Jose Mourinho ignored the reality that he broke the world transfer record last summer while channelling the views of thousands, if not millions of fans. Casting a critical eye over prices that were inflated even before Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain, he said last week: “Some clubs obviously are paying too much, and by paying too much they create a very strange and out-of-control market.”
If that last aspect may most irritate a manager who values control above most things, Mourinho highlighted a more common theme: clubs are paying over the odds.
Mourinho being Mourinho, there seemed a pointed element to his comments that was targeted at Pep Guardiola. Certainly, the fact that Manchester City could line up with full-backs, in Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker, who cost around £100 million, may seem an example of paying bloated amounts. So, too, if Everton fork out up to £50m for Gylfi Sigurdsson, who was almost relegated last season and turns 28 next month. Perhaps if Chelsea end up spending £60m on wing-back Alex Sandro, or Liverpool raise their £66m bid for midfielder Naby Keita.
Mourinho is scarcely innocent himself: Manchester United’s £89m move for Paul Pogba last year was facilitated by a willingness to get rid of the competition by paying the sort of sums no one else would contemplate. It is a moot point precisely where Pogba ranks on a list of the world’s best footballers, but United made him the costliest in that moment.
And yet there can be method to the apparent madness. Paying over the odds can be a sign of panic, an indication of a fundamental misjudgement about a player’s abilities and the difference he will make, or proof that too few in football are fiscally cautious. It can show an ignorance of history when the list of the Premier League’s biggest deals is littered with examples of inflated fees: the £59.7m United paid for Angel Di Maria, the £42m City spent for Eliaquim Mangala, the £50m Fernando Torres cost Chelsea and the £35m that Liverpool spent on Andy Carroll.
But it can make footballing sense and even, in some cases, financial sense to pay over the odds.
Such deals fall into two categories and United can pluck examples of both from their past. There is the short-term success, the catalyst whose impact can be measured in the trophy cabinet but for whom a club will never recoup its purchase price. Dwight Yorke was well into his 27th year when United paid £12.5m for him in 1998 despite the reservations of chairman Martin Edwards and assistant manager Brian Kidd. The striker promptly helped them win a historic treble.
Should Nemanja Matic exert a similar impact, it may matter not that he is one of the most expensive 29-year-old transfers in footballing history. If they then sell him, like Yorke, at a substantial loss three years later, it would still represent money well spent.
Then there is the excessive fee that stands the test of time. When United paid £30m for Rio Ferdinand in 2002, it seemed a price off the scale. Only one centre-back, Alessandro Nesta, had gone for a remotely comparable fee to Ferdinand. Four years earlier, they had made Jaap Stam the most expensive defender in history at £10.6m. Four years later, they acquired Nemanja Vidic for just £7m.
There is no doubt that the Serb was the better pound-for-pound buy, and not merely because Ferdinand found his best form only with Vidic as his uncompromising sidekick. It would be rewriting history to suggest his Old Trafford career always proceeded smoothly — he sat out eight months for missing a drug test, was awful in the awkward autumn of 2005 and struggled with decline in his final year — but a return of 455 games and 14 trophies justified the seemingly disproportionate outlay. Over 12 years, that works out at only £2.5 million a year, plus salary.
At times, the false economy is to make do with lesser options, pursue compromise choices, end up with constant changes and buy in a position time and again. In that sense, signing a series of supposedly cheaper players could actually cost more. With Ferdinand in situ, United scarcely needed to sign centre-backs for years. They could concentrate their attention and resources elsewhere.
That may be the approach Mourinho has pursued when spending heavily on players such as Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, stars who are young enough to give a decade’s service. It may be City’s defence for the sums they have paid for young footballers like Mendy, Ederson, Bernardo Silva, John Stones and Raheem Sterling, who all have the potential to play hundreds of games for the club. The message would appear to be: assess the deal and the price at the end of each footballer’s time at the club, not the start. In a world of snap judgments, however, few will.
But it is really only the super-clubs who have the luxury of taking that view. Paying over the odds requires the funds to do so — indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson later admitted United used some of the following year’s budget to pay for Yorke — and it is not an option open to those who live more of a hand-to-mouth existence. But sometimes the rich are not simply flaunting their wealth. Sometimes they are paying too much because the sums do add up.