We’re not quite there yet, but it does seem like the European transfer market is close to entering a slightly new phase of inefficiency: still lots of bad signings, but not so many bargains. As the pendulum has shifted toward younger players, the traditional career-development ladder has had much of the middle cut out. While someone like, say, Darwin Nunez might’ve moved to a mid-tier Spanish club from Benfica before eventually moving to Liverpool or some other mega-club right around his mid-20s. Now, Liverpool just swoops in at age 22 and pays €75 million ($82.5m).
Thanks to a growing, if still shoddy and piecemeal, collection and implementation of data, and the increasing globalization of the game, it’s become a lot harder for potential stars to fly under the radar. Winger Vinicius Junior had only scored seven professional goals when Real Madrid signed him as an 18-year-old from Brazilian side Flamengo in 2018 — and he still cost €45m ($49.5m).
That doesn’t mean great deals can’t happen, though. We’re going to take a look at five different successful transfers from the past five years across Europe’s Big Five leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France), seeing what lessons we can learn and what current players might be worth signing.
Now, we could have only used Liverpool players for this whole list and it still would have been a useful exercise. Outside of getting players via a nation state with a trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund, the only way to do what Liverpool did — go from a sometimes-Europa League team to one of the two or three best teams in the world — is to get more out of the money you spend than everyone else. Their left-back Andy Robertson is the best example of this.
The club paid less than $10m to sign a player that, frankly, not many people even expected to become a starter. Hell, the transfer fee alone suggested as much. Instead, after being relegated with Hull in 2016-17, Robertson not only quickly cemented his place in Liverpool team that would go on to win every conceivable trophy they could, but he became arguably the best left-back on the planet. Perhaps more importantly, he’s played a ton: 83% of the Premier League minutes since joining Jurgen Klopp’s side. Two years ago, we rated him as the best Premier League transfer since 2014, and that would still be true today.
What the heck did Liverpool see in this guy? According to the club’s director of research, Ian Graham, Robertson was “a really strange case of a really attacking full-back playing in a really poor defensive team.” Graham also cited another idea, more generally, about an inefficiency in the way players are identified: “The thing that I’m really obsessed about is the risk/reward pay-off of passes. Some of the best passers in the game have some of the lowest pass-completion percentages in the game.”
However, a simpler indicator of his potential might have been the fact that he played a ton of minutes in a major league at a young age. In the 2016-17 season, the only full-back younger than Robertson who played more minutes across the Big Five leagues was Nantes’ Leo Dubois, who has since been capped by France 13 times.
Who could be this year’s version of Robertson? Burnley forward Dwight McNeil played the fifth-most minutes of any under-23 player across the Big Five leagues this season. And given that the 22-year-old was an attacking player on a defense-first team, there’s at least some reason to believe that we never got to see what he might be capable of producing in a team that has a lot more of the ball. Newcastle and Man United have been linked with him in the past, while his transfer valuation is around €18m ($20m).
Now, spending nearly $20m for a 16-year-old yet to play a single minute of professional soccer might not seem like a massive bargain, but Pedri is already widely considered to be one of the most valuable players in the world. He’s still not old enough to rent a car in most states across the U.S.
For a club that has swung and missed, then swung again and hit themselves with their own bat, more often than not in the transfer market over the past five years, what did Barcelona see in the 5-foot-9 midfielder? Well, they clearly saw something that they saw in all of their other world-class diminutive midfielders (like Xavi and Andres Iniesta) over the years, as they swooped in just a few weeks into the 2019-20 season to secure his services and then immediately loan him out for the remainder of the campaign.
Across the 2019-20 season, just two players aged 17 or under played at least 1,000 minutes across the Big Five leagues: Eduardo Camavinga (then with Rennes) and Barcelona’s Ansu Fati. Camavinga played 2,112 minutes and Fati played 1,026, while Pedri featured in 2,823 minutes for Las Palmas in Spain’s second tier.