Football, especially the at the top-end of the scale, is a sport that is seemingly awash with money. Players move from club to club for tens, sometimes hundreds, of millions of pounds, but how is their value set? It is difficult to put an exact method on the valuation of footballers, given that, in essence, it is about how much the selling club is willing to accept and how much the buying club is willing to pay. Even so, there are some factors that can be used to at least give a club a sense of what a players is worth in the market.
One of the things that the ‘old football men’ don’t particularly like in the modern game is the use of underlying metrics. The likes of Expected Goals, Expected Assists and Expected Goals Against might all sound like nonsense to Andy Gray, Richard Keys and footballing fossils of their ilk, but intelligent analysts are able to use them to determine whether players could be scoring more goals or keeping more clean sheets in a better team. Ultimately, though, the market is dictated by what teams are willing to pay or receive in fees for players.
In 1979, Trevor Francis was bought from Birmingham City by Nottingham Forest, becoming the first English player to cost £1 million. That was four years after Giuseppe Savoldi’s move to Napoli for £1.2 million, making him the first player in the world to cost such a fee. In 2017, Paris Saint-Germain paid Barcelona £199.8 million in order to sign Neymar, setting a world record fee that has yet to be broken. In other words, the value of players has changed somewhat since the 1970s, but what factors determine how much a player will cost?
The first place to start is with a player’s age. Whilst it makes complete sense to say that a younger player will be more expensive than an older one simply on the basis of the fact that they’ve got longer left in the game, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Players tend to hit their peak at different ages depending on the position that they play, so a promising centre-back might not command the same fee as a mercurial young striker on account of the fact that the forward will be closer to hitting their peak. That being said, older players have better experience.
Whichever way you break it down, age will be a factor when clubs are negotiation the price of a player. How old they are is one of the most important considerations, if not the most important, when clubs are deciding a value for them. Regardless of their position, a 32-year-old will obviously command less than a 20-year-old because the younger player has much more playing time left in their legs, whilst a 26-year-old will probably be more expensive than either of them because they’re hitting their peak at exactly the right time.
One of the factors that will be used to determine a player’s worth is also one that will be given more prominence by some clubs than by others. How fit a player is, which is to say, how often they are available for selection, is a very important factor to a lot of clubs. At the end of the day, you could sign the best player in the world but if he is rarely fit then it’s going to prove to be something of a pointless signing. There will be some clubs that will have faith in their fitness team to correct errors the player has suffered in the past, of course.
We will come on to discuss underlying metrics shortly, but a club will be able to look at a wealth of information about a player and decide whether there is anything that they can do to get them on the pitch more often than they have in the past. They will add that into their valuation in much the same way that the selling club will think about how little or how often a player has been available for the starting 11 and weigh that up in their valuation. Sometimes getting a player who is rarely fit off the books can be worth taking a lower price than you think they’re worth.
Tied into the idea of fitness is a player’s injury history. Yes, many clubs will be confident that they’ll be able to get a player onto the pitch more regularly than former teams have managed, but the previous injuries that they’ve suffered are worth considering. There are some injuries that won’t have all that much of an impact on a player’s future fitness, but there will be others that will shoot up as red flags to the relevant department at a football club. The likes of cruciate knee ligament damage can have serious long-term consequences for a player, for example.
It isn’t necessarily the case that an injury prone player will never be able to be sold. Instead, the types of injuries that a player has suffered and the long-term effects that it might have on their career will all be taken into account by the buying club when it comes to their valuation of the player. A 21-year-old that has suffered cruciate ligament damage will be more attractive to a buying club than a 29-year-old that has suffered the same injury, but both will be thought about for longer than a player that hasn’t had such an injury.
How Long Is Left On Their Contract
Football clubs will often sign players that they want to sell up to new contracts, not because they think that they are worth it, but because it will protect their value. A player with, say, four years left on their contract can theoretically be put into the reserves by the selling club and not be able to do anything about it, whereas one that only has one year left on their contract will be more inclined to run it down and therefore be able to move to a new club for free, thanks to the Bosman ruling, allowing them, not their club, to make the most money from the deal.
