This year, football’s close season is shorter than the Tour de France so expect the next couple of weeks to be a furious parade of done deals, Lionel Messi, shock transfers and “great business”.
No transfer is risk-free but some are less risky than others. Modern clubs will mitigate purchase peril by combining human scouting and data analysis using platforms like Edge but neither can plot out the future. We can, however, look back and use numbers to pick out the deals that really did work out, either in the long term or just the short term, because while everyone wants a new player to become a club legend, sometimes just being a functional stopgap is enough.
That said, let’s begin with some imports from the early 2010s who made a massive impact when they moved to the Premier League. Between them, Manchester City and Chelsea were league champions seven times between 2010 and 2019 and the early years of the decade saw both clubs make moves that passed the test of time.
In summer 2010 City signed David Silva followed 12 months by later Sergio Aguero. The pair provided a combined 27 goals and 15 assists in their respective debut seasons (Aguero with more assists, eight, in his first campaign than Silva, seven, provided in his) and both men were key figures in City’s first Premier League win in 2011/12. More importantly, neither followed the style of the 2000s and agitated for a move away from the Premier League once their quality had been demonstrated. As it stands, with Silva’s time finally over at City, the pair have contributed 240 goals and 139 assists for a combined transfer fee of around £60m. Actual, real-life, solid gold value.
Chelsea, meanwhile, signed Juan Mata in 2011 and saw him score six and assist 13 in his debut season and then provide 12 of each in 2012/13, which was also Eden Hazard’s first season at the club. Mata had been moved on to Manchester United via helicopter by the time Chelsea won the league under Jose Mourinho in 2014/15 but Hazard’s consistency in his seven campaigns with the club was exemplary. If you take out 2015/16, when his rate of return fell at the same time the club’s relationship with Mourinho declined for the second time, Hazard averaged 13.5 goals and 8.5 assists per season. His final year, 2018/19, saw totals of 16 and 15 respectively, as he officially became the most reliable Belgium to London via Lille service since the 08:12 from Brussels Midi station.
Liverpool, from a position of turmoil in 2010, are the current champions of England, thanks largely to an ethos and a structure at the club which has ensured they, more than most, have more hits than misses in the transfer market. So successful have they been that the impact Mohamed Salah has made in his three seasons at the club has largely drifted out of the public’s consciousness. His “mistake” is to have had a gold plated all-timer of a first season followed by campaigns which have merely been very good. That first season, 2017/18, saw Salah score 32 goals, the most ever by a Premier League player in a 38-game season, as well as adding 10 assists. 72 goals and 28 assists in 108 appearances for the club is stellar, as is 80 wins in the space of just three seasons. Matthew Le Tissier also won 80 Premier League games, but it took him 270 games.
A new signing can transform the atmosphere at a football club. Think of troubled Aston Villa on deadline day in late summer 2012, signing Ashley Westwood, Jordan Bowery and, most importantly, Christian Benteke. The Belgian had a superb first season in England, scoring 19 and assisting four more, carving out a reputation that would see Liverpool buy him in 2015. but Benteke has rarely been able to match those heights since. 2020/21 will be his ninth season in the Premier League but 26% of his goals came in that first giddy season at Villa.
Another summer 2012 signing, Michu, burned even brighter than Benteke before fading even faster. Famously signed for Swansea for only £2.5m, Michu not only scored 18 goals from a variety of midfield and attacking positions but, and I feel I should emphasise this again, only cost £2.5m. This goal to transfer fee ratio was so extraordinary that it essentially created its own exchange rate mechanism, and as the big clubs licked their lips and thought about buying Michu for themselves (Arsenal, for instance, were linked with a £25m move), and everyone else assessed other signings in the context of the Michu.
A disappointing £15m purchase thus became not only a setback but also “six Michus”. But currency speculation can end badly, and Michu’s second season saw him suffer injuries and score only twice, albeit he did make his one and only international appearance as Spain played Belarus in Mallorca.
The human sugar rush and inevitable comedown of a Michu-style transfer can come in different flavours and another example was Dimitri Payet at West Ham. The Frenchman was so incredibly good for the club across two seasons that he managed to be the second most creative Premier League player for the club in the 2010s despite appearing in only 14% of their games. 12 assists from Payet in his debut campaign, 2015/16, is five more than Paul Scholes ever managed in a single Premier League campaign.
