The summer transfer window is about to open, so let’s look at the 10 most expensive transfers by position — goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and forwards — through 2021. I awarded a (highly subjective) grade out of five based on what we know now. In other words, with the benefit of hindsight and knowing what happened next, would the club make the same decision to sign a player again?
I took into account not just individual performance, but also age at the time, transfer fee, longevity (money recouped if the player was moved on) and injuries (sometimes it’s nobody’s fault). Grades range from 1/5 (not in a million years), to 3/5 (kinda got what we paid for), to 5/5 (absolutely, far surpassed expectations.)
A few housekeeping notes. I used Transfermarkt as a source on the transfer fees: it’s imperfect, because some of these deals might contain “easy” or “tough” bonuses and many times fees aren’t public, which means they’re sourced from media reports. I also made a judgment call on “player-plus-cash” swap deals where the valuations felt distorted: Jasper Cillessen for Neto is an obvious one, as is the Danilo for Joao Cancelo, plus the infamous Arthur–Miralem Pjanic trade. But at least it’s a benchmark.
Bear in mind too that wages and commission also affect the cost of a transfer and they’re not reflected here: those numbers are often even less public. Consider too the disparity of resources: €60 million for Fiorentina or Everton is a ton of money, for a Real Madrid or Manchester United less so. And remember, this doesn’t mean a transfer didn’t make sense at the time: we’re simply assessing these with the benefit of hindsight. This is a snapshot of where we are now, for players who are still at their clubs, the judgment might change over time as performances and conditions change.
Finally, we’re talking about the most expensive players in history by position. If my assessments seem harsh … well, it’s because if a player was signed for a top-10 fee for their position, you expect a transformational player or somebody who is on his way to becoming one. Note too that I’m only including transfers through 2021 because I think it’s only fair to assess outcomes after a minimum of two seasons.
1. Kepa Arrizabalaga, 23
Athletic Bilbao to Chelsea, €80m, 2018
2. Alisson, 25
Roma to Liverpool, €62.5m, 2018
3. Gianluigi Buffon, 23
Parma to Juventus, €53m, 2001
4. Ederson, 23
Benfica to Manchester City, €40m, 2017
5. Thibaut Courtois, 26
Chelsea to Real Madrid, €35m, 2018
6. Manuel Neuer, 25
Schalke to Bayern, €30m, 2011
7. Jordan Pickford, 23
Sunderland to Everton, €28.5m, 2017
8. Francesco Toldo, 29
Fiorentina to Inter, €26.5m, 2001
9. Bernd Leno, 26
Bayer Leverkusen to Arsenal, €25m, 2018
10. David de Gea, 20
Atletico Madrid to Manchester United, €25m, 2011
Kepa and Leno stick out here, as they both lost their starting spots within a few years of moving. Buffon’s fee still feels mind-boggling more than 20 years later, but there can be no argument that he and Neuer far surpassed expectations. A few more years from Alisson, Ederson and Courtois, and they might get there too.
1. Harry Maguire, 26
Leicester City to Manchester United, €87m, 2019
2. Matthijs de Ligt, 19
Ajax to Juventus. €85.5m, 2019
3. Virgil van Dijk, 26
Southampton to Liverpool, €84.6m, 2018
4. Lucas Hernandez, 26
Atletico Madrid to Bayern, €80m, 2019
5. Ruben Dias, 23
Benfica to Manchester City, €68m, 2020
6. Aymeric Laporte, 23
Athletic Bilbao to Manchester City, €65m, 2018
7. Benjamin Mendy, 23
Monaco to Manchester City, €57.5m, 2017
8. John Stones, 22
Everton Manchester City, €55.6m, 2016
9. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, 21
Crystal Palace to Manchester United, €55m, 2019
10. Kyle Walker, 27
Tottenham Hotspur to Manchester City, €52.5m, 2017
More big misses here. At this stage, Maguire’s fee and age weigh heavily against him as much as his performances, which were worse last season for Man United than in the previous years. Mendy didn’t play much even before he was arrested and suspended by Man City. Wan-Bissaka’s run at Old Trafford appears to be over already, while injuries have limited Hernandez at Bayern, though he may yet turn it around.
Fewer surpassed expectations (Ruben Dias, Van Dijk), with some of the guys on this list who might yet turn the 3/5 into a 4/5 or more.
1. Paul Pogba, 23
Juventus to Manchester United, €105m, 2016
2. Frenkie de Jong, 22
Ajax to Barcelona, €86m, 2019
3. Zinedine Zidane, 30
Juventus to Real Madrid, €77.5m, 2002
4. Kevin De Bruyne, 24
Wolfsburg to Manchester City, €76m, 2016
5. James Rodriguez, 23
Monaco to Real Madrid, €75m, 2014
6. Thomas Lemar, 22
Monaco to Atletico Madrid, €72m, 2018
7. Kaka, 27
Milan to Real Madrid, €67m, 2009
8. Bruno Fernandes, 26
Sporting CP to Manchester United, €63m, 2020
9. Rodri, 23
Atletico Madrid to Manchester City, €62.7m, 2019
10. Tanguy Ndombele, 22
Lyon to Tottenham Hotspur, €60m, 2019
Let’s start with the good. Nobody, I hope, is going to argue with Zidane or De Bruyne. Rodri and De Jong may yet get better, or, in De Jong’s case, they might get their money back. Fernandes cost a ton to sign and with little resale value, but he has more than held up his side of the bargain.
