Match Week 22 in the Premier League was one of those weekends where you really start to wonder why goalkeepers attract so little money in the transfer market. When you think about the money spent on the guys who have been the best goalkeepers in the world, it’s really amazing how far that money goes compared to what is paid for outfield players. Focusing on one position on the pitch doesn’t constitute a team-building strategy by any stretch of the imagination but one wonders why clubs looking to mine value in the market aren’t looking at this as a huge market inefficiency.
What do I mean? Petr Cech was reportedly purchased by Chelsea from Rennes for £7 million and then by Arsenal for £10 million. Thibaut Courtois was purchased from Genk for a similar price to what the Blues paid for Cech. Jack Butland was purchased for a measly £3.5 million from Birmingham City. Joe Hart went for £1.5 million as a teenager. Hugo Lloris went for somewhere between £7 million and £12 million depending on how much of the variable ended up being paid. Of the Premier League’s excellent goalkeepers, only David De Gea went for what one might consider a premium price (a PL record fee of £17.8 million).
The overall number paid doesn’t always tell the entire story. Certainly some of these prices, specifically the miniscule prices for Hart and Butland, can be explained by their relative youth when they were sold for those prices. Still, even if we contain our discussion to Cech, Courtois and De Gea, all players easily described as among the top ten at their position in the world, the prices to acquire them look ludicrous compared to what it would take to acquire a player in the top ten at other positions in the world.
Let’s take guys like Messi and Ronaldo off the table because their talents are otherworldly and look instead at guys like Gareth Bale, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Robert Lewandowski, Nicholas Otamendi, or Angel Di Maria. Those players have been sold in the last few seasons and are less good at what they do than Cech/Courtois/De Gea are at what they do. I need to understand how the outfield players on the list above all went for anywhere from 2x as much to 10x as much as our trio of outstanding goalkeepers depending on which goalkeeper and which outfield player we’re talking about.
Before you think me entirely insane, yes, I understand that goalscorers like Bale and passers like Ozil sell more shirts and put more butts in seats than their goalkeeping counterparts ever will. The part that seems insane to me is the extent to which goalkeeper prices seem to be staying more or less steady while the prices of defenders is skyrocketing. How do you pay more for Baba Rahman than Courtois? More for Nicholas Otamendi than for Cech? More for Alberto Moreno than for David De Gea? We’ve seen that a great goalkeeper like Cech at Arsenal or De Gea at United can make good-but-not-great defenders look at least pretty close to great. The only evidence that we’ve seen with things going the other direction is when the club puts all of its energy into a system that protects the goalkeeper like Asmir Begovic at Stoke City (he was mediocre behind a lackluster Chelsea defense this season).
My point, following a weekend where Cech, De Gea and Butland were all spectacular and contributed points directly to their clubs’ efforts with their saves, is that it seems reasonable that someone will realize that £20 to £30 million for one of the best goalkeepers in the world, which will also increase the effective value of all of your defenders, is a better investment than spending that same amount of money on a second or third tier creative midfielder or forward.
NOTE: I’m going to do a bit of an abridged MMM today because my day job is going at a pretty incredible pace today. I’ll be looking at the races for the title, European spots, and relegation and then some random notes at the end. I’ll do my best to get the full column out next week.
The Title Race
Arsenal – Hard to say exactly how to take the draw at Stoke City. If you throw in the absences of Alexis and Ozil and how the other big clubs in the league have fared at the Britannia this season then it’s hardly a horrible dropping of two points. That said, the Gunners can’t rationalize themselves into statements like that too often lest they find themselves in second or third looking up at City as they pull away. Leicester City made it less frustrating by drawing with a far worse team while City and Spurs did what they were supposed to against sides that are slumping (Palace) and just bad (Sunderland) respectively.
Manchester City – Given how rotten Palace have been over the past month or so, this result was no surprise at all. City are still very good at the Etihad and Palace have been rotten everywhere since Yannick Bolasie has been out injured. We didn’t really learn too much about City’s credentials minus Vincent Kompany because their issues without him seem to be mostly on the road.
Leicester City – The breaks that were going the Foxes way in the first half of the season seem to be turning in the other direction this season. Jamie Vardy blasts that always seemed to find the side netting or the underside of the bar in the first half all seem to be going wide or high in the second half. Riyah Mahrez has started to look human contributing far less from open play and missing two penalties that have cost the Foxes a combined four points. The margins here are fine so it’s hard to imagine that the Foxes will stay in their current elevated status without more than their share over the second half of the season. Still, let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that the breaks have gone away for good.
Tottenham – Spurs crushed a poor opponent and got help above them in the form of Arsenal and Leicester City draws. That makes for a great weekend. Mousa Dembele was back in the sort of form that has really driven Spurs in the right direction. If he can stay healthy, an issue going back to his Fulham days, then they can move up. If they get that AND some support for Harry Kane then it could be a fantastic second half of the season. Without knowing if either of those things is going to happen, it’s hard to push Spurs higher on the projected finish list on the basis of a home win over Sunderland.
