Money money money
January 18, 2011 § 2 Comments
Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it
— Publilius Syrus
No transfer is an island. The price of a player is almost never an isolated assessment of the player’s ability translated into currency. Rather, it is a product of the players ability refracted through a host of external factors, most notably the relative status and financial positions of the clubs, the composition of the two squads, the contractual and personal obligations of the player, the chicanery of agents, the nationality of the player and, since the introduction of the transfer window, the timing of the deal.
With this in mind, the potential £24m Aston Villa may end up paying Sunderland for Darren Bent, while still looking high, begins to make some sense. First, looking just at Bent, his price is bound to inflate on two counts: he’s a striker, and he’s English. The premium on strikers is a world-wide football trait — the goal is the money shot, after all — while the premium for Englishness is a trait that has long dogged the Premier League. (Bent is in fact a fine example; it’s worth remembering that Tottenham paid £16.5m for him from Charlton, back when that was worth, in relative terms, plenty more than it is now. Sunderland themselves then paid £10m and rising for a striker who was clearly unwanted at White Hart Lane.)
There is a crashing incoherence with some of the more fanciful comparisons flying around — only £3m less than David Villa! Getting on for £8m more than Mesut Özil! — as if the transfers of the best striker and most promising playmaker in the world to Barcelona and Real Madrid were in any way analogous to the situation Aston Villa find themselves in. Money is never spent in isolation; indeed, Villa are only spending because they are in trouble. Valencia’s financial struggles, and the time left on Özil’s contract, drove those prices down; Villa, by contrast, are trying to buy a firmly-contracted (if apparently “wantaway”) player from a club with no real need to sell.
Timing is also crucial. To take another celebrated transfer of this Premier League season, Rafael van der Vaart, there’s no doubt that the £8m fee was wonderful business. But it was wonderful business facilitated by the situation: player unwanted at Real Madrid by both coach and owner; transfer window on the verge of closing; selling club able to absorb the loss. If Van der Vaart had been the heart of another, less cash-rich team, and Tottenham had been assiduously wooing him for months, they’d have paid a lot more.
Looking at Villa’s season so far, their problem hasn’t actually been goal-scoring. Of the bottom six, they are joint top-scorers with 24. Their problem is defensive, particularly away from Villa Park; they’ve conceded 26 goals on the road, second only in the league to Blackburn (who, lest we forget, got seven stuck on them at Old Trafford).
It might seem, therefore, that the money earmarked for Bent might be better spent reinforcing the back line. But this is, in terms of personnel, much the same defensive unit that finished last season in 6th place, conceding the fourth-fewest goals in the league. As an illustration of how their form has differed between last season and this, consider that in 2009-10, Villa only conceded three or more goals when visiting Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City. This season, they’ve already done so on five occasions.
Dropping defenders into a team is a risky business. A good defence is a unit, and unity comes from familiarity and training. When in possession of an under-performing defence, better to attempt to coach them out of the slump than reach for the chequebook; after all, you know they can play. The purchase of Bent is a sign that Villa are calculating that their defensive unit can recover some of their former consistency, or alternatively hoping that Bent can score enough goals to compensate. Scoring more and conceding less lead to the same thing: points.
And what do points mean? Not being relegated! That’s the key here; that’s the context, and the window’s the timing. Villa need to avoid relegation, and they have half a season to do it in. In 2007, the Guardian calculated the cost of relegation as Ł30m; that figure will only have increased. While newly-promoted clubs or habitual strugglers should have budgeted against that risk, Villa, given that they started the season in Europe (and had every expectation of retaining Martin O’Neill), may not have done. The reward — continued Premier League status — is seen as being worth the money.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that while Bent is a relatively one-dimensional player, that one dimension has been consistently effective in the Premier League. 81 Premier League goals over five seasons has been bettered only by Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba; though he’s taken a few more penalties, he was also in and out of the Spurs team. With decent service from what is a talented if callow Villa midfield, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t carry on scoring. So £24m, while still looking and feeling high for Bent on his own merits, makes more sense placed in context. It’s the price Randy Lerner is willing to pay to keep his floundering team in the league.