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Does an expensive forward guarantee you goals?

July 14, 2011 Leave a comment

We are at that time of the year when supporters find themselves either getting anxious or excited about new signings; identifying who could be the missing piece in the jigsaw or who that vital addition may be that could elevate their team to higher eschelons. Most excitement, anticipation or frustration centres around the impending addition of a new centre-forward; the ‘fox-in-the-box’, the ‘big target-man’, the ‘nippy little striker’, the player who will guarantee you goals, and debate is arduous as we all have our own opinions on who we see as that ideal player to lead the line.

In a time that transfer fees and player wages have surpassed astronomical descriptions, my team, Derby County, like many others, are struggling to compete for those top-end signings; those players who are thought will add much needed potency going forward, and much to the annoyance of some supporters, are left battling it out for cheaper alternatives.

This has got me thinking however; does an expensive centre forward guarantee you goals?

The issue with many Championship clubs is that invariably, strikers cost more than other positions on the pitch; however, as soon as someone starts scoring goals (at any level – see Craig Mackail-Smith), then their price elevates rapidly and therefore either limits which clubs are able to purhase the player or identifies which ones are most desperate to fill this position with someone who is credible with supporters.

Last season’s Championship top goalscorer was Watford’s Danny Graham who has signed for newly promoted Swansea City for £3.5million; what I find most interesting however is that he signed for The Hornets on a free transfer; that is an incredibly astute piece of financial business. Eight players scored 17 or more league goals last season in the Championship; only three of them cost their club a penny with the most expensive being Swansea City’s Scott Sinclair who made the move to Wales from Chelsea for £500,000.

The list is below:

Danny Graham (23 league goals, signed on a free transfer from Carlisle Utd)
Shane Long (21 league goals, signed on a free transfer from Cork City)
Grant Holt (21 league goals, signed from Shrewsbury Town for £400,000)
Luciano Becchio (19 league goals, signed from Merida on a free transfer)
Scott Sinclair (19 league goals, signed for £500,000 from Chelsea)
Adel Taarabt (19 league goals, signed on a free transfer from Tottenham Hotspur)
Max Gradel (18 league goals, signed on a free transfer from Leicester City)
Jay Bothroyd (17 league goals, signed for £300,000 from Wolverhampton Wanderers)

To buy any of the above players now (Taarabt for instance is being linked with a huge money move to France) would cost considerably more than each of the clubs paid for their services. Is the key therefore to buy cleverly and cheaply?

In the 2009/10 season, five players scored at least 17 league goals, of which only one, Bristol City’s Nicky Maynard cost a significant amount of money, (I am purposefully omitting Newcastle Utd’s Kevin Nolan from that statement as the £4million spent on him was a Premier League buy and not to fulfil the role of Championship goalscorer). There are two notable names in the top scorers list from that season, one being Andy Carroll, a homegrown talent who is now holder of the British record transfer fee and Scunthorpe Utd’s Gary Hooper who signed for £175,000 from Southend Utd and is now plying his trade at Glasgow Celtic for the cost of £2.4million and reasserts the notion that cheaper acquisitions aren’t necessarily a poorer option.

If we go back to 2008/09, Sylvain Ebanks-Blake scored 25 league goals after his £1.5million move from Plymouth Argyle; however, only 15 months previously he signed for The Pilgrims for £200,000. Jason Scotland and Kevin Doyle also scored heavily that season, both have since moved on for in excess of a combined fee of £8million and again highlight the importance of being clever with signing a player in this key position.

When discussing value for money centre-forwards, Kevin Doyle and Reading are often mentioned, as along with the Irish international they have made other astute striking acquisitions in the form of Shane Long, Dave Kitson and Noel Hunt; all players who can score goals and not one cost a great deal of money. Indeed, in the 2005/06 season, both Kitson and Doyle scored 18 league goals at a combined cost of £150,000, the price of Kitson’s transfer from Cambridge Utd. The collective income generated from these two amassed £12million for the Berkshire club and is a great example of not needing to spend big on a ‘tried and tested’ Championship goalscorer. Two other players scored more than 17 league goals that season, Watford’s Marlon King (a £500,000 purchase from Nottingham Forest) who was later sold to Wigan Athletic for £5million, and Cardiff City’s Cameron Jerome (picked up for nothing from Middlesbrough’s youth team) who moved to Birmingham City for £3million. In 2005/06, King, Kitson, Jerome and Doyle scored a combined 75 goals, cost £650,000 and were later sold for £20million!

Those four players weighed in with a league goal per £2,167 of transfer fee; although good, that’s still not as good as last season’s group of eight where ‘value for money’ can be measured at £949 of transfer fees spent per goal and is evidence that spending great amounts is not always needed in order to find yourselves a goalscorer.