The Second Tier
West Ham United – It was an ugly loss for the Hammers but I don’t want to over-react to either that loss or Manchester United’s narrow victory in looking toward the second half of the season. The Hammers are coming back into health and have consistently played better than United when healthy. Dimitri Payet wasn’t at his best but between the two clubs, he’s the best attacking player on either side by a fair margin and, for me, that’s enough to suggest that the Hammers will finish higher up the table than the Red Devils.
Manchester United – Hey, it’s the “Wayne Rooney Is Back” fest coming to a TV, newspaper, internet outlet or radio near you. Before you get too excited, I urge you to hold your horses. In his “big bounce back” Rooney has scored a couple of penalties and then yesterday added a goal off what was a fortunate bounce that fell to him in a situation where it probably would have been harder for anyone who has ever been paid to score goals for a living to miss than score. I’ll grant you that United had real signs of life against Liverpool but they were hardly back to their dominant ways and, but for some amazing work from David De Gea, would have lost to their bitter rivals and continued to tumble down the standings. Maybe Rooney will prove me wrong and all we’ll find he needed was a string of good luck to get him going in the right direction but I don’t suspect that’s the case. If I had to bet money on whether Manchester United end up higher than the current sixth place projection or lower then I’d bet lower.
Stoke City – The Potters are a hard group to figure given their excellent results against the big boys that have been mitigated, at least to some extent, by poor results against some of the also-rans of the league. Some of this is down to the increasing parity in the Premier League but that can’t be all of it. Perhaps the Potters new, flowing attacking style falls victim to the same issues facing a parked bus that other passing-oriented teams have faced in the past. Maybe Mark Hughes’ Stoke City are vulnerable to Tony Pulis’ West Brom the same way that Arsenal were vulnerable to Pulis’ Stoke City teams. Just because this group is wearing the red and white stripes of Stoke City and have a heritage of being bruisers and a no-nonsense attacking group doesn’t automatically confer those powers to players like Bojan, Ifalley and Shaqiri who will never be confused with Peter Crouch and Jon Walters. Somewhere, Jose Mourinho discovered a great middle ground between direct, robust, creative and beautiful but it only lasted for about three months. Mark Hughes is still figuring things out and it’s going mostly well but there are certainly days when it doesn’t quite work.
Southampton – After about two months of really sucking wind, the Saints are coming on strong. Nine points from their past five matches have them moving back up the table and the acquisition of Charlie Austin for what looks like a bargain price positions them to keep the momentum going. There’s still a feeling that Ronald Koeman has little idea what his best starting midfield group is but, on the other hand, he’s getting strong contributions from a lot of guys who he can mix and match to keep them rested as the season goes on. Fantasy managers get aggravated when guys like Dusan Tadic don’t start regularly but supporters will be OK if he can James Ward-Prowse can continue to combine to be one really great creative player.
Liverpool – The Reds are going through a real rough patch like the one that the Saints went through before them. It feels like much of the malaise can be attributed to injuries. Some of those injuries, like the one to Daniel Sturridge, seem unlikely to go away anytime soon. Others, like Coutinho and what seems like the entire defense, will probably work themselves out pretty soon. The question is how much of a hole that Jurgen Klopp’s team digs for itself while they’re waiting to get their entire B+ squad (minus Sturridge) back in action. If they drop significant points to the likes of Norwich, Sunderland and Aston Villa (three of their four upcoming opponents) then it’s going to be a tough road. If they manage to win those matches as they’re getting everyone back then they should be well-stocked to move up the table over the rest of the second half.
Crystal Palace – Can Yannick Bolasie possible be THIS important? Palace has been a wreck without him. Losing to City at the Etihad isn’t a shock but they were run over in a way that they haven’t been since before Alan Pardew took over and Bolasie was their only significant absence. The other big setbacks this weekend were Charlie Austin moving to Southampton and Diego Costa’s injury making a move for Loic Remy even less likely for the Eagles. Maybe Bolasie gets back soon and order is restored but if their success is that fragile then their transfer team had better start working overtime because that is no way to ensure a sustained run of success.
The Relegation Battle
Aston Villa – They’ve been playing much better recently with points from consecutive matches but draws, even against high flying clubs like Leicester City, aren’t going to get it done given the huge hole they’ve dug for themselves. With Newcastle, Swansea and Bournemouth all picking up three points Villa have actually fallen further back of safety despite the impressive draw.