The length of the player’s contract will inevitably play a part in their valuation, both by the selling club and by the team looking to buy them. Buying a player is the equivalent of paying for the rest of their contract, so the longer that is left on the contract, the more they will cost. In simplistic terms, therefore, a long contract will mean a higher fee, whilst less years left on the contract will result in them being able to be bought for less money as the selling club risks losing them for nothing if they don’t agree a figure for their sale.
Whilst there is no hard and fast rule on the cost of players depending on their positions, it is a good rule of thumb to assume that attacking players will cost more than defensive ones. Games are won by scoring goals, so there is often a premium put on that particular skill to mean that forwards cost more than players in other positions. That being said, there will occasionally be a player in one of the other positions that is elevated above the general level that means that they can command higher fees than their counterparts.
That is to say, most goalkeepers are at roughly the same skill level as each other, with the same being the case for defenders. As a result, those that are evidently better than their counterparts will be worth more money because they stand out from the crowd. An exceptional goalkeeper or central defender will be worth more than goalkeepers or centre- backs with lower skill levels precisely because they are unique in their abilities, whereas average defensive players can be bought from most clubs for a modest fee.
Worth To The Seller Club, Importance To Buyer
Another one of the most important factors when it comes to a player’s value is the worth to the selling club combined with their importance to the buying club. This can be seen in the purchase of Harry Maguire by Manchester United in August of 2019. At the time, Maguire was Leicester City’s first-choice centre-back and seen as a hugely important cog in their machine. Manchester United, meanwhile, were desperate for a central defender and approached the Foxes to buy Maguire from them, being quoted a figure of £80 million.
That was £5 million more than Liverpool had paid for Virgil van Dijk the year before, in spite of the fact that Dutchman was an objectively significantly better player. Ultimately, Manchester United’s desperate need for a centre-back meant that they were willing to pay a high fee to get one, whilst Maguire’s importance to Leicester City’s success meant that they could command a higher fee than Liverpool had paid to Southampton. Yes the age, contract length and position of the players played a part, but not as much as their worth to the buying and selling clubs.
One of the key things that can make a difference when it comes to a players’ worth is what the underlying metrics say about their performances. Underlying metrics are important because they point to what a player could do, as opposed to what they actually do. As an example, a player that has three assists to their name over the course of a season might look, on the surface, like they’re not worth much money. If, on the other hand, their Expected Assists for the season were 14.3 then that tells a different story.
The buying club might look at those numbers and realise that the reason that the player had only achieved three assists was more to do with the fact that the other players in their team weren’t very good at finishing the opportunities that they had been presented with by the player in question. In other words, a goal would be expected to be scored on 14.3 occasions from the chances that they presented their teammates with, but they actually missed the chances on all but three occasions, which they can’t be blamed for.
Put that player with a better group of goal-scorers and all of a sudden their assists will shoot up accordingly. Similarly, a selling club might undervalue their player because they don’t score many goals. The buying club, meanwhile, can see that they’re getting 20.7 xG over the course of a season, meaning that with better coaching they will be able to score goals more freely during a campaign. Said club will have faith in their manager to get the best out of the forward, so they are willing to pay to sign them whilst the selling club won’t look for a high fee.
In many ways, the argument of underlying numbers versus actual numbers is something of an old-school footballing attitude against modern approaches. For the older minds in football, the only ‘stats that matter’ are the ones that you can point to and say they’re real. How many goals has an attacker scored? How many assists has a midfielder racked up? How often does a goalkeeper get a clean sheet? For those that understand analytics, however, underlying statistics give them much more information about what the player might become in the future.
In this day and age of constant social media usage, players can find themselves on the wrong end of a bad reputation. It doesn’t take much to give clubs the idea that you’re not a good fit, which is why certain players will always struggle to make it to the top with some clubs. A team like Manchester City, which is built on sports-washing the reputation of the country that owns it, will not want to be involved with a player that has a poor reputation, either real or perceived. A club like Millwall, on the other hand, almost revels in its reputation and will happily sign less-fancied players.
