The Mahrez Paradigm - New Transfer Trends

As the latest chapter of the Leicester “fairytale” closes, clubs across England will next season be eager to emulate their exploits and tear down the footballing hierarchy once more.  To put into context what Leicester have done, imagine any three of Norwich, Sunderland or Newcastle winning the league with two games to spare next season, and however unlikely it is, it is now most definitely possible. The problem, of course, is knowing how to do it, and greater footballing minds than ours have been stumped when asked to provide a comprehensive explanation of how Leicester have risen to the summit of English football.  

One (not unconvincing) reason given for Leicester’s phenomenal season has been their activity in the transfer market over the last number of years. While not exactly frugal, a number of their most vaunted performers were plucked from relative obscurity, their lack of reputation clouding the judgement of many who said they could not sustain their title-winning form as recently as six weeks ago.  

The “big-name” signing last Summer at the King Power stadium was Gokhan Inler, the Swiss captain that was meant to perform a similar role as Esteban Cambiasso last season.  He has made five league appearances in the league to date, having played over 30 in three of his four seasons with Napoli.  It is not inconceivable for other teams to take note of how Leicester have operated in the last 18 months - in fact it would be negligent not to. Whether clubs can eke out similar results from the same actions is another question.

Football operates in a similar way to any other walk of life - there is always a degree of jumping on the bandwagon, and much like in finance and fashion, past performance or results are often mistakenly seen as a way of predicting future outcomes. So it is that a few years ago, clubs were clamouring to emulate Newcastle’s transfer policy, and Graham Carr was being hailed as the sports latest great mind.  Such a theory also explains how players are signed on the back of performances at international tournaments, another factor that will have a bearing on the market this summer.  

It will therefore be unsurprising to see clubs attempt to “pull a Leicester”, if not with their title heroics then with some of the transfers that have led them to the summit of the Premier League table.  The idea that clubs will be eager to spend less rather than more this summer is slightly ironic given the influx of money from the latest television rights deals, but a look at the commonly-perceived “best” and “worst” signings of this season might make clubs slow to reach for their pockets again.  

Newcastle paid over the odds for Florian Thauvin and the jury remains out on Alexsander Mitrovic, Chelsea shelled out £21m for Baba Rahman (nine PL appearances), while Christian Benteke and Memphis Depay have done nothing to justify their considerable price tags. It would be no surprise to see the former being offloaded at a knockdown value this summer, potentially following predecessor Rickie Lambert to the West Brom bench.  

At the other end of the scale, Ibrahim Afellay and Christian Fuchs were both signed on free transfers, while Carl Jenkinson, Manuel Lanzini, Alex Song and Victor Moses showed the value of the loan transfer market in moving to West Ham and contributing to what must be seen as a successful campaign for the Hammers, their only fault that of being overshadowed by the Foxes.

Previous expensive flops such as Angel di Maria also reinforce the idea that spending more does not necessarily bring better value.  Managers like Mauricio Pochettino, Slaven Bilic and Ronald Koeman are all leading the charge with astute purchases that complement the team balance, while Manchester City burn through cash like a Las Vegas stag party and Arsene Wenger continues to choke the life out of Arsenal with his tightly ribboned purse-strings.  

So English clubs across the top two divisions will this season inevitably cast envious glances at the likes of Leicester City and their head of recruitment Steve Walsh, with Ben Wrigglesworth and Rob Mackenzie already making transfers of their own, to Arsenal and Tottenham respectively.  The more cynical among you may remark that the PR people at the Emirates are braced to announce this as a “major signing” in the absence of any real signings.

For most clubs however, with scouting networks that cobweb around continental Europe, South America and beyond, finding the players should not be a problem - it is in closing the deal where difficulties may emerge.  There are more potential snags than on a chairman’s bonsai tree.  

First of all, there is increased competition for signings caused by the muddying of waters that has come from the new Premier League TV deal.  The established elite are clinging onto exclusivity as the clubs below (and above) them have the clout to compete for signings, and offer first team football at the same time.  At the next level down, were Middlesborough to get promoted they could be scrapping with the likes of Southampton or Everton for continental cast-offs like Xherdan Shaqiri or Bojan. This is an area that Bournemouth have also explored with the signing of Juan Iturbe from Roma (and incidentally, before Totti put pen to paper on a contract extension there was speculation linking him to Leicester).  

The other issue is principally down to the plaudits being showered on the likes of Mahrez and Kante themselves, as pundits marvel at the low fees they were signed for. Even if these players were a gamble that bigger clubs previously would not have put money on, they are certainly very cheap gambles, like putting a fiver on the Grand National every year on a 33-1 shot - which coincidentally paid out this year.  Clubs can buy four or five players in this range of their scouting networks and know that if only one proves a worthwhile buy, it is still less of an outlay than purchasing highly-premiumed English players like Jonjo Shelvey of whose signings may be based as much on reputation as form (another transferring fallacy many clubs fall for).

But nothing complicates life so much as money, and clubs around Europe are now licking their lips at the thought of one of their players being plucked from a spreadsheet at Carrington or The Hawthorns, confident that they can secure over-the-odds payments.  Even those in financial constraints can use the new television rights deal as a bargaining chip against Premier League clubs. Furthermore, they can also point to the success stories from this season as proof that no player should come cheap. Expect sell-on percentages, high initial fees and a plethora of clauses being the talk of next season’s PFA Awards if the Mahrez miracle were to re-occur.  

There still exists the long-held media-driven misconception that high prices equate to good value, as the majority of transfer speculation concerns the biggest clubs and players.  There is more interest placed in Manchester United signing a squad player or talented youngster than Swansea’s continued prolonged search for a proven goalscorer, and while there is nothing wrong with that, it skews our perceptions of which deal is more beneficial to the club in question.  But just as the tables were turning in favour of the traditionally smaller clubs, the odds have once again begun to stack against them.