The boys of summer 2018 – in midfield
The summer of 2018 was a special one in the Premier League. Normally, the marquee signings over the summer are forwards and maybe the odd central defender. But in 2018, the clubs in England's senior circuit spent more than £300m on midfielders, and even more with the addition of the new stars' wages. With English football requiring more tactical flexibility than ever, the world's most versatile players in the middle of the park were in demand. So how did all that spending turn out?
We looked back at a group of 10 players who all arrived for fees of roughly £10m or more. They arrived on the South Coast, in London, at the Theatre of Dreams, in front of the Kop, and even at the Foxes' den. We looked up their wages and then calculated how many weeks they'd been at their clubs, either until the present day or until they went out on loan. Then we added up their minutes in domestic league and UEFA action. We skipped domestic cup matches, because that's not where the money is (and clubs barely seem to care about the cups these days, anyway).
Pulling all of these numbers together, we were able to come to a rough calculation of their costs per minute played:
Now, some of these fees and wages might be off. Jean Michael Seri's fee, for example, is the subject of some dispute; he arrived in a £25m package with Maxime Le Marchand, and we're approximating the share pertaining to him (sorry, Maxime). Also, it's hard to know just how much a player like Fred is earning, since compensation at Manchester United can include multiple bonuses and other sweeteners. And we don't know how much loanees like Seri, Lucas Torreira, and Felipe Anderson are costing their parent clubs while they ply their trade on the continent.
Still, if these numbers are even close to correct, a few things jump out. Yves Bissouma is the bargain of the bunch – and not just for his low cost per minute, but also for his performances. Just compare him to Jorginho, who has cost Chelsea more than twice as much per minute:
Bissouma is a more aggressive defender with similar quality, his ball retention is slightly higher, his attacking output is virtually the same, he's superior in every kind of duel, and he's five years younger. The boffins at Brighton knew what they were doing when they signed him.
On the other end of the spectrum is Naby Keita, whose cost has been nearly double that of the next-costliest midfielder. Keita's cost comes from his huge fee but also from the fact that he's played so little. Injuries and selection decisions have made him a marginal figure at Liverpool, despite his obvious abilities. It's not as though Keita's physical issues were a mystery, either – he had nine reported injuries in the three seasons prior to signing at Anfield.
For all of Liverpool's supposed nous in the transfer market, they appear to have miscalculated on this one. Without counting his cup matches, Keita's playing time has cost Liverpool more than £300 per second. Liverpool can feel much better about Fabinho, though, who's been cheaper than Jorginho and Fred while being a pivotal part of the Anfield squad.
Seri was also a notable flop, arriving as a highly touted passer from Nice but lasting just a year at Fulham before starting a succession of loans. He was a link-up specialist at CM, which was rather a rare profile for the Premier League, and at Craven Cottage he was often asked to play deeper (though he was not really a DM) or to pass forward aggressively (though he had not done that in Ligue 1). You can see the change in Seri's style – and his ineffectiveness as a defender – in this comparison:
Yet what's most remarkable about the numbers in the table at the top of this article is how enormous they are in the first place. They're the sort of figures that get people complaining that professional athletes are overpaid. But are they?
Let's put aside the European competitions for a moment. The Premier League's broadcasting rights were worth more than £2.4 billion in 2018-19, for 380 matches lasting an average of about 95 minutes. To simplify matters, let's forget about explusions as well. So we had 22 players times 380 matches times 95 minutes, for a total of about 800,000 minutes. That's £3,000 per player per minute, without taking account of matchday revenue, merchandising, or sponsorship.
Of course, the broadcast revenues weren't shared equally between the league's 20 clubs. And if the boys of summer stick around, their transfer fees will be spread over more minutes. But even at these prices, Bissouma starts to look like a steal.
[Photos: Bissouma – James Boyes, Keita – Werner100359, Lerma – AFC Bournemouth, Jorginho – Дмитрий Пукалик, Torreira – Антон Зайцев, Fred – Кирилл Венедиктов, Anderson – Steindy, Fabinho – Вячеслав Евдокимов]