The following outlines the average cost of players scoring 17 or more league goals in the Championship since 2001 and what this reflects in terms of the £ per goal measurement:

2011 (8 players – avg cost £150,000 – £949 per goal)
2010 (5 players – avg cost £1.355m – £14,570 per goal)
2009 (5 players – avg cost £400,000 – £3,922 per goal)
2008 (4 players – avg cost £1.175m – £14,688 per goal)
2007 (6 players – avg cost £1.166m – £9,722 per goal)
2006 (4 players – avg cost £162,500 – £2,167 per goal)
2005 ( 10 players – avg cost £625,000 – £3,238 per goal)
2004 (6 players – avg cost £583,333 – £4,944 per goal)
2003 (8 players – avg cost £937,500 – £5,580 per goal)
2002 (9 players – avg cost £650,556 – £3,614 per goal)
2001 (9 players – avg cost £1.194m – £6,527 per goal)

Within each season there are going to be anomolies; for instance, Matt Jansen cost Blackburn Rovers £4.1million and scored 23 league goals in 2001 and both Kenny Miller and David Johnson cost Wolverhampton Wanderers and Nottingham Forest £3million and weighed in with 19 and 25 league goals respectively in 2003; but the clear conclusion from the analysis is that an expensive forward is not always the answer. What appears to be the most successful route is for a player to be acquired who has the right attributes to fit into a team and its formation comfortably.

There are too many examples of a forward having a prolific season (I have identified that as scoring 17 or more league goals in this instance) and not commanding a large transfer fee to write off any cheaper acquisitions. More astute managers will identify that value for money is key; what is the point spending £2million on a player who scores you the same amount of goals as someone who cost a tenth of the price; particularly if your pot of cash isn’t bottomless?

The trouble is with football is that there are no guarantees. If you could guarantee that Nicky Maynard (£4.75million anyone?), Shane Long, Billy Sharp or any other Championship striker out there would score you lots of goals, win you promotion and increase their asset price, then they would be a safer bet to spend the huge amounts of money that it would cost to pry them away from their clubs (not to mention cost of wages and also the need to offer them something that they haven’t got at their current club… chance of promotion being the obvious one). However, as this is not the case, a more measured and considered approach is often necessary. Good managers tend to pick players up that slip comfortably and successfully into the team both on and off the field and represent good value for money which ultimately sees them move on at a much greater price than they were bought. Examples include Graham, Hooper, Doyle, Kitson, King and Jerome that have already been mentioned, but others including Chopra, Kamara Macken and Andrew Johnson have all scored well having been bought wisely and then sold on for much larger sums. Equally, names like Lisbie, Cureton, Iwelumo, Shipperley, Furlong, Morrison, Carroll and Ashton are proof that clever purchases or a youngster from the reserves can also be as equally successful as that much lauded multi-million pound centre forward.

So when we fail to make that headline grabbing big money centre-forward signing this summer, I for one won’t be jumping about and screaming that Nigel Clough has gone mad, I trust his judgement and understand that there may be other options out there that represent better value for money; and to be honest, I think there is much greater satisfaction obtained out of taking a relatively unknown quantity and turning them into a household name than it is pinching someone else’s best player.

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Categories: Football, The Championship

Trophyless Arsenal

July 11, 2011 Leave a comment

It is well documented that Arsenal have not won any silverware since the 2003/04 season when ‘the invincibles’ were clearly invincible… well, in the Premier League anyhow. I think it is fair to say that that team inclusive of Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry were expected to dominate for years to come and were only thwarted of retaining their league title the following season by an excellent Chelsea team who themselves only lost one league game all season.

This all seems a distant memory. Indeed, Arsenal have moved to a new stadium and have reached (and lost in) the Champions League Final since. Many players have come and gone but what remains constant is their manager Arsene Wenger and his philosophy of how he wants his team to play and how he chooses to manage his football club.

Last season Arsenal finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League once again; a tournament that they lost to the eventual winners in the Quarter Finals. They also reached a domestic cup final (albeit ending in defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup) and went out in the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup. It is odd then for the prevalence of such a collective view of failure with regards to Arsenal’s performance in 2010/11; many teams would be grateful of such a season, but for Arsenal this appears to be yet another example of another season that could have been any of the previous five.

This I think is the concern amongst supporters; their inability to progress in the manner in which they have so often threatened; and are now in danger of being caught by the ‘chasing pack’ in terms of competition for the top four slots. The incredible financial strength exerted by Manchester City has seen them overtake The Gunners in terms of competitiveness and much to supporters’ angst, arch rivals Tottenham Hotspur have also had the audacity to become Champions League contenders. Alongside this, the expected improvement to Liverpool’s fortunes next season means that there is the potential for a much more competitive outlook to the race for the top four positions in 2011/12, never mind the title.

