Soccer’s Confounding Calculation: What’s a Player Worth? – New York Times

After all, as Chelsea Manager Antonio Conte said last year, this is soccer’s “crazy” age.

“Prices are too high in general; the market is crazy,” he said. “When you try to buy a player, the cost is very expensive. It is not the real valuation of the player. It is a very strange situation.”

Events so far this summer — before the window has even opened — have only compounded that impression.

Those inside soccer have long since grown used to spiraling price inflation, driven by the wealth of the cash-soaked Premier League, the rising revenues of the superclubs of Continental Europe and the ever-present threat of the riches being offered by teams in the Chinese Super League.

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Georginio Wijnaldum, right, and his Newcastle United teammate Moussa Sissoko celebrating a goal last year. Both players departed the team, for far higher prices than Newcastle had privately set for them.

Credit
Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

What leaves even those employed to track the pulse of the transfer market scratching their heads is that there is no pattern to the prices that they are being are quoted. Nobody seems sure anymore of exactly what, in Conte’s words, ‘‘the real valuation” of a player should be.

Everton, for example, valued its striker, Romelu Lukaku, at 100 million pounds (about $126 million), the same figure that Barcelona may have to pay to extricate the Italian midfielder, Marco Verratti, from Paris St.-Germain. Yet beyond their age (24), Lukaku, a powerful Belgian forward, and Verratti, a creative and technical Italian playmaker, have little in common: They share neither position nor pedigree.

Even prices for theoretically comparable players offer no clear signals. Manchester United recently paid Benfica 30 million pounds (nearly $38 million) for one of its crown jewels, Victor Lindelof, a 22-year-old Swedish defender. But Liverpool wants the same amount for Mamadou Sakho, a defender five years older than Lindelof who was ostracized by Manager Jürgen Klopp for much of last year. Southampton believes its defender Virgil van Dijk is worth twice as much as Lindelof and Sakho.

Increasingly, it seems as though people are just sticking a finger in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing.

Until a couple of weeks ago, for example, Stoke City might have contemplated an offer of 30 million pounds for its young English goalkeeper, Jack Butland. But after Everton agreed to pay Sunderland that amount for a different young English goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, Stoke adjusted its sights accordingly. Butland is still the same player. It is just that he will now cost any team hoping to buy him substantially more.

The market can move values, of course, but so can the environment. Last year, when Newcastle United was relegated from the Premier League, it knew it would have to cash in on its two most salable assets, the French midfielder Moussa Sissoko and the Dutch wing Georginio Wijnaldum.

Privately, the club believed that 15 million pounds would be a healthy price for each player. When Real Madrid inquired about Sissoko and suggested, without prompting, that it would be prepared to pay twice that, Newcastle duly increased its valuation. When news media reports suggested that Wijnaldum might fetch 25 million pounds — and his two most active suitors, Everton and Liverpool, were not deterred — Newcastle did the same with him. Both players soon departed, each at the new prices.

That is an extreme example, but at many clubs setting a price remains a matter of instinct, of feel. Igli Tare, the sporting director of the Italian club Lazio, takes into account many of the same metrics a more formal system might — “age, importance to the team, the quality of their play in the last seasons” — but said that the ultimate filter remained his “knowledge and understanding of the transfer market.”

That personal, instinctive approach is replicated across the Continent, leading to intense secrecy: Few teams and officials are willing to speak openly about how they go about setting the prices they will accept, or pay.

“It is like a secret recipe for every club, known only in the club and in our books,” said Olaf Rebbe, the sporting director at the Bundesliga club Wolfsburg. “Every club decides in its own way what a player costs, and that could be completely different to you.”

This is also what lends the transfer market its outward veneer of chaos, the sense that even experts are grasping in the dark: each club and each individual acting according to a value system only they know, and having a willingness to change it from case to case. “Every player depends so much on the details,” Rebbe said.

Both Rebbe and Tare, for example, insisted that they work “with one price in mind” when selling a player, regardless of the buyer. But many English clubs have complained that they feel they are routinely cited higher figures when buying players in Europe than teams from Germany, Italy or Spain.

It is no wonder, then, that many teams see modeling transfer prices as a task too thankless to contemplate. Though Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea all work to some sort of formal methodology, the staff of StatDNA, Arsenal’s analytics arm, argues that every deal is too dependent on context to create a coherent approach.

Even those who have spent time doing so accept its limitations. “We have built models for market valuations,” said Henry Stott, founder of Decision Technology, a research consultancy that provides advice to a number of high-profile teams. “But they are only so good, because there are a million unobserved facts.”

Instead, Stott, who has a doctorate in cognitive science, and his team of academics concentrate on offering a “rational figure for a reservation price” — an idea of roughly what a player should be worth in cold monetary terms.

By using data to establish a reliable system of ranking players in any one position by ability, Stott said, they can try to establish the effect on a team of “pulling one player out and putting another in, what that would mean in terms of likelihood of avoiding relegation, qualifying for Europe, or where you would finish in the league.”

That provides what Stott refers to as an “intrinsic valuation.” That is helpful information, most agree, even if the “intuitive price” — what a team may end up paying — is ordinarily, and often substantially, different.

“Market price is determined by willingness to sell and willingness to buy,” Stott said, as well as a number of other factors. “People pay less to smaller clubs for players of the same caliber, for example,” he added.

The models, the science, the research, all of those hours of work and all of that brainpower, can take a team only so far. Ultimately, no matter what the actual value of a player is, or how inflated or inexplicable the figures seem, the only measure of worth that counts is what someone is willing to pay.

Establishing that price, Stott said, is not his role. “I hand it across to the negotiating team,” he said. He restricts his advice to one simple message. “If you can get the player for that or less, you should,” he tells his clients. “But if you have to pay more, maybe don’t.”

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