Welcome to the Transfer Window: A Wild Ride Into the Unknown

Perhaps the only enjoyable thing about the summer transfer window is that every purchase is essentially a wild and faintly terrifying gamble.

by Alex Hess
Jun 30 2015, 2:40pm

Photo: EPA/Peter Powell

(This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK)

12 months ago, at one of Europe's biggest football clubs, a group of very resourceful men came up with a very sensible idea. The club had just come within inches of winning its domestic league, but had fallen at the final hurdle. The problem the men faced was that, while their strikers were among the continent's most fearsome, the team had been let down by a defence which specialised in low comedy and high scorelines.

They all accepted that at a club of this stature such shoddy incompetence could not be tolerated, and after much discussion the men agreed the best solution was to move for the defender they had been inspecting closely and methodically for many months. Their various modes of analysis had returned positive results: the player had shown confidence, organisation, leadership and courage – everything the current defence lacked – and he had shown it in abundance. He had experience in the league and while his market cost may be high, he'd been near-flawless for the best part of a year – and you can't put a price on that sort of dependability. Best of all, he was only 24.

It was decided: Liverpool Football Club would sign Dejan Lovren. For 20 million pounds.

* * *

That last sentence, written as it was in June 2015, is of course presented as a punchline. How could it not be after a season which witnessed weekly humiliations for Lovren at the hands of some of England's most truly mediocre strike forces; one which encompassed a face-clawingly inept penalty miss and which ended, rather aptly, with him being taken to the cleaners in front of a despairing Kop by the combined talents of Yannick Bolasie and Marouane Chamakh. After all of that, the above paragraph takes the form of a cruel joke.

Lovren vs. Bolasie. It was barely a contest | Photo: EPA/Peter Powell

But the interesting thing is that Liverpool's splashing out on Lovren is only actually a joke in hindsight. It's easy to forget now, but at the time it seemed like a perfectly level-headed bit of business. And his sudden, hideous, wholly inexplicable decline in the 12 months since illustrates rather nicely the most enjoyable thing – perhaps the only enjoyable thing – about the yearly ritual of tattle and tedium that is the summer transfer window: that every purchase is essentially a wild and faintly terrifying gamble.

Liverpool's groupthink approach to the transfer market is just one of many ways to go about it. A few years ago, for instance, the same club employed another of the more popular methods of recent times: the data-driven approach.

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In 2010, Damien Comolli was hired to overhaul Liverpool's recruitment strategy. Comolli is an austere-looking Frenchman whose sharply tailored suits and rimless glasses form the kind of get-up only ever worn by Important Men. Fluent in multiple languages, he regularly wows analytics conferences across Europe with cutting-edge lectures on how to quantify even the most intangible elements of a football match. Comolli was billed as the leader of football's statistical revolution, a man to drag England's dog-eared approach to its national sport into an age of inquiry, intellect and hard science.

Comolli lasted not two years at Liverpool, eventually ushered out the back door after a ruinous six months in which his use of Liverpool's cash would have been more efficient – and less conspicuous – had he bundled it all into an oil drum and set it alight in the Anfield centre circle.

When Liverpool's top brass announced the club's intention to be "bold and innovative" in the transfer market, spunking £35m on Andy Carroll – while that did, in its own way, display both boldness and innovation – was perhaps not what was envisaged. And while there was a clear rationale behind the signings of Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing (famously, Comolli had been scouring the Premier League for its most frequent 'chance creators'), that rationale rather ignored the fact that Liverpool would end up signing Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing.

Charlie Adam at full speed | Image via

Again, the point here isn't to garner cheap laughs at a smart man trying to do an honest job (at least, it's not the only point). The point is that, just as football's brightest brains could not have predicted Dejan Lovren's mutation from serviceman to circus act, nor could Damien Comolli's most advanced spreadsheets foresee that the runaway rhino that was Andy Carroll (2010) was soon to morph magically and immediately into the pratfalling donkey that was Andy Carroll (2011).

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Really, the sole rule to be found from a studious analysis of top-level transfer business is that even the most scrupulous approaches are at best wildly imperfect. And while Liverpool are the club demonstrating this truth most consistently and most hilariously, they are not alone in seeing their carefully invested millions disappear in a puff of smoke when faced with the great wild card of human fallibility. It is a fate to which no club, however powerful, is immune.

Last summer, for instance, a newly dethroned Manchester United looked long and hard at the sizeable bag of cash gleaned from their various official bookmaking, sweatshop-operating and noodle-producing partners across the globe, and opted for the safest of all transfer-market tactics: throw silly money at brilliant players. Really silly money – at really brilliant, really South American players. Most onlookers had the same reaction: how could it fail?

Fail it did. For the gape-inducing sum of £59.7m, rather more was expected of Angel di Maria than a nifty lob against Leicester before fading into utter nonattendance well in time for the season's business end. And the toils of Radamel Falcao – United bankrolling his services to the tune of a quarter of a million pounds each week – may have started off as prime schadenfreude material, but the underlying tone of tragedy was impossible to overlook once it became apparent just how truly hopeless a striker he had become.

Radmael Falaco: earning a lot of money not scoring goals | Photo: EPA/Peter Powell

It says plenty that, at the top end of the Premier League at least, the club which provides the best demonstration of efficient, purposeful transfer business is a club which last season paid more money to sign Juan Cuadrado (games completed: zero; goals: zero; existential worth: zero) than Barcelona spent on Ronaldinho.

Now, these may all be red herrings, of course. By all accounts, the march of football's number-crunchers continues apace. Where once the chief requirement to procure Europe's top talents was a well-stuffed brown envelope, these days it's increasingly a high-powered laptop.

Perhaps the recent abject failures listed above – a highly selective assortment, it should be said – are simply necessary parts of a process destined to end in some footballing Archimedes unlocking the algorithm that will find any club their perfect player at a knock-down price.

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Indeed, only last month FC Midtjylland, one of Denmark's smaller top-flight clubs, won its first ever major trophy. Their crowning as Danish champions came three years after their takeover by Matthew Benham, a financier and professional gambler who quickly embarked on a top-down overhaul of the club's operation into one informed largely by cutting-edge data analysis.

Benham also owns Brentford, for many years a mid-ranking League One club who, after his takeover in 2012, were promoted to the Championship within two seasons and nearly leapfrogged their way straight into the Premier League this time around, only to meet defeat in the play-offs. That Benham and his army of number bods have got two clubs punching well above their weight should not be ignored. Maybe the data revolution is under way after all.

Time will tell. But for now there remains something faintly reassuring in the notion that, in the modern age – an age where everything is measured and logged, the age of ProZone, data analytics and global scouting networks – transfers like Lovren's and Carroll's and Di Maria's remain eminently possible.

The Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman famously said that when it comes to the movie business, "nobody knows anything". It would be a lie to transpose that philosophy to the business of football, of course. But – as anyone who watched poor Dejan Lovren last season would surely attest – it's a lie with a fair bit of truth about it, too.