You would think that having replayed basically the same season for half a decade, Arsene Wenger and the club’s board of directors would have identified what was needed to re-assert themselves as real championship contenders. Far too many times last season Arsenal struggled against sides at the ‘wrong-end of the table’ with unexpected home defeats to West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle Utd and Aston Villa. Arsenal’s mettle has been questioned consistently since the departure of talismanic figures such as Adams, Keown, Dixon, Vieira, Petit and Gilberto Silva, and this was a common theme once again last year, most notably in the defeats at Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, the spectacular 4-4 draw at Newcastle Utd and the 2-3 reverse at home to Tottenham Hotpsur. 

So the question stands, why hasn’t Wenger addressed this? Is he too stubborn to consider drafting players in who as well as having technical ability they also have steel, energy and a tackle in their armory? All teams have off-days and there will always be instances of a manager being out-thought tactically or a team being out-played, the worry for Arsenal though is that they succumb to the same outcome against the same teams year after year. For instance, as soon as you see Arsenal are away at Stoke City or Bolton Wanderers or another hard-working side, you doubt whether The Gunners will get a result and discuss whether they have the resiliance to go to these sorts of places and churn out a hard-fought victory. Furthermore, it would appear they are no closer to emulating the total-football style displayed by Barcelona having been outplayed in the last four matches with The Gunners managing an average of 39% of possession throughout, and finally, it is well documented that Sir Alex Ferguson has a preferred method of playing against Arsenal which has seen a reasonable amount of success with the implication that Arsenal have only one plan and if that can be thwarted then it is believed they struggle to find alternate avenues. With these issues in mind, again the question is raised, why hasn’t Wenger addressed this?

For the first time last season, Arsenal supporters and the media were more vocal in their assertions that something needed to change. This summer has seen the Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona soap opera re-emerge with Arsenal allegedly happy to sell for £35million; but if Arsenal fans were concerned with the ultimately failed bid last summer, this year they have to accept that other high calibre players may be destined elsewhere; more worryingly to their Premier League competitors.

Already Gael Clichy has transferred to Manchester City and despite Wenger’s determined stance, it is believed that Samir Nasri will follow him to Manchester and will either be playing in the sky blue of City or United’s red next season. This will be concerning and I wonder what sort of message this sends out to other players, particualy Robin van Persie whose impact once returning from injury was significant, scoring 23 times from January onwards. I wonder whether the recent signing of Gervinho from Lille will act as Nasri’s replacement or whether this is genuine squad improvement; either way, Arsenal appear to have a lot of work to do to begin challenging again for the league title.

Since Lehmann’s departure in 2008, Arsenal’s goalkeeper has been a constant issue with numerous high profile examples of bad decision making costing key goals in important matches. I still don’t understand why Wenger didn’t pay the £3million that Fulham demanded for Mark Schwarzer or why he hasn’t investigated the possibility of recruiting any one of a number of quality ‘keepers in the Premier League; Shay Given for instance appears set for a move to Aston Villa, and I would agree with Sir Alex Ferguson’s policy of ensuring you have a trusted and talented custodian between the sticks. Is it any coincidence that Arsenal have failed to win anything since they last had a world-class goalkeeper?

I think Wenger was unlucky last season with losing Thomas Vermaelen to injury, however, the need for a new centre-half is not a new issue, yet it seems that Arsenal are dragging their heels a little; missing out on Phil Jones of Blackburn Rovers and despite reported interest in his former team-mate Christopher Samba, Birmingham City’s Scott Dann and Bolton Wanderers’ Gary Cahill, Arsenal are still yet to add to this vital position.

With the possibility of Fabregas departing, Wenger may have a real hole in his midfield next season. Alex Song has shown promise but is not the ball-winning commanding midfielder that I feel they need to play alongside Jack Wilshere; neither is Denilson who appears also set for the exit door. Scott Parker would be an ideal acquisition but once again, it appears that Arsenal’s rivals have stolen a march on them with Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur being credited with the England international’s likely destination.

And then there is the striking department. Niklas Bendtner looks set to leave (although I doubt you will see too many glum faces in North London with this prospect) and Marouane Chamakh failed to live up to expectations. With van Persie basically being made out of glass, can Arsenal afford not to make a significant foray into the transfer market to acquire a striker who will help take the burden of goalscoring off the Dutchman? If you look at their rivals and the striking ammunition that is available, Arsenal’s forward personnel appears to be a little embarrassing.

It is certainly becoming a strange summer at The Emirates and the uncertainty surrounding Nasri and Fabregas (who quite clearly are two of Arsenal’s best players) is only compounding a sense of expectancy that Arsenal will once again play nice football and be good to watch next season; but are likely to fall short of what is needed to obtain any silverware for another year.

Is the answer for Wenger and the club to part company or is it for the Frenchman to stop being so stubborn and identify where he has made mistakes and rectify them? Surely it’s the latter?

Categories: Arsenal, Football