£100m for Caicedo or £40m on Maddison? Chelsea and Man Utd transfer waste shows money is no fix

John Nicholson
Spurs midfielder James Maddison, Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino and player Moises Caicedo
Would you want £40m Maddison or £100m Caicedo?

In the past, Chelsea spending £1bn in a year would automatically deliver success. But time and money has changed and a wealth of knowledge and data is key.


Making a top Premier League club is easy, right? Just pour in a billion quid over two or three years, sit back and wait. The one who spends the most on players and wages wins; it has long been the established matrix behind the league, and by and large, that number could predict where a club finishes in the table.

But as we move into the new Saudi money era, is that quite so true any more? Clearly, the amount a club spends still has a major influence on their performance in the league. There’s no doubt about that. But we’re now seeing that beyond a point – not sure what that point is yet – spending ever more money has diminishing returns or no returns at all.

Chelsea is obviously the best example of this. Chaotic, often seemingly random spending, can actually make the team worse. Finishing 12th last season was shocking given the level of investment. It quite profoundly showed how money can stop working for you unless it is married with a plan and even that other dreaded ‘p’ word: a philosophy.

We can point to Manchester United as another example of spending huge sums of money – £1.7 billion over 10 years to be precise – and yet somehow underachieving. Perhaps in the minds of some in football there has formed a relationship between the fee paid and the quality delivered. Higher always equals better. So logically, an expensive player will make the club better, not worse. You can almost see the sense in that.

But football doesn’t quite work on such straight lines of logic. We see it time and again. Has, say, £73million Jadon Sancho made United a better, more successful team? If they hadn’t spent that money would the club have been worse? It is, to say the least, a moot point.

Manchester United's Jadon Sancho and Anthony Martial ahead of the Carabao Cup semi-final, second leg match at Old Trafford, Manchester.

Man Utd’s Jadon Sancho and Anthony Martial warming up

Yet it’s not just the fact that at least two high-profile clubs keep making blunders in the transfer market, it’s also that there are examples of other clubs who take a different route, based on data analysis, and have been relatively successful at Brentford and Brighton. The idea that both would finish above Chelsea last season makes no football logic sense unless big money does indeed at some point stop working.

The Bees have lost Ivan Toney until January. The big money thing to do would have been to buy someone for £60+ million. But Brentford are relying on existing players Bryan Mbeumo and Yoane Wissa, who cost less than £10 million each. And Brighton have famously developed a model where they sell their best players but have already scouted a ready-made replacement who won’t cost a massive amount. They turned Moises Caicedo from a £4.5m player into a £100m player in two years.

‘Big’ clubs will argue that they don’t want to buy in cheaper players and develop them, they want top class and they want it now and if they don’t work out, they’ll just get rid and buy more. The trend for the more monied clubs to buy players the less monied clubs have brought on is well established. Yet as some clubs have access to ever greater wealth, does that excess of wealth, where basically you can afford to buy anyone, lead to consistently good recruitment decisions?

Investment is still very important, clearly, but knowing who to invest in is every bit as important. And that comes down to managerial and executive competency. You can do these things the right way, as Manchester City tend to, or just buy the most expensive player you can, which seems to largely be the Chelsea and United way. It can’t be that random, can it? Probably not, but it sometimes seems that way. Even Arsenal aren’t immune to this, as many feel the expensive Kai Havertz transfer well shows.

The £40m Spurs spent on James Maddison looks like money very well spent. And it is obviously a lot of money, but not compared to the Caicedo fee. That could be the difference between sensible spending and silly spending. The difference between those two figures could be wherever bigger spending stops working.

If the ability of money spent to dictate the success of a club isn’t as infinitely elastic as it once seemed, it may open up opportunities for clubs that spend less (though still substantially) to make progress in the league and even compete with big money.

PSG have already shown us that buying two of the best players in world football does not make a successful European club. That was the perfect illustration of the limits to what aimless gargantuan spending can achieve.

It would be interesting for someone with a bent for statistical analysis to look at the relationship of money spent to league position to find where the level of funding begins to have ever decreasing or no effect and is overtaken by a more judicious, data-led approach. Maybe this is a new phenomenon so it’s not possible to measure just yet. But if you can get a great player like Maddison for £40m what more does your £100m midfielder give you? Admittedly, transfer fees are influenced by lots of different things, mostly by how many clubs want to buy the player. But is this the best use of money when it gets to such sky high levels?

While City remain the shining example of managerial and executive competency and what that can achieve when married to big money, maybe Newcastle can also claim to be in that bracket too. But so in different ways do Brentford, Brighton and even Aston Villa under Unai Emery. Maybe even Spurs too this season.

With the Saudi Pro League starting to do to the Premier League what the Premier League has been doing to world football for the last 25 years, clubs simply relying on the power of their money to achieve success may be finding that their money is not working the way it once did to automatically secure that success, or at the very least, that it has been shown that it’s not always the go-to solution for all your problems. So that’s good, then.