Even without factoring in the mega-commissions and the fact that he left on a free, Pogba obviously didn’t work out. Kaka was slowed by injuries, but that was a big fee given his age. After four years, Lemar is still in and out of the side at Atletico, while James has been on a downward spiral. Keita has contributed this season, but you would have expected more for that fee.
1. Neymar, 25
Barcelona to PSG, €222m, 2017
2. Kylian Mbappe, 19
Monaco to PSG, €180m, 2017
3. Ousmane Dembele, 20
Dortmund to Barcelona, €140m, 2017
4. Philippe Coutinho, 25,
Liverpool to Barcelona, €135m, 2018
5. Joao Felix, 19
Benfica to Atletico Madrid, €127.5m, 2019
6. Antoine Griezmann, 28
Atletico to Barcelona, €120m, 2019
7. Cristiano Ronaldo, 33
Real Madrid to Juventus, €117m, 2018
8. Eden Hazard, 28
Chelsea to Real Madrid, €115m, 2019
9. Gareth Bale, 24
Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid, €101m, 2014
10. Cristiano Ronaldo, 24
Man United to Real Madrid, €94m, 2009
Again, nobody will argue with Ronaldo’s move to Madrid or, especially now that he has stuck around, Mbappe’s move to PSG. Some might downgrade Ronaldo’s move to Juve not through any fault of his own necessarily, but because it tied up huge resources at a time when the club should probably have been transitioning.
The rest, frankly, is a horror show. Neymar hasn’t been poor for PSG, but his world-record fee was out of whack with market logic to begin with and the fact that he has missed more than half of the club’s league starts in his five years there doens’t help him.
Bale’s Champions League exploits have to be considered, but the fee, the acrimony and leaving on a free have to be considered too. Joao Felix might still rise over time, but after three years, he’s behind the progress curve. Dembele’s many injuries — and, at the time of writing, his impending exit on a free — count against that move, while Coutinho simply never fit in. Griezmann was relatively productive at first, but nowhere near enough to justify his fee, wages or the fact that he’s now on loan at a rival. As for Hazard, that move is made worse by his injuries and, especially, the fact that he was a year away from free agency when Madrid signed him.
Julien Laurens and Gab Marcotti discuss Neymar’s future amid reports that PSG want him to leave.
The obvious one is that the more you spend, the more you risk. In football, this is often compounded by the fact that an expensive mistake is harder to remedy, since big transfer fees usually go hand-in-hand with big wages. The fact that by my admittedly subjective reckoning, 19 of the 41 deals above are ones which clubs would not want to repeat with the benefit of hindsight (and if you take away goalkeepers, it’s 17 of 31, more than half), suggests that signing luxury players is extremely risky.
Other factors like ego, wanting to impress fans with world-class name, falling in love with a player and so on, tend to impact how much clubs are willing to pay. Spending big to sign an established player in midcareer — say, 25 and up — rarely seems to work out, unless you’re talking outliers like Ronaldo or Zidane.
The success rate for defenders and, especially, goalkeepers seems to be higher. Why? Possibly because the latter are somewhat easier to judge — do they let in goals or don’t they? — and possibly because several of the former were signed when they were young, with time to grow and less pressure to perform straight away. (Or maybe because so many of them signed for Manchester City, who have been very good over the past five years.)
Ensuring you are paying the right transfer fee is extremely difficult. Take Joao Felix. At 19 he looked like the next big thing, much like Mbappe. Mbappe made it; we’re still waiting on Joao Felix.
What would it take for the Joao Felix deal to be considered a success? Some combination of him playing a key role in Atletico Madrid winning meaningful silverware, growing into a top 10 player and, perhaps recouping more than they paid to sign him. That’s a very tall order when his transfer fee was €126m.
Even when you do get it right (or close to right), there are other factors beyond your control. There are injuries — obviously an injury to a €100m player will have a greater impact (if only financially) than a €10m player — and the unpredictability of players.
I rated the Mbappe deal at 4/5. He has performed exceptionally well for PSG, he adds lustre to the club and he’s still just 23. But what if, instead of extending, he had left the club as a free agent this summer? They would have spent €180m for some domestic silverware (that they likely would have won anyway), a lot of media attention and a Champions League final, which they lost. Would it still be the sort of move they would want to repeat? And, yet, Mbappe choosing to leave as a free agent would have been largely beyond the club’s control.
Bottom line? Operating at the highest level of the transfer market is a lot more risky than we often realize, especially with midfielders and forwards. And it’s very easy to make decisions you later regret.