Sunderland – As much as there have been signs of life under Big Sam with Jermain Defoe and Patrick Van Aanholt looking particularly impressive in recent weeks, it seems to be a case of one step forward and two steps back. Spurs are certainly a quality opponent but Sunderland, even a goal up, never really seemed like they had a chance to pick up points. New goalkeeper Jordan Pickford looks like a good pick-up but he might have to develop for at least a season in the Championship. The signing of Dame N’Doye is interesting but that certainly won’t help at the back where the Black Cats are struggling most.
Norwich City – With Swansea City finally looking like the mid-table club that their talent and recent history led us to believe they would be and Newcastle fortifying the base of their midfield to immediate effect, the Canaries are looking more and more likely to be relegated. There just doesn’t seem to be enough talent and the defense in particular just doesn’t inspire confidence unless Tim Klose is a transcendent acquisition at the back.
Newcastle – I’ve been beating the drum for the Magpies’ young attacking group for a while and it appears that they have just received the type of support that they need in the form of Jonjo Shelvey and Henri Saivet. The availability of Shelvey from a struggling Swansea side makes you think that there’s something negative behind the scenes that we don’t know about but on the pitch he started his Newcastle journey the same way he started this season at Swansea, as a dynamo. He didn’t pick up any assists but he was the creator of both goals with incisive passes from deep. Newcastle has never come close to replacing Yohan Cabaye and finally there is at least someone back there who can, at times, replicate the deep-lying playmaking that can help unleash Wijnaldum, Perez, Mitrovic and company. Shelvey will never replicate Cabaye’s beautiful head of hair but the playmaking will be enough.
Swansea City – The move of Jonjo Shelvey from Swansea to Newcastle seems to have had a positive impact on both sides. The Swans are playing better as are the Magpies. Perhaps we’ll never know what, exactly, went on behind the scenes at the Liberty Stadium since none of the protagonists seem likely to be significant enough to write a tell-all memoir but there must have been something. As for the remaining Swans, new management should push them just out of relegation danger. The loss to Sunderland in mid-week was a big set-back but I expect things to settle down with Francesco Guidolin in place to “assist” Alan Curtis. It's also worth mentioning the massive performance from Ashley Williams (even if he did commit a penalty on Odion Ighalo that went uncalled).
Bournemouth – The Cherries look like they’re going to make it. I love what they did in the transfer window striking early and picking up exactly what they needed, reinforcements to replace what they thought they had going into the season in Callum Wilson and Max Gradel. In Benik Affobe, Lewis Grabban and Juan Iturbe they have the sort of depth that they will need to continue to grind out results. Four points from Leicester City, West Ham, and Norwich City is at least one more than they would have hoped for and you have to like them to continue to outdistance at least Villa, Sunderland and this weekend’s victims Norwich City. It’s looking good for everyone’s favorite pre-season success story. Imagine how we’ll feel about them heading into next season if Afobe turns out to be good enough for the Premier League and Wilson recovers and joins him with a rotation of Gradel, Stanislas, Ritchie and Iturbe (if they buy him permanently) on the wings. That’s the sort of attacking group that gets pundits focusing on surprise mid-table finishes.
Benik Afobe – It was a rough first outing against the Hammers with a few bad misses. It was much better this weekend. A definite pick-up between his abilities and the likelihood of consistent playing time.
Juan Iturbe – Great secondary stats in his 40 minutes replacing Ritchie in mid-week but he doesn’t seem likely to get enough minutes to be worth picking up despite his talents. If someone gets injured for a significant stretch then you might want to re-evaluate.
Jan Kirchhoff – It doesn’t get much worse than his Mangala-ish debut substitute appearance against Spurs. Apparently there was a reason that he didn’t play at Bayern Munich. I’m sure he’ll be better than that but certainly not enough to make you want to buy.
Charlie Austin – A great signing if he can stay healthy but that’s a significant “if” given the extent to which clubs stayed away in the summer over worries about Austin’s knees. With Graziano Pelle losing his mojo, Austin seems like the perfect aerial threat to replace what Pelle was doing earlier in his Saints tenure.
Mohamed Elneny – He didn’t get his debut for Arsenal and he’s not playing a position that is likely to product a great deal of attacking statistics. He’s only interesting in formats that reward secondary defensive statistics like interceptions and tackles won.
Dame N’Doye – He had some interesting passages of form at Hull City last season but I’m curious how well Jermain Defoe and N’Doye might partner. They seem to be somewhat similar in terms of what they bring. He’s a questionable pick-up until we know more about his role but he has a track record that makes him a must watch.
Jonjo Shelvey – He might have been dropped in your league which means that he could be worth picking up if he’s going to get to start again and be given a new lease on life at Newcastle.
Demarai Gray – He looked great against Spurs in the FA Cup but unless one of Marc Albrighton or Riyad Mahrez gets injured he’s probably one to remember for next season after he inevitably takes over for Mahrez once he moves to a bigger club.