Leander Schaerlaeckens: When it comes to transfers, less is more

Every year, teams face pressure to buy more and more, but based on the evidence, buying less works out most favorably.
When Fernando Torres played well and scored a goal for Chelsea in its 3-2 FA Community Shield loss to Manchester City on Sunday, it seemed that the $78 million Russian oligarch owner Roman Abramovich had laid out for him 18 months ago was money relatively well spent. When Carlos Tevez did the same for City, his transfer fee – the exact figure of which is unknown but thought to be in the same region – seemed justified too. However, as so often, the success of a portion of a team’s transfers masked the failure of a slew of others.

Transfers are sexy. They keep things interesting. Watching the same clubs field the exact same players year after year isn’t much fun. So thankfully, clubs continually stock up or rebuild or, in the cases of Chelsea and City, completely remake themselves with an entirely new squad of bigger and better players. But transfers flop as often as not.

Spending big money to improve your squad is, on balance, a deeply inefficient and flawed practice. For all the hubbub about them, transfers are a gamble with long odds - like craps. Few walk away better off than when they came to the table. This is especially true when dealing with attackers. New strikers seldom make teams better immediately. It takes players time to adjust, if they adjust at all.

Heading into this 10th season since the beginning of the Abramovich era, Chelsea has spent an estimated $465 million on attacking players alone. And it’s impossible to make the argument that Abramovich has gotten very good value for his money. Yes, Chelsea has won three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups and the UEFA Champions League since Abramovich bought out Ken Bates and the rest of Chelsea’s shareholders in July 2003, but most of his investments have yielded nothing.

Consider the evidence. Adrian Mutu, bought for $25 million, had a tumultuous year which ended when he was released for his cocaine use. Hernan Crespo, bought for $26 million, never really won a starting job, was repeatedly loaned out and never replicated his world-class pre-Chelsea form. Andrei Shevchenko, poached for $48.5 million, was the world’s best striker at AC Milan but fell off steeply at Chelsea and didn’t recover.

Damien Duff ($27 million), Shaun Wright-Phillips ($33 million) Salomon Kalou ($12.5 million) and Nicolas Anelka ($23.5 million) all played fairly well for Chelsea but didn’t deliver on their price tags.

Torres is only starting to pay dividends now, a year and a half after his acquisition. Juan Mata ($37 million) is just a lone season into his Chelsea tenure.

Romelu Lukaku, Lucas Piazon and Kevin De Bruyne (total transfer spend: $51 million) have yet to get more than a whiff of first team football. Oscar, Marko Marin ad Eden Hazard ($100 million total) are new recruits.

That leaves Didier Drogba ($37.5 million) as the only unbridled success, even if he, too, had down years during his eight seasons at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea, the champion of Europe, bought together by an ungodly heap of cash, is terrible at acquiring strikers. Yet it keeps at it. Just about all clubs are terrible at acquiring strikers and continue to do so. Even Arsenal, whose manager Arsene Wenger is considered a transfer market genius, has bought a pile of expensive strikers who flopped – Sylvain Wiltord, Francis Jeffers, Jose Antonio Reyes, Andrei Arshavin, Eduardo, Gervinho to name a few. For every Thierry Henry or Robin van Persie he salvaged from the scrap heap, there have been several other failures.


In football, a failure to acquire new players is equated to stagnancy. The old cliché: If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards. Managers feel pressure from fans, the media and sometimes ownership to deliver big names. Defending champion Manchester City's manager Roberto Mancini griped publicly about the lack of transfers flowing into his team until Sunday’s acquisition of Jack Rodwell, even though his side is stacked in every line and has a list of transfer busts that rivals Chelsea’s.

Managers want to spend. It’s what they do. A few successes will make them look good, and nobody will pay much mind to the failures. Few regard that aspect of their jobs as new Swansea City manager Michael Laudrup does. “It’s always easy to spend a lot of money,” he recently said. “But I think it’s better to spend it well.”

Making the fixation on recruitment all the more baffling is the inexorable observation that the world’s most consistently winning clubs, the ones who win things in consecutive seasons, have been the ones who have maintained a core for half a decade or longer. It’s those who merely tinker with their formula, rather than inject new elements twice a year when the transfer window opens, that make out the best. Even Chelsea, for its annual torrent of acquisitions, won last season’s FA Cup and UEFA Champions League by the grace of its stalwarts.

So, if you’re excited about the shiny new striker your club of choice has brought in, there’s no empirical evidence to support that you should be. The odds are against him.

Because when it comes to transfers, less is more.