In the days following the closure of the January transfer window, how many times did you read that Liverpool paid far too much for their new number nine? Over the last couple of weeks, everyone from Darren Bent to Ian Holloway has cried ‘madness’ at LFC’s shattering of the transfer-window record for an English player. Coupled with Chelsea’s lay-out of £50 million for Fernando Torres, pundits and punters have screamed that no player is worth this much money. Claims that the EPL transfer market have spun out of control have been ubiquitous– and it’s no longer just that miserly Wenger. Even Barcelona’s free-spending director was “shocked” at the amount of money spent on transfer fees in the Premier League. (The fact that Barca reported significant debts and were forced into finally accepting an endorsement deal may have something to do with this. May as well start setting fans expectations for less spending now, right?) Well Andy Carroll took the pitch for the first time this past weekend. While it’s early, I believe the premium price paid has already been worth it.
Decrying the spending habits of rivals is as common as a booking in the Merseyside derby. It’s a tactic used to justify lack of purchases to your supporters (I’m looking at you, Arsenal), as well as heap pressure on your opponents’ newly-acquired players by insinuating that that they cannot possibly be worth the amount paid. Here’s the thing though: the notion of objective, rather than relative value, is absurd. It assumes that there is a set price that adequately reflects a player’s value to any and all clubs. This notion over-simplifies the criteria that drive the decision-making processes of clubs. Player skill and a proven track record are not the only factors that go into a player’s value to a particular club.
We all know that Messi and C. Ronaldo are worth a ton of cash to any team. But in Liverpool’s case with the Carroll transfer, the psychological impact of committing to such a deal– not just the player’s skill– was nearly as significant. For that reason alone, I believe he was worth the additional £10-15 million above what was closer to his objective value. I would argue that the willingness to purchase Carroll– the message the owners sent to supporters and players in the face of losing Torres at the end of the transfer window– has had a role in our current run of good form. And this, despite the fact that the number nine has played all of 20 minutes. To make my point more clearly, let’s take a quick look at this whole relative versus objective value through a few other examples.
In 2008-2009, Barcelona had arguably the greatest season of any team in European club history. They won the treble, with their Catalan supporters lording this unique feat over their bitter rivals in Madrid. Enter Florentino Perez…again. Within a week, he spent obscene amounts of cash on Kaka and Ronaldo. Is any player objectively worth £80 million? Consider the number of world-class players you could purchase with that fortune before you answer. The answer, of course, is no. Not Ronaldo. Not Messi. But that wasn’t the point for Real Madrid. Rather, Perez intended to send a signal to the faithful in Madrid, and the enemy in Catalonia. He made certain that Barcelona’s unprecedented victory tour would last no more than a few days, and he let European football clubs know that Madrid would do anything in its power– spend any amount of money– to regain the upper hand. (Having a world-wide fanbase to significantly offset CR8’s transfer fee through new kit sales was a nice perk as well.) While he’s a great tactician, I’d argue that this year’s hiring of Mourinho was for a similar purpose– psychological as much as for actual skill.
True, Barca went on to win the league again last year, and they appear to be headed towards a third successive title, but subjectively, was Ronaldo worth £80 million to the Madristas? Probably. Would he have been to any other team in the world? Not likely. For Real Madrid, they’re back on everyone’s radar, their fanbase knows the team hasn’t rolled over by psychologically cededing the next five years to their bitter rivals, and they’ve forced Barca into several costly deals to reassure their supporters (Ibra/Villa/Mascherano). In buying Ronaldo, Madrid put everyone on notice that they were back.
