Dani Alves. Seydou Keita. Adriano. Ivan Rakitic. Aleix Vidal.
Prior to 2008, Barcelona rarely got a player from Sevilla. It had been since Nando in 1990, in fact, which is the same year the club brought in Hristo Stoichkov. That’s so long ago that several (most?) of you weren’t even alive. And if you were, you might not have realized that Nando existed. He later made the move to Real Madrid and Espanyol, making him a Very Bad Person. Since 2008, Barça has averaged a signing every other year from Sevilla. That shows no signs of abating as the French defender Clement Lenglet makes the move from Andalusia to Catalunya this summer.
The basics are simple: he is a left-footed centerback. He’s 23 years old. He’s 6’1″ (1.86m). He scored 4 of his 6 career goals last season. He cost €35 million, which is his release clause. The last time he saw a Barcelona shirt, it was wiping the floor with him in the Copa del Rey final, pasting a manita on his back. Can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Lenglet is a Monchi special, as David Cartlidge notes in his good article on Lenglet from late March: bought for €5 million in January 2017 and sold for €35 million just under 18 months later. This can sound like someone at Barcelona missed a trick in not snatching him up for €5 million and letting him develop to where he’s worth what he is now, but Sevilla is the developing club who can afford to start a newcomer and give him space to grow. Barcelona must win championships now.
Opportunity cost is everything in sports. Lenglet clearly has a solid upside, but the question is whether other players would have a better upside given their price. In today’s market, if you judge Lenglet to be a world-class defender in the making, a 23-year old up-and-comer is certainly worth €35 million if he’s able to step into a side competing for multiple trophies. This could even be considered a bargain if Lenglet turns out to be half the player Samuel Umtiti is (who himself was an absolute steal at €25 million). And that is why clubs like Barcelona let clubs like Sevilla do the dirty work, pocketing what amounts to a large finder’s fee in the process. It is the way of the modern world: a food-chain of development that ends with sides who regularly compete for domestic and Champions League titles. And that chain has ever-increasing costs.
I remember being blown away by the €35 million pricetag of Dani Alves in 2008 to the point of being against the signing, but it turns out Barça were on to something there. Alves left Barcelona with a whole caravan of trophies, including a triplete in his first year and another triplete in his last year. The point is not that Lenglet will have a similar need for extra cabinet space in his house (fingers crossed), but rather that Sevilla bought Alves for about half a million euros. 5 years later, he was worth every penny of a fee 70 times his previous price. In the meantime, he had finished 10th, 6th, 6th, 5th, 3rd, and 5th in the league with Sevilla, While they did win the UEFA Cup twice, with Alves being a major contributor, they only ever appeared in the Champions League once, getting bounced in the round of 16 by Fenerbahçe. Expectations at Sevilla were more than fulfilled by the UEFA Cup/Europa League successes, whereas such a result for Barcelona would be considered utterly catastrophic. Indeed, Barça’s league positions during that time were 6th, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd while their Champions League results included a title in 2005-06 and 2 semifinal appearances.*
It is that which a team like Barcelona has to consider: do you pay up for developed talent that will (supposedly) seamlessly integrate and keep up your winning ways or do you take the risk that a developing player whose price is far lower will come good and make up for any momentary blips in form or results? I’m talking, of course, about Matthijs de Ligt. That’s a teenager everyone is raving about, whose cost would probably be somewhere in the €60-80 million range, but whose ceiling is somewhere up there with the gods of yore. Lenglet is 5 years older and has played in La Liga for one and a half seasons, logging 54 appearances for Sevilla in all competitions last year alone and 73 in all competitions overall. De Ligt has made 77 appearances in his entire career, including 37 last season. There are trade-offs everywhere and Lenglet may not have the potential of de Ligt, but he won’t have to adapt to Spain, is proven as a fully developed physical entity, and there is plenty of tape on him against opposition that can be more directly compared. If Lenglet never moves beyond being a first-off-the-bench backup, but lasts 4 competent-to-good years in that role, €35 million will stop sounding so expensive. If he takes a further step and becomes a regular starter, €35 million will sound like a bargain.
That’s not to say this is the best move in the world–it could go belly up if Lenglet fails to integrate well with the squad or faces any serious injuries–but it is certainly a more risk-averse move than for de Ligt. And cheaper. And gets us another left-footed defender to spell Samuel Umtiti while retaining an acceptable growth trajectory and a keeping costs lower in the short term. With one or both of Mina and Vermaelen on the way out, a reliable CB is important. Furthermore, if de Ligt is to make the jump to a “top-tier” club (it’s still weird that Ajax haven’t featured in the group stage of the Champions League since 2014-15, having been eliminated in the qualifying rounds by Rapid Wien, Rostov, Nice, and Rosenborg), it isn’t insane for Barcelona to wait another year to see how things shake out, especially if Ajax finally qualifies for the CL group and de Ligt gets minutes there.
