Thursday 17 January 2019

Pogba, Ozil and Morata prove that huge fees do not guarantee getting the best team players

Manchester United's Paul Pogba. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Manchester United's Paul Pogba. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Jason Burt

What do Paul Pogba, Mesut Ozil and Alvaro Morata have in common? The answer is straightforward and damning - they are all 'marquee' signings who are not central to their teams.

But is that coincidental? Is it due to form? Or is there a shift in the way clubs are thinking, often under a new breed of head coach?

Is there, in fact, a growing emphasis on 'team culture' and identity and how players fit in?

Fans demand marquee players - players who they believe will take them to the next level - and it is often claimed that clubs deem them necessary to raise or maintain their profile.

However, there is plenty of evidence that club-record signings, in particular, do not prove value for money.

Pogba has found himself out of the Manchester United team and it would be a surprise if he starts against Liverpool tomorrow.

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil. Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil. Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Struggling

That is partly because United are struggling under Jose Mourinho, who did want to sign Pogba despite claims otherwise this week, while the plights of Ozil and Morata are more to do with coaches who do not see them fitting into the way they want to play.

Given Ozil is, by some distance, Arsenal's highest-paid player and Morata was Chelsea's record signing, then, along with Pogba, United's most costly acquisition, they make up probably the most expensive reserves in world football.

Their combined transfer fees amount to €211m (£190m), with salaries totalling €778m (£700,000) a week, or €40.5m (£36.4m) a year.

Pogba has started 13 of United's 16 league games this season and been taken off four times, but has not started the past two after he was apparently labelled a "virus" by Mourinho. Morata has started 10 and been subbed seven times, with manager Maurizio Sarri questioning his mental toughness.

Ozil has started 10 but lasted 90 minutes only five times, with his "physicality and intensity" questioned by Arsenal head coach Unai Emery.

The cultural shift at Arsenal hit its high point with the 4-2 win against Tottenham Hotspur. Ozil missed the game with a back problem but he may not have played anyway as Emery's approach - high pressing, playing at pace - does not fit his style.

On the wider point of 'team culture', Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at the consultancy 21st Club, has a theory.

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil. Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil. Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

"Smarter clubs in general are beginning to think a lot more around culture and identity - taking a lead from the corporate world," Chaudhuri said.

"This means thinking more about what the club 'stands for', and working back from that, rather than simply building a team through individual pieces.

"The idea is that even in a transient environment like a football club, if you can get players pulling together around a common culture, then the team might be bigger than the sum of its parts.

"This is clearly at odds with making marquee signings, who for whatever reason might be 'above' the team. Players and agents are also very aware of how wealthy their employers are, and marquee signings can create a slipstream effect in the wage bill."

It is not new but appears more widespread. It was demonstrated, for example, by Pep Guardiola when he took over at Barcelona in 2008 with his ruthless treatment of the star trio of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o and Deco - ending their careers at the club in his first press conference.

Guardiola's recruitment at Manchester City has largely concentrated on buying younger players with potential and the club walked away from the deal to sign Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal, with the 'marquee' signing going to United instead.

"It's notable that the three clubs at the top of the Premier League have generally avoided spending big on a single player in a transfer window, and have managers who the players seem to have a deeper-than-usual connection with," Chaudhuri said of City, Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham.

"Clubs do astonishing amounts of background digging on players too now."

Analysis by 21st Club suggests that a team's most important, biggest-name player often does not always justify that status when it comes to a return in points.

"It's possible that clubs are beginning to realise this, choosing to spread their money more evenly across the squad, and looking to benefit from having players that are the right fit, rather than simply being superstars," Chaudhuri said.

"If the top players' impact is over-valued, it's possible to build a better team from players that other big clubs perhaps aren't looking at."

Liverpool's €158m (£142m) sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona last January is a case in point.

"We looked at how other teams who lost key players performed over the rest of the season," Chaudhuri said.

"We found that the points penalty was at worst around 0.1 points per game - around two points over half a season or four points over an entire year. There is also a track record of teams losing key personnel and still reaching the Champions League final."

As, of course, Liverpool did, while they sit on top of the Premier League today.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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