And talking of Manchester United, Angel Di Maria’s single-season in England, 2014/15, is widely thought of as sub-par but he remains the only player in the competition’s history to play just a single season in it and get to double figures for assists. Neither Payet nor Di Maria reached 50 appearances in the Premier League (both men played fewer than, say, Cenk Tosun or Goran Bunjevcevic) and I’m sure neither man looks back on their time in England with much fondness, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t successful. You can be productive with a frown on your face.
For some players, just a single match or two of immediate impact is enough. The all-time go-to Premier League debut is Fabrizio Ravanelli’s for Middlesbrough in 1996, aka the only player to score a hat-trick in his first appearance, but a) that falls outside the period we’re looking at and b) 1996/97 was a time when you could win the Premier League with 75 points as Manchester United did, and go down (as Middlesbrough did) having suffered a points deduction because you hadn’t fulfilled a fixture due to a flu bug. A more innocent time for both football and infectious illnesses.
In the 2010s we saw the likes of our friend Michu scoring twice on his debut, but also players as varied as such as Cristhian Stuani, Islam Slimani and Mladen Petric. No-one assisted more than once on their debut in the 2010s but players who at least created one goal included Kevin De Bruyne, Mesut Ozil and Sadio Mane. Only Ozil did so for the same team he is still employed for. De Bruyne’s Chelsea career was abruptly ended only for him to return from exile more powerfully than many could possibly imagine.
Sadio Mane, meanwhile, has a strong claim to be not only the best signing of the 2010s but twice the best signing of the 2010s. A promising start at Southampton which still includes the fastest hat-trick in Premier League history (at 2m 56s it’s shorter than 11 of the 14 number one songs in the UK in 2020) followed by 63 goals and 20 assists in 127 games for Liverpool. Mane needs 16 goals to reach 100 in the Premier League and should reach that milestone sometime in February or March. Liverpool have come a long way from the Iago Aspas era, even though the corner-loving Spaniard did create five goalscoring chances on his debut for the club, a figure only surpassed in the 2010s by Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla.
Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you’re Pavel Pogrebnyak in 2012, scoring with your first six shots on target for Fulham, sometimes you’re Ricky van Wolfswinkel in 2013, scoring with your first shot on target for Norwich and then never again.
We’d be remiss to focus only on the glamour world of goals and creating goals. Goalkeepers are the new midfielders and defenders are the new goalkeepers. Brazil’s Ederson waltzed on to the gloved scene in 2017 and kept 16 clean sheets in his first season, only to see compatriot Alisson record five more a season later. Not every ‘keeper can play behind an elite defence like those two, though, so praise goes out to Bernd Leno who made 105 saves in his first season at Arsenal despite only keeping six clean sheets.
And talking of defenders, that leads us to perhaps one of the most unheralded and underrated signings of the last decade: Christian Fuchs. Signed on a free transfer in 2015, the Austrian had the serendipity to join Leicester just as they were about to embark on the most unlikely season in English football history. Fuchs was part of a defence who edged the Foxes to the title in the spring when the free scoring of the autumn had dried up. He ended the season with 16 clean sheets as well as four assists, incredibly similar figures to N’Golo Kante in the same team who recorded 15 clean sheets, four assists, one goal and a league-leading 175 tackles and 156 interceptions. The next time you hear about a team “winning the transfer window” kindly show them Leicester’s data-influenced dealings in 2015. There’s business and then there’s business.
If the Premier League since the 2010s has been shaped by one club it is Manchester City and that was ultimately because of their work in the transfer market. Yes, they had resources most clubs could only have ever dreamed of but that doesn’t guarantee success, as many of their rivals have (un)happily shown. Sergio Aguero has 180 goals since he arrived at the club, more than any other player, David Silva recorded 93 assists, more than any other player, followed by Kevin De Bruyne with 66. Raheem Sterling won more penalties than any other player (19), while he is in the top three for successful dribbles, a category led, inevitably by Eden Hazard, a player who impressed so much he got his big move to Real Madrid in 2019.
Now, though Manchester City are reportedly eyeing up the ultimate transfer, the one move to rule them all: Lionel Messi. The potential availability of the best player in the world, who happens to be 33, goes against all long-term planning principles, and it’s not like signing brilliant footballers is risk-free, just ask Andriy Shevchenko. Even so, the chance to sign a man who has scored 32% of Barcelona’s goals since 2008 is surely the sort of #business anyone can get behind. As it stands, Messi is still two Premier League goals behind Joelinton and Gareth Ainsworth, but maybe not for long.
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