A little while ago, I wrote about Arda Turan’s potential, reality, and the need for perspective when discussing players. A few days prior to that, I wrote about transfers in general with a focus on the agreement between Liverpool and Barcelona for Luis Suarez. While Kevin has certainly made his opinions on transfers known, he followed up his article on the subject with a tweet that got me thinking. For those of you who missed it, he’s referencing this article in Sport quoting Andoni Zubizarreta on why Douglas was signed. It’s worth a read simply to see a perspective that isn’t often touted, but also because it makes a few points that are worth fleshing out.
What I started to think about was another thing Kevin wrote in his Transfer Fees article: “For a club such as FC Barcelona, one looking to take in north of EUR600m in revenues this season, 4m [Douglas’ transfer fee] in that context is one of us buying a coffee to go.” All of these things are intimately tied together for me because they’re part and parcel of being a Barcelona fan and member. Whether or not we attend every home match at the Camp Nou as season ticket holders or we follow along via text updates on Fotmob while we’re on the other side of the world, almost all fans have an opinion about players, tactics, and the general state of the club.
First, that little bit of glibbness on Kevin’s part about Douglas’ transfer fee and the cost of popping into Starbucks made me wonder exactly what percentage we were talking about. The 2014/15 budget was €608m according to the General Assembly while the cost of the transfer was somewhere between €4m and €5.5m if all conditions are met laid out by the club when it announced the deal (though that seems extremely unlikely given that Douglas has made 8 total appearances in all competitions). Given that amortization is a commonly understood term, the cost for Douglas is actually, at maximum, 1.2m per year over the 5 years of his contract plus the value of his salary. So if you’d like to be specific, he costs somewhere between 0.1% and 0.2% of the annual revenue (as in 0.001 or 0.002). Because I have nothing better to do in my personal life, apparently, I measured that against real world standards. If you make €60,000 a year, it would be like spending €120 a year on coffee. Many of us like to think of things in terms of daily allotments, so that’s akin to 33 cents a day. You’ve still got the vast majority of your money left to spend on other stuff, like more coffee or a better hobby than I have. Compare that to Luis Suarez, whose €82m (or €86m!) cost was €16.4m a year, or 2.7% of the year revenue. In our “real world” terms, that would be €1,618 for coffee each year, or €4.44 a day.
So the problem isn’t necessarily cost, which really isn’t high, but the return on investment, right? For players that means their value on the field, their re-sale value, or some combination of the two. If you buy €120 worth of coffee despite everyone telling you it’s flippin’ awful and you’ve gone to that well a few other times in the past so you’re well aware of the quality available, you’re pretty much the living embodiment of shame-on-me, right? Added on top of that is the idea that, because of squad size restrictions, you can only have a certain number of cups of coffee a year, so you’re taking €120 and throwing it out the window for no reason. This is like if you went into your local coffee shop every morning, bought a cup of hotel instant stuff that they for some reason sell, and then tossed it in the trash without taking a sip. Or, I guess, you’ve taken 8 sips in 2 years but it amounts to basically the same thing. You can afford it, practically speaking, but the reality is that you’re just throwing money out the window in some vain hope that it’s going to suddenly get better. Oh, also, you’re locked into this random coffee purchase for 5 years.
And this is where scarcity comes into play. As I mentioned above, there are only 25 squad numbers available each year and if Douglas is expected to occupy one of these spots for 5 years, he should at least be making more than 5 appearances a season. Just 5 appearances is 6% of the realistically possible number of appearances for a single player (I’m thinking about 60 total appearances possible per year for any given player if there’s a deep run into the Champions League and Copa del Rey—Messi, for instance, had an insane 95% appearance rate last year with 57 of 60, but this year he’s at a more reasonable 75% thanks to his injury; no one gets 100%). This year, Douglas has made just 2 appearances, which is 3% of the appearances. That is simply unacceptable. Take literally any other squad player not named Jordi Masip (who also has just 2 appearances) and they have more appearances. Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan, who have been allowed to play since January have more than 6 times as many appearances in 4 months as Douglas has this year and individually they have more than he has in both of his seasons combined.
It is one thing to say that Douglas could have been a good player and that €4m or even €5.5m would have been a steal for a useful squad player or even to say that such a small outlay was an investment for a modest return (say if you sell him on for €7m), but neither of these things was ever likely to happen. Instead, it struck the beautiful chord of seeming like a disconnected club administration signing a player it didn’t need from an agency (Traffic) that had previously sold it duds. And while none of that may actually be true, it comes off as that simply because of how useless Douglas has been compared to Denis Suarez or even Alan Halilovic; in fact, why did we sell off Grimaldo in favor of Douglas? These were squad players too, in a lot of ways, and even though their loans have been good for them (so far), their development could not possibly be worse at Barça than Douglas’ has been. And that’s what we mean when we talk about not just how useless it is to toss money onto the street like we did with Douglas, but what else we could have done with an extra squad number in the face of a transfer ban.
