It’s happening again. Selling all the best players. This time they’re going to end up raking in close to a hundred million, and yet they won’t even replace them with proven quality- it’ll be names we’ve never heard of.
Yes, Borussia Dortmund are at it again.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Ilkay Gundogan and Mats Hummels have all departed, presumably having decided that Dortmund couldn’t match their ambition or their wage demands. This despite a second place finish that guaranteed Champions League football for this coming season, not to mention 80,000 raucous fans in the Westfalenstadion.
Just as losing good players is an annual occurrence for Bundesliga powerhouse Dortmund, so it is too for Premier League overachievers Southampton. And why wouldn’t it be? Southampton are a medium-sized club who aim to be self-sufficient, in competition with clubs who aim to be no such thing.
That said, while selling players to richer clubs has been the norm for generations, the summer of 2014 stood out. Talisman Rickie Lambert began the exodus, closely followed by captain and home-grown hero Adam Lallana, centre back Dejan Lovren and promising defender Calum Chambers.
Amongst the fan base, panic ensued, amid suspicions of asset stripping. Supporters might have seen it coming. Following the departure of chairman Nicola Cortese, the club’s new board warned that it faced "a difficult financial situation". Nonetheless, the club tried to reassure hysterical fans that all money from player sales would be invested in the squad and replacements were brought in. According to Transfermarkt, Saints spent £81 million that summer. Yes, they had recouped £105 million, but figures published at Companies House showed that they increased spending on wages by £17M between 2014 and 2015. The net profit from player sales wasn’t huge, and the increase in wages alludes to something that is generally overlooked; the players brought in were being paid more than those who departed. What this suggests is that while Saints were unwilling or unable to spend the kind of money that might have convinced players like Lallana to stay, they weren’t averse to paying higher wages.
Dusan Tadic, Sadio Mane et al might not have been being paid the sort of salaries that might have kept Lallana & co. at the club, it seems likely that they were being paid more than those players had been receiving before they left.
The significance of players’ salaries are almost uniformly overlooked, and not just by covetous fans. The journalists writing the constant stream of stories about "player plus cash deals" (how many swap deals have actually materialised in the last decade?) seem oblivious to the likelihood that a small club potentially selling a player to a bigger club will generally be unable or unwilling to take on the astronomical wages of a top four cast-off. Yet every year, without fail, there will be claims in the tabloids that one of Southampton’s better performers will be leaving in exchange for some money and last year’s overhyped flop. For example, there were rumours of Manchester United wanted to take Mane and get rid of Memphis Depay at the same time. These stories are entirely ignorant of the fact that a high-profile underperformer at a top four club is likely to be on in excess of £100,000 a week. If Saints could afford to give a player £120,000 a week, they’d be more likely to offer it to Mane than Depay.
Nonetheless, Saints’ wage bill is a good deal bigger than it was, and this goes some way towards explaining the team’s performances in the last two seasons. Saints’ form was often referred to in the football media as "logic-defying", but it really wasn’t. According to the most recently published figures, they have the ninth highest wage bill in the division. Finishing seventh and then sixth was over-performing, but it was no miracle. As explained in Soccernomics (Kuper and Szymanski, 2014), "…the more you pay players in wages, the higher you will finish; but what you pay for them in transfer fees doesn’t seem to make much difference… Much of the time, clubs buy the wrong players." This isn’t theory or opinion- it’s statistical fact researched by an economist. And it brings us to another factor in Southampton’s success: recruitment.
Let’s go back for a moment to the sale of Lallana and subsequent recruitment of Tadic and Mane. In the season prior to his rather rancorous move, Lallana managed 9 goals and 5 assists. The following season, Mane contributed 10 goals and three assists, and Tadic 4 goals and 7 assists.
According to the BBC, Mane cost 10 million (), and Tadic just under 11 million. Lallana went for 25 million. In the most tangible terms goals, assists and transfer fees- Saints swapped 9 goals for 14, 5 assists for 10 and made a profit (which went towards the increase in the wage bill). When they want to improve their squads, clubs like Southampton must necessarily look to players who the bigger, richer clubs don’t want. Or, more to the point in Southampton’s case, don’t know about. A year or two later, football’s aristocracy and/or new money often does want these players, but by then Saints can charge several times what they paid.
Saints’ management will often explain the success of their recruitment by pointing to the near-mythical "Black Box", a research and assessment facility that allows them to consider all sorts of data about prospective signings before deciding whether to bid. Having a template for the system and style in which the team should play, and a blueprint for the sort of player who fits with it is helpful too. Southampton’s recruitment has been so good that Tottenham Hotspur ended up recruiting Saints’ recruiter. Paul Mitchell left for White Hart Lane shortly after former Saints manager Mauricio Pochettino did, and it seems highly likely that subsequent Spurs signings were targets identified while the pair were working together at Saints’ Staplewood campus. South Korean midfielder Son Heung-min has talked about Pochettino trying to buy him while at Southampton, and if Heung-min went from black box to Daniel Levy’s little black book, he probably wasn’t the only one.
Why more clubs don’t seem to be attempting to ape Southampton’s approach to scouting, if not their transfer strategy and their whole infrastructure is another article in itself, and one that should appear here before too long. Southampton will hope that they don’t twig. Big club incompetence has been a huge factor in Saints’ success.
With regard to net spend, Saints are not big investors in the transfer market by current PL standards, but we can probably assume that the wage bill has already increased significantly again this summer, thanks to the new contracts signed by highly-rated players like Fraser Forster and Virgil van Dijk, presumably on markedly higher wages. While fans have celebrated these new deals as a cause for optimism, it’s also worth pointing out that giving a player a new contract these days means giving him a pay rise for continuing to do the same job. Therefore Saints must feel that doing so is more cost effective and beneficial overall than selling and replacing them.
We can be fairly confident that although Saints won’t spend anywhere near as much as many other teams, they will strengthen with typical acuity, and will this time be able to offer Europa League football as well as wages that reflect the much-trumpeted new PL TV deal. Mane, the man just sold for that startling fee, was brought in with the football world pointing at St. Mary’s and shrieking "MELTDOWN!" but it seems a good place for ambitious young footballers to ply their trade and get noticed. The TV money means that even mid-sized PL clubs can now outmuscle some of the most famous clubs in the world. Southampton have, in recent seasons, lured players away from Celtic and Feyenoord- bigger clubs, but unable to compete with the pull of the PL. Now they can probably overpower the likes of Ajax, Benfica and Porto too. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the players Saints buy with the Mane money leaving for even more obscene fees in a couple of years.
Saints aren’t one of the big brand clubs and, while they have a benevolent owner, they don’t have investors willing to pump in tens of millions of pounds. If selling stars is inevitable for those aforementioned giants of European football, Saints fans can’t expect it to be any different for them. And it needn’t necessarily be something to mourn. As counter-intuitive as it seems, developing or buying good players and selling them for inflated fees is probably the only way for the club to continue its progress.