What is a player's worth?

With clubs willing to spurge exorbitant sums, it's difficult to ascertain the real value of a player

What is a player's worth?

For the better part of a decade, at least one leading Premier League team has devoted thousands of hours and kilowatts of brain power to answering what sounds, on the surface, like a simple question: How do you judge what any one player is actually worth?

Every conceivable variable is taken into account, the tangible and the intangible, the objective and the subjective. In addition to thousands of data points breaking down each player's performance and output, factors like their age, position, nationality, length of contract and commercial value are fed into the equation. So, too, are the buying power of their current club, and the cost of their peers and, adjusting for inflation, their predecessors.

The model is always being refined, but still, the club feels that it is as robust a valuation system as exists in football. It does not calculate a precise figure. Instead, it provides a guideline as to what might be a reasonable fee for any target the manager chooses to pursue, a general idea of that player's actual economic value.

Those who have developed and fine-tuned the system know that figure rarely bears much relation to the price they will be quoted once football's transfer window — that dizzying, desensitizing biannual bazaar — opens for business.
After all, as Chelsea manager Antonio Conte said last year, this is football's "crazy" age.

"Prices are too high in general; the market is crazy," he said. "When you try to buy a player, the cost is very expensive. It is not the real valuation of the player. It is a very strange situation."

Events so far this summer — before the window has even opened — have only compounded that impression.

Those inside football have long since grown used to spiraling price inflation, driven by the wealth of the cash-soaked Premier League, the rising revenues of the superclubs of Continental Europe and the ever-present threat of the riches being offered by teams in the China.

What leaves even those employed to track the pulse of the transfer market scratching their heads is that there is no pattern to the prices that they are being are quoted. Nobody seems sure anymore of exactly what, in Conte's words, "the real valuation" of a player should be.

Everton, for example, valued its striker, Romelu Lukaku, at 100 million pounds (about $126 million), the same figure that Barcelona may have to pay to extricate midfielder Marco Verratti from Paris St.-Germain. Yet beyond their age — 24 — Lukaku, a powerful Belgian forward, and Verratti, a creative and technical Italian playmaker, have little in common: They share neither position nor pedigree.

Even prices for theoretically comparable players offer no clear signals. Manchester United recently paid Benfica 31 million pounds (nearly Rs 2.5 crore) for one of its crown jewels, Victor Lindelof, a 22-year-old Swedish defender. But Liverpool wants the same amount for Mamadou Sakho, a defender five years older than Lindelof who was ostracised by manager Jürgen Klopp for much of last year. Southampton believes its defender Virgil van Dijk is worth twice as much as Lindelof and Sakho. Increasingly, it seems as though people are just sticking a finger in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing.

Until a couple of weeks ago, for example, Stoke City might have contemplated an offer of 30 million pounds for its young English goalkeeper, Jack Butland. But after Everton agreed to pay Sunderland that amount for a different young English goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, Stoke adjusted its sights accordingly. Butland is still the same player. It is just that he will now cost any team hoping to buy him substantially more.

The market can move values, of course, but so can the environment. Last year, when Newcastle United was relegated from the Premier League, it knew it would have to cash in on its two most salable assets, French midfielder Moussa Sissoko and Dutch wing Georginio Wijnaldum.

Privately, the club believed that 15 million pounds would be a healthy price for each player. When Real Madrid inquired about Sissoko and suggested, without prompting, that it would be prepared to pay twice that, Newcastle duly increased its valuation. When news media reports suggested that Wijnaldum might fetch 25 million pounds — and his two most active suitors, Everton and Liverpool, were not deterred — Newcastle did the same with him. Both players soon departed, each at the new prices.

That is an extreme example, but at many clubs setting a price remains a matter of instinct, of feel. Igli Tare, the sporting director of the Italian club Lazio, takes into account many of the same metrics a more formal system might -- "age, importance to the team, the quality of their play in the last seasons" -- but said that the ultimate filter remained his "knowledge and understanding of the transfer market." That personal, instinctive approach is replicated across the Continent, leading to intense secrecy: Few teams and officials are willing to speak openly about how they go about setting the prices they will accept, or pay.

"It is like a secret recipe for every club, known only in the club and in our books," said Olaf Rebbe, the sporting director at the Bundesliga club Wolfsburg. "Every club decides in its own way what a player costs, and that could be completely different to you."


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