All of this is, of course, assuming that Douglas makes it through this summer’s inevitable culling of the fat. Who knows what his wages are, really, but they’re probably not prohibitive for a mid table team to take on, so if we can jettison him (probably on a free) we can cut our losses and run. That seems not just poor business, but much worse, poor foresight. It’s not necessarily a question for socis of the cost because, and Kevin really is correct about this, €4m is not much for such a massive club and risks need to be taken from time-to-time, but more a question of planning, of squad building. There may come a day when we look back on Douglas as just a humorous blip, but the question is whether his situation is indicative of a much broader problem or not. Is the club just throwing money at the wall in hopes something will stick?
And here we’re at the crux of the problem. A quick list of our last 9 signings: Aleix Vidal, Arda Turan, Marc Andre Ter Stegen, Ivan Rakitic, Claudio Bravo, Luis Suarez, Jeremy Mathieu, Thomas Vermaelen, and Douglas. That list represents €218 (or so) in transfer costs that have been either paid or promised over the last 2 years. It’s a pretty good summation of the squad’s options at the moment and a pretty overarching test of its strengths and weaknesses.
Taking just the current squad black sheep—Mathieu, Vermaelen, and Douglas—we find ourselves in a slight quandary. If club bylaws state that the squad salary cannot exceed a certain percentage of revenue, then the club is either forced to economize through fewer superstars (unthinkable for the fanbase) or by attempting to squeeze a few games out of journeymen backups (the results of which may be unthinkable for the fanbase). The problem is, of course, that journeymen should not cost €20m like Mathieu and Vermaelen did.
If Douglas had cost 12 million, would we have simply assumed he was 3 times as good of a player and instead of seeing him as a punt, we would see him as a massive failure? Is the money the thing that drives our perspectives more than anything? After all, so few of us can watch that many matches and have that great an understanding of the wider world of football to pre-judge how a player fits. You have to ask the folks who watch Brazilian football what they think or you just look at a number and furrow your brow.
Douglas has received his fair share of vitriol for a variety of reasons, but some of that criticism is out of proportion with the cost. Thomas Vermaelen has had his share of injuries, as had Douglas, but his price tag was much higher at about €19m (depending on exchange rates, etc). He has made more appearances (21 over 2 years at last count, with 20 of them this year), but as of right now, he has cost more per appearance (~€900k) than Douglas has (~€785k). Value is a tricky thing to calculate, of course. For comparison, Luis Suarez has so far made 92 appearances, which comes out to ~€935k per match. Rakitic is down to about €173k a match after 104 appearances. Mascherano is at ~€85k per appearance, having 278 appearances already in blaugrana. Arda Turan is extremely expensive at the moment, having made just 22 appearances on his €34m (plus possible extras) transfer, meaning he’s been a terrible investment.
Perspective is everything. Douglas is not a financial bust compared to other busts, necessarily, but the trajectory for Douglas is not good. At 20 appearances per season, Vermaelen would reach 80 appearances before his contract ran out, but he’d also be 33 and at the tail end of his career. The problem is, again. It is arguable that there are few to no replacements for players like Vermaelen, Turan, or Mathieu given their combinations of experience and talent, but that is not the case for Douglas. A player at twice the cost of Turan would be unlikely to provide particularly better on-field returns than Arda, but a player at twice the cost of Douglas would be likely to appear in far more than 7 matches over 2 years. The same is true for almost any player brought up from the B team or recalled from loan. If we were struggling to find subs worth putting on during crucial matches, basically anyone could sit on the bench in Douglas’ place without incurring any cost whatsoever. A gamble on a player is one thing, but throwing your coffee out the window when it’s closed is just irresponsible.
There are plenty of players who deserve more stick than Douglas, who would have been a fool to turn down a contract from a giant like Barcelona. He’s probably making more money now than he’ll ever make in the rest of his career, so good for him. I’m genuinely happy for him, as I am for Adriano, who used his leverage to get a player option for this year to remain part of a good team while earning a good salary until he’s 33. The structure that allowed those things to happen, however—and here we’re talking administrator—should be lambasted for their awful dealings. Adriano had the club over a barrel, but the same can’t really be argued about Douglas, who was an extraneous expense for no reason right before we were locked into his contract regardless of how bad he turned out to be (apparently very bad).
If cost does not matter to you, then scarcity of squad places should be a concern. If you’re worried about financial stability, then wanton spending on useless pieces to some other puzzle that we’re not working on should be worrisome. If you’re only interested in on-field production, well, you should wish for better cohesion within the administrative offices to ensure there remains a regular number of youth products to give a shot throughout the long season and a better scouting network than obviously exists. If you think it’s a shady deal with a third party, then there are corruption allegations to be dealt with. If none of that is something that makes you think, then, well, you’re a happier person than I and you probably sleep better as well. Also, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in purchasing. It can play right back, you know.