Once upon a transfer window a team could add Rio Ferdinand for £34 million, Zlatan Ibrahimovic for £62 million, or Luis Suarez for £73 million. Even Cristiano Ronaldo was available for a mere £80 million. The word “mere” is usually not used to describe sums of this magnitude, but upon the close of the 2018 winter transfer window, it is definitely appropriate.
Two of the most expensive transfers in history took place over the last month when Philippe Coutinho went from Liverpool to Barcelona for a package worth £142 million and Virgil van Dijk went from Southampton to Liverpool for a fee of £75 million. Both of these transfers can be traced to the most expensive transfer ever: Neymar’s nearly £200 million move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain last August, which started a trickle-down effect in transfer funds from Camp Nou to Anfield.
While the amount each club paid for their respective targets caused a few eyebrows to be raised, they were more or less viewed as the new normal when it comes to transfer fees. The transfer paradigm has shifted, and the shift happened recently. Half of the ten most expensive transfers on record have occurred since January 2017. Fans have become used to their clubs paying more, sometimes a lot more, in order to get the players they want.
Which makes all the fuss over Leicester City’s £95 million dollar valuation of Riyad Mahrez that much more confusing. Even adjusting for inflation, if a club wants to add a player in today’s transfer market, the club will have to pay much more than it would have even one year ago. Transfer fees were on the way up before Neymar’s quarter-billion-dollar move. His transfer just expedited the inevitable.
The money Barcelona received for Neymar’s transfer allowed them to pay whatever it took to secure Coutinho, which then allowed Liverpool to pay whatever it took to secure van Dijk. These two players are the key to evaluating how supposedly unreasonable Leicester City was in their valuation, because they are the faces of not only the just-closed transfer window, but of the transfer market as a whole.
At face value it does indeed seem absurd that the Foxes would expect anyone to pay £95 million for Mahrez. Upon further examination, however, and with a little thought experiment, the club’s reasoning starts to make sense.
Imagine you didn’t know what a club paid in transfer fees when acquiring players. Assume the best information available was general terms which you could use to compare what clubs paid versus what clubs were asking.
Using this criteria:
- Leicester City were asking £47 million less than the price paid for Coutinho.
- Leicester City were asking for £20 million more than the price paid for van Dijk.
When viewed in this light, the valuation compared to other players who were just sold last month seems appropriate, if not a bargain. If you were a fan of a club that signed Mahrez for £47 million less than it took to sign Coutinho, you’d be thrilled. What if you found out your favorite team could sign him for only £20 million more than it cost to sign van Dijk? You’d want them to jump at the opportunity. It’s only when the actual astronomical transfer fees enter the equation that the valuation itself seems absurd.
But when you compare it to the current market, regardless of how that market came about, it actually seems reasonable. From this perspective, the Manchester City offer of a £60 million package for a recent PFA Player of the Year is the one that seems asinine. Especially when that offer is coming from a team that just spent £57 million on a 23 year-old center back.
Whether or not transfer fees are at an unreasonable level is a very reasonable debate. Is any center back, let alone two in one window, worth more than £50 million? Is any player worth five times that? Reasonable or not, that is in fact the current state of the market. And in this market, Riyad Mahrez is certainly worth £20 million dollars more than a recently injured defender. Kudos to the entire front office of Leicester City Football Club for realizing this.
Then again, it’s not the first time this club has been ahead of its peers when it comes to transfers. The Foxes were just offered £60,000,000 for a player they acquired for £450,000.