With another year almost gone and the January transfer window hours away from opening, a bit of looking back is perhaps in order. Looking back to transfer windows past. To bargains and wasted fees; to stars captured and missed. A time for looking back to see what it was the club may have done well but, more importantly perhaps, in an attempt to avoid making all the same mistakes over again in the new year.
One needn’t look all that much further back than last night’s game against Sunderland, to the nearly £80M of Premier League proven talent bought over the past two summers that started the night and that continues to struggle to justify such a massive outlay. And at the heart of the conversation and the tip of Liverpool’s attack, the newest poster child for the fallacy of the Premier League proven player: Liverpool’s £32.5M Belgian striker, Christian Benteke.
Benteke cuts an exceptionally likeable figure. Soft-spoken, he comes across in interviews as genuine and well intentioned. He’s the sort of player one can’t help but want to see succeed. Yet his first six months at Liverpool have mostly gone poorly. With a goal every 190-odd minutes and a 12.5% strike rate he hasn’t been horrible, but it’s not the return of an elite striker, and his struggles to fit in with the rest of Liverpool’s attack continue to make the team around him look worse.
And no matter what he does now, he will never be justify his fee. Like so many other so-called Premier League proven players, a significant part of that £32.5M Liverpool paid for him was meant to buy the club a player who wouldn’t need time to acclimatize to a new league; it was paid for a player who could hit the ground running. When weeks turned into months and months turned into a half-season and Benteke hadn’t, that premium became wasted money.
He’s not the only one who was out on the pitch last night that could be said about, either. Dejan Lovren has played his best football at Liverpool in recent weeks. If he can keep it up for the rest of the season, he might even be said to be playing like the £20M defender Liverpool thought they were buying from Southampton two summers ago. The problem, though, is the small matter of the 18 months that came before. Adam Lallana’s situation is the same.
For all three—for Benteke and Lovren and Lallana—a premium was paid to bring in players who were proven in the Premier League; for players whose experience was judged to make them less of a risk. For all three, no club will ever pay more for them than Liverpool did, with Anfield’s money men abandoning any pretence of moneyball to instead bring in players at the absolute peak of their value. With the understanding that meant instant results on the pitch.
That money is gone; it’s a sunk cost. Lovren and Lallana will never make their transfers seem a bargain—or even good business—but that’s alright. Liverpool would take a loss selling any of the three, but that doesn’t have to be the worst thing in the world. The more important question now they’re here is whether they can make solid contributions to the team, and under Klopp so far both have. If Benteke can follow in their footsteps, the same will be true about him.
It is the reality, though. Liverpool paid far too much for him. Far too much for all three players. For Benteke and Lovren and Lallana, what the club paid represents the high point of their value as footballers, and with a significant part of their fees being a premium for players who were supposed to hit the ground running due to already being acclimatized to the Premier League, that none managed to do so means Liverpool overpaid, no matter what comes next.
It’s a slightly different proposition than the case of a player like Roberto Firmino, who also cost a fair bit of money and, like Benteke, who has struggled over his first six months at the club. The difference is in upside, both as a player for the fans to watch and an asset for the club. Firmino hasn’t played like a £29M player yet, but he remains a talent who, if he can come good at Liverpool, would be worth closer to £50M than what the club did pay for him.
That goes some way to explaining why players like Benteke—and like Lovren and Lallana—are often viewed differently than a player like Firmino, who is this season’s struggling, costly import. Or differently than Lazar Markovic, who was last season’s. Neither has come close to living up to their billing yet, and in both cases there is the chance they never actually will, but if either does Liverpool will end up with a player worth more than what they paid.
For Benteke and Lovren and Lallana, they will never be worth more what Liverpool paid. Their fees represent peak value paid for proven talent that wasn’t meant to take six or twelve or eighteen months to come good. Which isn’t a reason in itself not to sign players with Premier League experience. Even with a strong academy, homegrown rules mean at least a few domestic players will need to be brought in, and most of those come with Premier League experience.
Plus, Liverpool’s clear best signing of last summer, Nathaniel Clyne, is an English player with Premier League experience. He was also a bargain at £12.5M, with Liverpool targeting a top talent whose contract was running down and able to push through one of their best deals in recent years as a result. Clyne has, unlike some others, hit the ground running. Yet even if he hadn’t, his much lower fee would have made any struggles far easier to stomach.
If there’s a lesson in all of this, that is it. It’s not to avoid Premier League players at any cost—it’s to not go after them no matter the price. To not pay excessive markups for some nebulous, value-added concept. When the right player is available for the right price, Premier League proven is a bonus. It’s not worth a 50-100% markup and ignoring potentially better and cheaper options whose only mark against is it isn’t known how they will handle the English game.
Because as has been made excessively clear by Liverpool’s recent dealings in the transfer market, even players who appear to have already proven they can handle the English game can end up complete flops at Anfield. Or they can take just as long to acclimatize to the club as a player brought in from another league. Or, every now and then, they can hit the ground running. Just like their foreign counterparts. Only they usually represent far worse value.
Liverpool have already spent the cash on Lallana and Lovren and Benteke, and using their fees as a mark against them at this point is foolish. The only hope for fans should be that they can be good, contributing players now that they’re here. That perhaps they can even be great on occasion. The next time the club becomes fixated on so-called Premier League proven talent and is willing to overpay for it, though, it wouldn’t hurt to be a little skeptical.