Smarter recruiting: Finding the bargain buys
When the transfer window opens this summer – and it assuredly will at some point – most clubs will have rather less money than expected to spend. Blockbuster transfers are already being talked down by the bosses of the biggest clubs, and smaller clubs will have to do their work on a budget as well. So what can your club do to get the most from scarce resources? Here are some of the tactics used by experienced recruiters in football:
Loans. One way to avoid paying a transfer fee or even a signing bonus is to take a player on loan. Sometimes loans can be effective stopgaps for temporary holes in the squad. For a mature player, a loan may come with an obligation to buy if the player starts a certain number of matches – an outcome that both sides would probably welcome.
Loans of young players generally, by contrast, can offer a brief opportunity to bring in talent that a club might not be able to afford on its own. But there's also a danger that a club will take a series of young players on loan, increasing churn without adding value to the squad. Ultimately the club is just developing players for someone else, acting as a feeder or even a glorified academy.
That's why options to buy are such a desirable part of loan deals. Then at least there's a possibility that the effort invested in developing a player will benefit the club. Fixing a price in advance means the club won't pay more than its valuation and could very well pay less. Without an option, the end of a loan just leaves the borrowing club back where it started.
Bristol City weren't going to make that mistake with Jay Dasilva – they were able to get a £2m option on the former Chelsea starlet, whom they duly signed after his excellent 2018-19 season at LB:
Contract timing. Players in the last years of their contracts are supposedly a hot commodity, since in theory their clubs will be eager to grab fees before the players become free agents. Yet in practice, this is not always the case. When two clubs enter a negotiation, the club with less bargaining power is always the one that's more desperate to make a deal – and it may not be the club that owns the player's rights, even if the player is in his final year. This is especially true in the summer; owning clubs still have the winter transfer window as a last chance to move players.
Indeed, the clubs that want to move players most may be the ones that need to get out of long contracts that have just started. Imagine that a club has signed a player on a free transfer and, for whatever reason, the bosses now need to lower their wage bill. The long-term contracts on their books are liabilities payable in the future, and they may want more financial flexibility.
Relegated clubs. Relegation often comes with huge financial pressure, since clubs faced reduced revenues in lower divisions. If they haven't put relegation clauses in their players' contracts – some clubs think they're safer from relegation than they really are – then a fire sale is usually the result. Even poorly performing teams can have a few good players, so there are often bargains to be had. In fact, smart clubs will be looking at the potential steals as soon as they have an idea of which clubs will suffer the drop.
The most notable example of this phenomenon is probably Andrew Robertson's move from Hull to Liverpool for a mere £8m. And when Ingolstadt were relegated in 2017, Pascal Gross still had excellent numbers in attack. Brighton signed him for just £3m:
And indeed – Gross's numbers in his maiden season in the Premier League were extremely similar to his numbers at Ingolstadt, adjusted by our system to a Premier League standard.
Underused players. Sometimes clubs sign more players than they can use and leave substantial talent – and thus money – on the bench. No clubs want to waste resources, and players typically want to play. So a move to a club where a starting position is available can be a sensible choice for all involved. It's generally a good deal for the buying club, too. Because the underused player hasn't had many minutes, he'll likely trade at a discount versus his vaue in previous seasons. (That's why our Premium and Pro users have an "underused" player icon in their search results!)
In the latter stages of the 2016-17 season, Brighton virtually stopped using former Manchester United trainee Oliver Norwood in midfield. He went on loan to Fulham, where the same thing happened – he began as a starter and ended up on the bench in the closing stages of the season, even though he started every match in the run that took the Cottagers from 12th place to 5th. When Norwood returned to Brighton, Sheffield United snapped him up on a loan with an option to buy for just £2m, which they exercised in January 2019. And no wonder:
And it wasn't as though Norwood simply ran out of puff midway through the season. He played roughly 3,800' in his first term with the Blades and about 2,500' already this season!
Explainable issues. Sometimes a look at a player's numbers suggests that he's had a deep dip in form. That might scare away some clubs, but bargain-hunters know that looking a little more closely can pay off. If there's a good reason for the player's performance – and it may dissipate or be corrected – then things might improve again. A player who hasn't gotten a promised transfer may sulk. Maybe he's having personal problems off the pitch, or he's suffered a personal tragedy. A freak injury that's unlikely to recur may have interrupted his last season. These kinds of players may grab a second chance with both hands.
Of course, there are many other factors to consider when signing players, and we'll discuss these in future articles. But one thing many of the situations above have in common is that the players involved may have something to prove. They haven't been used to their fullest ability at their clubs, or they've been tarred by bad situations for which they weren't to blame. These are the kinds of players who are eager to move and can hit the ground running at their new clubs, making a smart bit of business even smarter.
[Photo: James Boyes]