Perhaps he’ll be snatched up by a rival for gobs of money, but that is an operational risk Barça is clearly willing to undertake (or perhaps they cannot afford to get him). Of course, you won’t find too many people calling Varane’s transfer to Real Madrid in 2011 at the age of 18 an “operational risk” because it was clear from the beginning that Varane would be worth far more than the €10 million that was dropped on him–can you imagine what kind of a fee Varane would command right now if Virgil van Dijk went for £75 million? If de Ligt meets his potential that is the type of defender he can be compared to, but Varane’s move was in 2011, meaning Real Madrid put 7 years into the player at a higher wage and with lower returns than a pre-packaged player. Resale value is also of little importance to Barcelona, which has proven time-and-again that it is looking for players who can bring in trophies, not profit.
So the questions are:
- Does the player meet the specific criteria needed to play at Barcelona’s level or will he do so in the near term?
- Are the team’s needs and budget in alignment with cost of the player or can a lesser player capably fill the role while another role in the squad is reinforced?
- Will the player’s wage demands fit within the team’s salary structure?
This is a simple enough formula, but unfortunately there is another question that the board is either forced to ask or is forcing itself to ask: does this player meet brand profiles? De Ligt, for instance, plays for an Adidas branded team and appears to wear Adidas shoes in his matches. That may or may not mean anything because obviously Messi wears Adidas boots while racing around in a Nike kit, but there are times when such affiliations play a factor in a transfer (hello, Neymar!). Lenglet, for what it’s worth, wears Nikes. If you’re comparing apples to apples, minor bonuses like shoe sponsor may very well tilt the decision in favor of one.
I also tend to think the questions above are like a flow chart: if you answer no to both parts of Question 1, you won’t bother moving on to Question 2. If you answer yes to either one, you can move on to Question 2 and then, with another yes, move on to Question 3. After that comes the question of specific value to the team specifically and club generally. Neymar, for instance, was a resounding victory off-the-field for the club and brought in a huge pile of cash when he left. Dembele’s return on investment is still to be seen, but it appears that Coutinho’s value will rapidly outpace his cost. Lenglet seems like he’ll be a purely on-field asset (besides the mandatory inclusion in various promotional features), but a France U-21 player in the squad right after the first team wins the World Cup can’t be too bad an advertising move.
And so we have clubs like Sevilla, who can often act like factories for bigger clubs, developing talent for them in ways that mitigate the risk for the bigger club and provide financial incentives for the smaller club. Whether this is good or bad is definitely a discussion for another day, but it can ensure a stepping stone process for players as well as foster greater competition at the mid-table level in various leagues, and ensure extraordinary quality at the upper echelons of the sport by weeding out many of the looks-great-but-isn’t-up-to-it talent.
Mainly, the main worries for a signing like de Ligt–high price, giant expectations–are that the player may fail to live up to the hype and the investment is so steep as to render other squad needs impossible. The long-term consequences of not going after such a player–maybe Madrid gets him and shores up their defense for the next decade, allowing them to focus on other needs–can be outweighed by the short-term needs of past mistakes. The question is trying to balance those without breaking the bank. If Dembele turns out to be a dud (for instance, through continuous injury or because he simply isn’t the right type of player), it wouldn’t be a monumental waste of money as much as it would be a waste of opportunity. For €105 million you can get a lot of quality in multiple positions, meaning you might have enough stability to focus on a project like de Ligt, even at a higher cost.
You also don’t want to be caught buying low in the hopes that someone comes through in a big way. It’s the Thomas Gravesen question, in some ways. Remember Gravesen? He moved from Everton to Real Madrid for something like €3 million. It’s not that he was atrocious–he wasn’t, though he was maligned as such–but it was that he wasn’t world class, so he ended up taking a roster spot from a player that would have brought much better results. Call it the footballing equivalent of the Wins Against Replacement Player stat.
The future with Lenglet is not as obviously bright as with de Ligt, but if Lenglet comes good, even as a role player, a solid and reliable fill-in, he could very well give the club the necessary stability to go after brilliant players in other positions, thus cementing the squad’s place in the league and regular appearances in the latter stages of the CL knockouts. Or, possibly, he could be a strong stand-in while Masia players come forward with less pressure to perform right now. We haven’t even really talked about canteranos, but their ability to see a path forward with the first team without having to be world beaters from the off and to give them a highly-functional first team to train with and learn from is a huge part of what Barcelona purports to be and what they need to continue to adhere to their sporting principles.
Sevilla is, for better or worse, a selling club. Barcelona is a trophy vacuum, which necessitates a lot of resources and lot of careful management, including thinking about many different factors about how a squad is formed. Would that we could simply pick the best-of-the-best to grace us with their presence, but in that case, we would have had Beckham and not Ronaldinho. And if that were the case, where would Messi have ended up on in the pantheon of greatness? It’s hard to know. Do I trust this board to make the right decisions about transfers? Not really, but they’ve earned some benefit of the doubt by being more right than wrong on the Paulinho transfer. I will let this Lenglet move grow and will focus on de Ligt only if he’s an opponent in the group stage of the Champions League.
*Barcelona’s right back at the time was often Oleguer, including during the Champions League final in Paris, so perhaps my argument that Alves’ development at Sevilla was crucial for Barça’s future success is slightly off the mark. Maybe I should have used Keita as an example. Also, if you ever bad-mouth Oleguer in the comments of this blog, you will be banned for life with no appeals process. He is a god amongst men.