make Alexis Sanchez proud; he passes well; he can play with his back to goal; he moves into good spaces; he is English (which means he is less likely to leave the club). He seems to fit with the Alexis Sanchez signing and the idea of maximizing the production of Mesut Ozil.
With Olivier Giroud out until 2015, Welbeck will finally get the opportunity to play up top and gain that confidence. He is already a very good football player. He just needs to add goal-scoring to his game to become a very good center forward, one that I would start ahead of Olivier Giroud. In this way there is some Aaron Ramsey to him where one looks at him and thinks, “If he ever gained confidence with his finishing and delivery of the final pass he could become a very good player.” If this development occurs, Arsenal will have their own version of Robert Lewandowski (although Welbeck probably will not be of that overall quality, but will play at a faster tempo than the Pole). Given the future market of center forwards, it may prove an immensely wise investment to buy a center forward who is more a footballer than a goal-scorer, and rely on goals from other positions.7
Arsenal did not make the investment in current period point-accumulation, in a forlorn attempt to win the title. They made the right investment for the club. They have acquired an asset with limited downside, and significant upside, especially when one considers the future of the center forward market. They bought a player who improves their team and fits with the direction in which the club appears to be going. Finally, they bought a player who is young enough to grow with the rest of the core at Arsenal. For a club who style requires continuity and cohesion, this may be the most underrated aspect of the signing. So while many fans may have desired the short-termism that Manchester United have displayed this window, in an effort to improve the center forward position, I believe that this long-term approach will allow Arsenal to do more with the limited resources they have, allowing them to better compete with their richer competition.
¹Looking at Edinson Cavani, his peak seems to fit perfectly with his three years at Napoli. Napoli then sold a player about to hit his decline to PSG. That’s about as good as one can do when it comes to extracting value out of an asset as a player and as a saleable asset.
²The richest clubs’ more intelligent spending may be the reason why we have seen the domination of football by the richest clubs, particularly in the Champions League. Also, it may mean that clubs like Arsenal have to look at the age 21 and under bracket and the age 25-and-under assets of richer clubs look to move out, in an effort to acquire elite talent.
³This becomes hard to figure out as Falcao played in Monaco, where contracts are negotiated on net wage terms and his gross wage was his net wage due to the lack of income tax. If he was making X per week at Monaco, then United would have to pay him X/(UK income tax) to provide him the same net wage. I’ll settle on a wage around 300k-375k per week, with no idea on how much Monaco will contribute to paying his wages.
4I (Tim) have also written about Falcao in a much more in depth way than just goals scored. Falcao is a weird player in that he has almost no positive stats (shots on goal, successful dribbles, key passes, assists, etc) and a boatload of negative stats.
5If the option to buy was a wink-wink promise to an agent and/or a desire to get around FFP, United could be stuck with Wayne Rooney and Falcao into their 30s and possible Van Persie as well if they extend his contract. Therefore, if they do not make it into the Champions League, they could find themselves stuck with three declining, highly-paid front-men, with little ability to upgrade on those toxic assets. Even if they do get into the Champions League, the future market for center forwards looks quite grim.
6Here is the list of Manchester City players under the age of 26: John Guidetti, Matija Nastasic, Dedryck Boyata, Eliaquim Mangala, Stevan Jovetic, and Scott Sinclar. Here is the list of outfield players 28 and older (so not including the problematic hamstrings of Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri, and Fernando): James Milner, Vincent Kompant, Jesus Navas, Edin Dzeko, David Silva, Alexander Kolarov, Gael Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernandino, Yaya Toure, Bacary Sagna, Martin DeMichelis. With many of these older players locked up to long-term deals that could look quite ugly in the future, City will have to find a way to ship out their toxic assets to bring in new shiny ones that complies with FFP. Maybe that was the reason they started NYCFC, not to bring players in, but as a way to ship players out.
7Another reason to love formations with two wide forwards responsible for goal-scoring (along with the ability to pin a back 4 with only two players)? Look at the CF position in three years (age at the start of 2017-18 in parentheses): Messi (30), Ronaldo (32, who will probably play more as a CF as he ages), Ibrahimovic (35), Cavani (30), Falcao (31), Dzeko (31), Suarez (30), Higuain (29), Aguero (29), Benzema (29), Van Persie (34), Lewandowski (28), Sturridge (27), Destro (26), Immobile (27), Balotelli (27), Costa (28), Lasogga (25), Morata (24, at Juventus, will probably go back to Real Madrid), Lukaku (24, if his technical ability Everton could make a truckload of money selling him to one of the super-wealthy clubs)…and now the punts on talent…Timo Werner (21, but German so he’ll wind up at Bayern), Domenico Berardi (23 and Juventus property), Michy Batshuayi (23), Anthony Martial (21), Ante Rebic (23), Yaya Sanogo (24…if he just becomes 07/08 Adebayor he becomes one of the most valuable commodities in the world). That 25-and-under group looks pretty grim and with clubs like Barcelona, Manchester City, Chelsea, Real Madrid, PSG, and Manchester United with more money than Arsenal, it would appear that Arsenal need to adapt and look for profit opportunities elsewhere, rather than trying to compete dollar-for-dollar with richer clubs. Or they could start producing center-forward talent, but when was the last time they did that? Though, maybe they would produce more if idiotic labor regulations allowed Arsenal to pick kids out of South America at very young ages