Josh Hobbs explores one way of quantifying successful transfers through looking at ‘Minutes Played’.
Speaking at the recent Statsbomb conference at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool Football Club’s Head of Research, Dr Ian Graham, made the claim that, statistically speaking, over 50% of ‘big transfers’—defined in this case as those over £10m in terms of fee—fail.
His definition of failure was based around a percentage of minutes played. If a player failed to play 50% of the available minutes, then that transfer was considered to be a failure. He expanded further on this, saying that there were several reasons why this might happen:
- An existing squad member unexpectedly overperforms keeping their place head of the new signing.
- An academy player bursts onto the scene in the position a new signing was signed for and proves to be the better option.
- The recruitment team missed a big weakness in the new player’s game, and as such, they aren’t able to perform as expected.
- The new signing is used in the wrong position, performs badly, drops out of the team and struggles for further opportunities.
- The coach/manager doesn’t like the player.
- Fitness/injury issues.
- Personal issues.
According to Graham, with all of these factors taken into account, this leads to around a 50% probability of any transfer failing.
Of course, a joined-up recruitment process should alleviate some of these issues—particularly when it comes to issues like the coach not liking the player or the player being used in the wrong position—but it’s clear that there are many factors that go into determining how many minutes any new signing might play.
Investigating Premier League 20/21 ‘Big Transfers’
With all of that in mind, I decided to investigate last season’s transfers into the Premier League of over £10m—of which there were 50—to see what percentage of those managed to play 50% or above in their first season.
Of course, Graham’s point indicated success over the course of the player’s contract rather than in a single season, but this will give us a guide and perhaps bring some things out which can be looked at further. Also, if a new signing plays well under 50% of the available minutes in their first season, they will have some serious catching up to do in future seasons in order to pass that threshold. Depending on the length of their contract, this could be very challenging.
As we will see, there are some signings who just look like failures and who won’t be recovered after one season. There are others who played just under 50% of the minutes in their first season but look set for big roles this season and in the future.
The hope with this short investigation is that it will help us learn something about Premier League transfer trends, as well as give evidence for or against the idea that minutes played is the best measure of a transfer’s success.
In researching this piece, I gathered data from Transfermarkt, taking fees, total minutes played and % of minutes played after the player had signed. For example, if a player signed three games after the season started, the maximum amount of minutes they could have played was 3150. I didn’t want to have the data compromised by players not playing Premier League minutes when they hadn’t even made their moves yet. I also added a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question of whether each player passed the threshold of 50% for minutes played.
On top of this, I limited this to Premier League minutes, rather than minutes in all competitions. As we will explore later, there are pros and cons to this approach but with cup competitions often seeing Premier League managers make many changes to their teams, I thought limiting it to Premier League minutes would best show whether a player was regularly contributing to their club’s true ‘first team’.
It should be stated straight away that 50 transfers over one season is not a large sample size so this should not be treated as gospel truth but there are some interesting results here.
Firstly, the average percentage of minutes played across the 50 transfers was 53.70. There are outliers at either end of the scale, such as Emi Martinez (Aston Villa) and Pierre Emile Hojbjerg (Tottenham) who played 100% of the minutes available, and Anthony Knockaert (Fulham) and Kostas Tsimikas (Liverpool) who played 0% and 0.15% respectively.
The split of players who passed the threshold of 50% minutes played worked out at exactly half—25 managing it and 25 not. This certainly backs up Graham’s original claim.
There were only 3 goalkeepers in the data set but all 3 played over 50% with two hitting 100% minutes. Meanwhile, there were 18 defenders with 55.55% of those crossing the minutes threshold. Midfielders made up 17 of the 50 players and 47.05% of those played over 50% minutes, whilst there were 12 forwards and only 33.33% of those managed to minutes required to be deemed a ‘successful’ signing in this case.
Another claim that Graham made was that fees are a terrible indicator of whether a transfer will be successful. The graph below shows a weak correlation between the size of the fee and the percentage of minutes that player managed in 20/21:
As you can see, the only players to have played 100% of their possible minutes for their new team are on the lower end of the x axis, whilst the two most expensive transfers find themselves on different sides of the correlation line.
The first of those most expensive players are Ruben Dias, who played an extremely impactful 92.97% of the minutes he could have done after making his £61.25m move to Manchester City. The other is Kai Havertz, who moved to Chelsea for a fee of over £70m but played only 44.44% of the Premier League minutes available.
Calling Havertz a ‘failed transfer’ on that basis seems to be jumping to a conclusion, though. Of course, he perhaps was expected to make a bigger impact in his first season in the Premier League. But when all competitions are taken into account, his percentage of minutes played rises to 48%, with the Champions League being a key part of this rise in the percentage of minutes played. Havertz started 9 of the 13 games Chelsea played on their run to win the trophy, and of course, started in and scored the winning goal in the final.
Notably, he has been involved in all but one of Chelsea’s Premier League games in 21/22 and has played 48.73% of the available minutes, so his contribution seems to be increasing over time.
The Top Four
One of the trends that became immediately obvious on analysis was that the top clubs with the highest budgets can afford to spend very high fees on players who won’t play the majority of the minutes on hand. They have the biggest and best squads and utilise their players accordingly as they look to compete for trophies on multiple fronts.
In fact, when looking at the teams which finished in the top four in 20/21, they made 14 ‘big signings’, costing a total of £484.63m at an average of £34.61m per signing. These signings averaged only 42.86% of the minutes on hand with only 35.71% of the 14 players crossing the threshold of 50% minutes played.
