Analytics guru says inflated hopes pinned on big signings

With any record-breaking transfer, a litany of questions usually follow. But in the case of Paul Pogba’s switch from Juventus to Manchester United, there seems more than usual.

So, have a desperate United paid over the odds or does the monstrous outlay make sense? Omar Chaudhuri is Head of Football Intelligence at 21st Club, a consultancy specialising in analytics, who have advised several Premier League teams.

“There was a recent table I saw that looked at record transfers in each season and the portion of revenue that the transfer cost,” he says.

“For Manchester United, the highest were Juan Sebastian Veron in 2001 and Rio Ferdinand the following year. Pogba only ends up being third on that list. So, in that way, the fee isn’t really that obscene in comparison to some of their other transfers.

“In terms of the price itself, sometimes that’s just what football inflation is. It’s the price United can afford. Pogba is one of the most talented young players in Europe so, in many ways, when they’ve pursued a player like that, United will consider it a price worth paying.”

There’s also the issue of value. How can it be determined?

“I find that a really difficult exercise because it’s very hard to guess what market conditions are or were at the time,” Chaudhuri says.

“In Pogba’s case, he’s got a long-term contract and there were other clubs prepared to pay that much money for him so United weren’t the only buyer in this market. Sometimes you get two players who may have the same performance level, same age profile but because one had a good end to the previous season, suddenly a huge amount of buyers want him and then the valuations are skewed. Market conditions sometimes dictate these prices and you can’t really get away from those.”

The general consensus is that footballers peak between the ages 27-30, even though it’s not an exact science.

“You tend to see midfielders peaking around 25 or 26 so that gives United a good three years of a player reaching and probably playing close to peak performance levels,” says Chaudhuri.

“Even at 27 and 28, you’d expect pretty decent output so it’s really a prime age to be signing a midfielder. United aren’t probably as concerned with resale value. The commercial reality is that they can bring in such revenues that selling isn’t at the forefront of their minds.”

Since Pogba left United, he has gone from raw Premier League fringe player to the most coveted youngster in Europe. But how can that progress be measured? How muchhas he actually improved?

“Through statistics, you can try and rank teams relative to each other if you can imagine it as one, big European Super League. You can generate the estimation using Champions League results, Europa League results and so on. In our league system, based on last season’s results, we have Juventus in 8th and United in 23rd. That means that the average Juventus player is stronger than the average United player. So, buying a Juventus player is more likely than not going to improve Man United. And, clearly, Pogba is above average too.”

Spending big leads to expectations and it certainly influences predictions and forecasts, something Chaudhuri feels is a mis-step.

“United have the second highest points spread, only behind Man City. Given how they performed in the last chunk of last season, all the new players and a new manager, it’s difficult to see how you can justify making them, essentially, second-favorites.

“What a typical fan will do is assume that all new players will become successful. Anecdotally, we’ve already seen that’s not the case with, keeping the United example, Angel di Maria just a few seasons ago. If you look at the data, what you’ll see is that the roughly only half of players bought in the peak-age range will play 50% of minutes. So, only half become core, first-team players. There is always a risk with a transfer. Certainly, the anticipation of new signings being successful tends to be overstated.”

Lanky and long-limbed, Pogba has gone against type in this transfer window. A pattern has emerged of other teams identifying small, terrier-like midfielders as targets. A ‘halo effect’, according to Chauduri.

“Football tends to follow trends quite a lot”, he says.

“Around the mid-noughties, we found footballers tended to be a couple of centimetres taller on average, a little bit bigger and muscular. But as that Spain team became successful, other sides realised you could have smaller, technical players and they could compete in these environments. It’s amazing how many follow a trend off the back of a successful team - Spain and Barcelona in that case. Obviously, we had Leicester winning the league last season with Kante and Drinkwater in midfield.

“I’ve been in meetings with club owners and chief executives and they talk about what playing philosophy they want their team to have but they’re not very good at articulating that. I was in a meeting back in April with a board member of a club and he was saying ‘We want our team to play like Dortmund or Spurs’ and their playing style was nowhere near either club.

“I got the feeling he was reacting to Spurs looking really good and Dortmund being impressive too. That lack of strategy and vision does filter down into the scouting, management and recruitment and you do see the effect.”


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