Throughout his career, Joey Barton earned a reputation that suggested that he was likely to be hard to work with. Supporters generally wanted nothing to do with him and so his value never really reached the heights that he and his agent would have hoped. Instead, he ended up playing for clubs like Queens Park Rangers, Burnley and Scottish side Rangers, having started his career at Manchester City. His off-field behaviour, which included the likes of assault leading to a jail term, limited his value as a player.
Marcus Rashford, meanwhile, is a player whose reputation was enhanced by his reputation off the pitch. The Manchester United forward took on the British government over its attitude towards free school meals for children in poverty. Though he was unlikely to leave his boyhood club whilst he was still getting games and considered to be a valuable player, had he wanted to make a move away from Old Trafford his value would have been increased by the manner in which he was thought of by the public.
The value of a player to a football club is actually about a lot more than just what he is able to do on the pitch. Whilst footballers will always be considered for their ability first and foremost, there is no question that the commercial department of a club will weigh-in on whether or not a transfer should be green-lit depending on their commercial worth. When Manchester United re-signed Cristiano Ronaldo in August of 2021, for example, he will have done so after conversation about the value that he would have added to the club simply because of his reputation.
The Portuguese star was long thought of as being one of the best players in the world alongside Lionel Messi. By the time that he went back to Old Trafford he was unquestionably past his best, no longer in the running for the Ballon d’Or as he had been five times previously. Regardless, there was a feeling in the United camp that he would be able to add something to the team on the pitch as well as off it. Indeed, shirt sales prior to his second debut at the club were believed to reach about £187 million, making it the fastest selling football shirt in Premier League history.
Thought some people will claim that his shirt sales alone will ‘pay for the transfer’, the deal that Manchester United had was to claim about 7% of the profits on the shirt sales. That wouldn’t have paid for both his transfer fee and the wages that he was paid at the club, but it will have made a big dent in things for the club. On top of that, there is also the consideration that his appeal as a football will have had to people who wouldn’t previously have supported Manchester United. Suddenly thousands of people will have started to care about the club, which can offer them profit in the long-term.
Though Ronaldo was accused of raping someone in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2009, his reputation didn’t suffer enough damage for it to see a change in his transfer value. That is an example of how some people can transcend the issues around reputation, with a club happy to ignore things that they have done in the past if it means that they bring in the commercial revenue that can make a difference. Such commercial prowess is definitely something that football clubs will think about when evaluating a player’s worth.
Most supporters of the biggest football clubs don’t care much for international football, but the same cannot be said for everyone. There are millions of football fans around the world that love the likes of the World Cup, the European Championship and the Africa Cup of Nations, so it would be untrue to suggest that such tournaments are widely ignored. Where things become problematic for buying clubs is when a player that they had identified as being worth purchasing performs well on the international stage, sending their value up.
Clubs that are run well will not pay any mind to the performances of players in international tournaments. Instead, they will have an idea of who they want to buy and how much they think such a player is worth. Poorly run clubs, on the other hand, will see the performance of players in an international tournament and decide that should buy them immediately, irrespective of a falsely inflated transfer value on the back of said performances. It is a simple truth that the value of players will increase if they play well in international competitions, whether they should or not.
The final thing that a buying club will think about when deciding upon the value of the player that they’re looking at will be their sell-on value. In many ways, this is tied in to their age, given younger players are more likely to be able to be sold on in the future than older ones. An 18-year-old forward might not make an immediate impression on the first-team, for example, but they will almost certainly be worth more money when they’re 26 than they were when they were bought because they will be more mature and have more experience.
Equally, a 30-year-old might be at their peak when the buying club receives them, but they’re not going to be worth as much money towards the end of, say, a five-year contract and therefore the buying club will know that they’re not going to be able to recoup much money for them when their usefulness has run its course. As a result, the club that is buying them will need to weight up what they will get out of the player against how much they will cost them, knowing that they won’t get much when they sell them.
Of course, a player can play themselves into being entirely indispensable to the buying club, meaning that any possible sell-on value is irrelevant. An ageing player can still offer plenty to the first-team, so they’re worth keeping around because of their experience, even if they don’t have great sell-on value. It could mean that they’re worth buying even if the buying team knows that they’re unlikely to get anything back for them and so they take the plunge because they’re simply thinking about the ‘now’ rather than the future.