Contrast this with Arsenal. Poor, poor Arsenal. One of my closest friends supports the Gunners. Even though his team is contending for the League title, and will have Champions’ League play next year, he seems perenially down– almost despondent at times about his team’s prospects. If there’s one team that has not learned the importance of the psychological impact in showing a committment– a spending committment– it’s Aresene Wenger’s side. For my part, I think Mssr. Wenger is unfairly criticized by the press, but that’s not to imply that I’ve drunk his philosophical Kool-Aid with regards spending practices. Yes, Arsenal can parade around their bottom line as much as they like, but does anyone other than the Professor believe they will seriously contend for a Champions’ League title under their current philosophy? Does anyone believe they’ll win the league this year? What about the FA cup? The players themselves seem to question their toughness (see yesterday’s CL match/last week’s Carling Cup match) when everything is on the line. Psychologically, I’m not sure the players or fans truly believe the squad has what it takes to win the big games.
Now what if Wenger had splashed out money on a lock-down central defender. Or a hard-tackling center mid? Or a realiable big-name keeper? He may need all three, but I’d argue purchasing just one could have enough of a psychological impact to push the Gunners to silverware. Yes, the quality and skills of the players obviously would make a significant difference, but the psychological impact would be equally impressive. The fans and players would know that the team means business. They’d know there’s a committment not just to a play-style philosophy, but that they’re in it to win. As it is, Arsenal may play aesthetically pleasing football that’s good, but it’s not good enough. With Wenger’s consistent unwillingness to dip into the transfer market with any sense of commitment, the players and fans will always be reminded of this.
So where does that leave my analysis of Liverpool and the purchase of Andy Carroll? The Torres/Carroll saga– at both ends of the deal– was based almost entirely on psychological factors. My guess is that Abramovich payed an excessive fee for Torres in an attempt to show his players and fans that he hasn’t abandoned his pet project of owning a football club. The problem is that Chelsea’s players didn’t need Torres, they need youth and width. And introducing another alpha striker into the emotional powder keg of Drogba and Anelka up front has– and will likely continue to have– a detrimental effect so long as all three wear blue. Hell, maybe I’m giving Abramovich too much credit– maybe he did it to satisfy his billionaire ego. Maybe he needed another bauble to show off. Manchester City has the same problem– spending absurd amounts without concern for chemistry or psychological payoff is not only wasteful, it can damage the team.
In any case, the loss of Torres was clearly a huge psychological blow to those of us who support LFC. I’ve written about this in a previous post, so I won’t repeat myself here. The point is, we slogged through the torture of Hicks/Gillette, the tedium and poor form of the short-sighted Hodgeson era, and the net negative losses of class players in the transfer window over the last three years. While we all were hopeful when NESV purchased the club, by all accounts they ran a fairly austere operation and there were rumblings that we were in for a long rebuilding process. The purchase of Luis Suarez from Ajax was the first sign that perhaps the new ownership would move more quickly than expected. Then the Torres bombshell hit. Think back a few weeks to when you first heard substantiated reports that he wanted out. Remember that desolate, helpless feeling. The LFC players must have had similar thoughts.
When the deal became a certainty, we were near the end of the transfer window. We faced a poor season that now had the possibility once again spiraling out of control. NESV and King Kenny stepped up to staunch the psychological bloodletting. By purchasing Carroll–even at the late-window premium– NESV went a long ways towards blunting the dispair of seeing our goal scorer exit for West London. Within a day or two– while I was still fuming and hurt over Torres leaving– I was already considering the possibilities of Carroll as a true target man paired with the finesse and work-rate of Suarez. Within a week, we were all talking about how the move worked out in LFC’s favor. As for the team’s pschological state? Well, take a look at our results since the transfer– again, even though Carroll hasn’t played more than 20 minutes.
The point is this: in paying £35 million pounds for Andy Carroll, NESV demonstrated to the fans and players that we would not be abandoned. Rather, we could look to a new start with young, highly talented players immediately– not next summer. Suarez and Kuyt ruled the fixture this past Sunday, but getting to see the £35 million man take the pitch for the last 20 minutes topped that fantastic day. With Kenny Dalglish at the helm, Damien Comolli scouting the talent, and NESV willing to open the purse strings when necessary, all appears to be going well on the red side of Mersey. The players believe, the manager believes, and we believe. Keep in mind, we lost our star striker just a few weeks back. Is this salve worth £10-15 million extra? Absolutely. And THAT is relative value.