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The myth of overpriced British Footballers and decline in transfers to the Premier League from the Football League

The England team’s failure to deliver in recent tournaments has been broadly put down to the lack of opportunity provided to domestic talent. The theory is that the advent of the Premier League has adversely affected the the national set-up. The Premier League sides have been put under the scanner in this regard. On their part, clubs indicate that in terms of return on investment, British players are simply not worth it owing to an inflation in the transfer fees. Liam Curley crunches the number with respect to the above beliefs and comes to the following conclusions:

  • Transfers from Football League clubs to the Premier League are not in decline
  • Transfer data from the past 10 seasons shows that overpriced British footballers aren’t actually overpriced
  • A premium is based on successful experience of playing in English football rather than the nationality of a player

UPDATE: This article was recognised by A Football Report in their list of Best in Football Writing for 2014 alongside some reputed writers/publications in the ‘Thoughtful’ category. Check out all the best football articles of 2014 here.

New data on home-grown players playing in the Premier League this season shows that the numbers starting matches in the league continues to drop. A great deal of attention is going towards the lack of opportunities afforded to academy players, but many young English and British players get opportunities to play in the Football League through loan or permanent deals. After these players gain valuable experience in first team football, why aren’t the successful players getting an opportunity in the Premier League? Are young British players overpriced?

Having watching the England national team compete at World Cups since 1990, it’s fair to say that the performance of each England team has deteriorated with every passing tournament. With each disappointment, the English media raises new culpable factors contributing to the demise of the English game, from poor diets and drinking culture to an inability of top players to reproduce their club form in an England shirt. Once, England supporters feared that their team’s tournament exit would come as the losing side of penalty shootout in the knock-out stages. How many supporters look back at those shootouts as the good old days?

After the 2010 World Cup, widespread judgment on England’s dreadful display was put down to a team with too many players at the end of their playing careers and the players’ insufficient technical ability, not just measured against the so called elite nations, but also the new world order of rising powers in South America and Eastern Europe. In 2014, Greg Dyke and his commission report, aimed at unearthing the factors behind the national team’s demise, identified the lack of first team opportunities for English players in the Premier League to be a key contributing factor for the national team’s fortunes. The commission specifically identifies the lack of first team opportunities for young academy players, but these players regularly leave Premier League clubs to play first team football in the Football League. If these players are good enough, why don’t they get the opportunity to play in the Premier League?

One argument that Premier League club managers make against signing English players is that their transfer value is inflated purely because they’re English. Examples of inflated transfer prices are regularly used to support this theory. This season, many use the £24 million transfer of Toni Kroos to Real Madrid as a yard stick to demonstrate the overpriced nature of British transfer fees for players like Ross McCormack to Fulham (£11 million), Luke Shaw to Manchester United (£30 million) and Adam Lallana to Liverpool (£25 million). This is a lazy comparison and cannot reflect market trends in isolation. You can’t directly compare one transfer with another, remove all context from the situation, and make a broad judgement on the trends in a market. Toni Kroos had a year left on his contract, played in a position in which Bayern Munich have several top quality alternatives and wasn’t deemed worthy of a salary to match the top earners at the club (a judgment based on his influence and standing as a key personality at the club rather than pure playing ability). Bayern were therefore in a position where they wanted to sell the player and had little negotiation power.

These factors determine the value that the seller is prepared to accept for the player, and the price that the buyer is prepared to pay (understanding the balance of power in the negotiation).The transfer value of £24 million is not solely reflective on the playing ability of Toni Kroos and it can’t be used as a measure to claim that Lallana is overpriced at £25m, and therefore English players are overpriced. If you are looking to make that kind of judgment, you need to take a broader view and compare samples, not individual cases. For the sake of this argument, consider the sample of 10 years of transfers – seasons 2004/05 to 2014/15.

Are British Players over-priced?

Whilst the graph above demonstrates an incline in the value of transfers taking place from selling clubs in the Football League and buying clubs in the Premier League, the trend isn’t exclusive to British players. The inclination in value is generally consistent with both British and international players. There is no data here to suggest that British players playing in the Football League are overvalued due to their nationality.

The data does demonstrate an incline in average transfer values across players of all nationalities joining Premier League clubs from the Football League. Without comparing average transfer values to those involving players from other leagues, we can’t judge from this data whether the average value of transfers involving players from the Football League are high. If an average of £5.83 million for an overseas player and £4.08 million for a British player seems high, it seems rational to suggest that the premium isn’t placed on a player for being English, but rather a player having experience playing in English football. The level of football played in the Championship is high when compared to the top divisions in many countries around Europe. The league has the fourth highest average attendance of any league in Europe and the style of football is much closer to that in the Premier League than leagues in other countries. It makes sense that clubs would want to buy successful players from the Football League, and basic theory of supply and demand would suggest that the highest performers are in short supply, therefore prices are inflated.

Do English players still climb the leagues?

There’s a perception that Premier League clubs have slowly reduced their willingness to pluck players from the lower leagues because they can buy better quality, cheaper alternatives elsewhere. British players are overpriced and that’s why Premier League clubs prefer not taking a chance with them. Has there been a decline in the number of transfers from Football League clubs to the Premier League?

Source: Data available here.

The statistics from the past 10 seasons don’t reinforce this perception. There hasn’t been a general decline in the number of transfers of British players from the Football League to the Premier League. We can see that there is a wave in the pattern of transfers, but there’s no general upward or downward trend in the past 10 years. The dip towards 2008 could be indicative of the slowing market in number and value of transfers that was taking place before the buyout by the Abu Dhabi United Group of Manchester City, which then arguably fuelled the rise in spend. In the graphic below, we can also see that the flow of transfers involving international players taking place between leagues reflects the pattern of British and Irish players. Despite popular belief that overseas players are blocking the progress of young, domestic players, transfer history in the past 10 years doesn’t prove this theory. There may be more overseas players playing in the Football League, but Premier League clubs aren’t purchasing overseas players from the Football League in place of British players.

Whilst the number of players climbing the football league doesn’t show a general decline, the data showing that British players are continuing to get less playing time in the Premier League would suggest that they’re either not getting an opportunity to play when they do move to the Premier League, or they’re just not taking it.

Written by Liam Curley

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