There are two clear standouts in terms of players making a strong impact on their side’s Premier League seasons, the aforementioned Ruben Dias being joined by Edouard Mendy who was bought as Chelsea’s new number one goalkeeper. Of the rest, only Ben Chilwell, Timo Werner and Thiago Alcantara cross the 50% threshold, but given the way their season’s played out, it seems hard to qualify those as clearly successful transfers.
In the case of Chilwell, he was a key part of Frank Lampard’s plans but has played a dramatically lower percentage of minutes after Thomas Tuchel took the reins. Meanwhile, Timo Werner has failed to deliver what was expected of him on the pitch—in terms of goals at least—but he still plays regularly due to Tuchel having a clear tactical role for him. Given that Chelsea spent almost £50m on the German, they will be hoping for more from him in terms of an individual contribution in the future.
Moving to Thiago, although a bad knee injury sustained very early in his Liverpool career stopped him playing a lot more minutes, it’s difficult to argue that he has had the impact on the pitch that was expected of him when he moved to Anfield.
Looking at some of those which would be deemed failures by Graham’s assertion regarding 50% of minutes played, we’d have to conclude that Ferran Torres and Diogo Jota look like being failures. This is more evidence for why we can’t make strong conclusions based on one season.
I’m sure that Graham himself wouldn’t feel that Jota has been anything other than a success. Injuries stopped the Portuguese attacker from playing far more minutes in his first season than he likely would have done. During the season, his form was so good that he encouraged a formation change from Jurgen Klopp at one stage in order to try and fit both Jota and Firmino into the team alongside Mo Salah and Sadio Mane. He is one who is likely to play more and more over the course of his contract at Anfield.
When it comes to Torres, we need to keep in mind the fact that Pep Guardiola is notorious for rotating his lineup and particularly his forward line. The Spaniard still managed 7 Premier League goals despite featuring for less than 40% of the league season. He also had to contend with his manager giving him a new positional role as a striker, one which he has often played in in the early stages of this new season.
The chart above does seem to show some obviously failed transfers, though. Nathan Ake and Alex Telles were clearly not signed to be first-choice players in their roles, so perhaps they can be ruled out, whilst Amad Diallo cost a high fee but is very much one for the future for Manchester United.
The Donny Van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech transfers can’t escape scrutiny though. Van de Beek was signed for over £35m and has made a negligible impact for Manchester United. It’s clear that Bruno Fernandes was always going to be the first choice in the attacking midfield role which the Dutchman favours, but Van de Beek hasn’t even been getting significant substitute or rotation minutes, meaning he only featured for just over 15% of the Premier League season in 20/21. There are no signs of this changing in 21/22, as he has only featured in 1% of the Premier League minutes played.
It looks extremely likely that Manchester United will end up moving on the ex-Ajax man in the near future and there will be questions about what the plan had been in recruiting him in the first place because Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer hasn’t seemed convinced by him at any stage.
Over at Chelsea, Ziyech’s impact has been a lot more than Van de Beek’s, but again, it’s fair to expect more from a player who cost £36m. Ziyech’s output at Ajax was frankly league-breaking. His Premier League record in 20/21 of 2 goals and 3 assists in 1177 minutes was a lot lower than expected and didn’t convince either Lampard or Tuchel to trust him with a greater amount of minutes. As such, he’s another one who it wouldn’t be surprising to see move on in the next few transfer windows.
The Relegated Clubs
Looking at the bottom of the table, we can see how failed transfers can really affect a team’s finishing position. Those teams with lower budgets can’t absorb a poor performance from a player they dedicated a large amount of their budget to. They need that player to be a difference-maker for them on the pitch.
As you can see above, there were obviously far fewer players signed for such fees when it comes to those who finished in the bottom three. However, it’s a damning indictment of their recruitment that the only one of them who played more than 50% of the available minutes was a goalkeeper, as Aaron Ramsdale played every minute of the season for Sheffield United.
Despite the Blades’ relegation and Ramsdale’s poor start to life at Bramall Lane, the English goalkeeper showed himself to be a good performer at the level in the second half of the season and earned himself a move to Arsenal.
Sheffield United would surely deem this transfer a big success as they got 100% league minutes out of him during his time at the club, before making a profit on him. However, the Yorkshire club dropped a clanger with Rhian Brewster, as they paid over £23m for the young forward, only for him to feature in only 32.81% of the minutes available and return 0 goals.
It’s safe to say that they gambled on Brewster being the goalscorer to not only keep them up but take them to the next level after a top-half finish in 19/20. However, this backfired in a huge way as his lack of impact added to a downturn in performance from current players meant that Sheffield United finished bottom of the league.
It’s a similar story with West Bromwich Albion and Karlan Grant. The striker played only 36.99% of minutes, scoring once. In the early part of the season, the forward had been a regular starter but he slowly faded to a regularly unused substitute as his team couldn’t carry his lack of goalscoring output.
Grady Diangana and Fulham’s Anthony Knockaert are slightly different cases as they didn’t really count as being on their first seasons at their respective clubs: they had been on loans which were subsequently made permanent.
Despite Knockaert being a big part of Fulham’s promotion season, he was unable to get in the side in the first month of the season and was then loaned back to the Championship and Fulham made no other big transfers, preferring to make loan deals after their previous stint in the Premier League ended in failure after a huge outlay. Diangana on the other hand, fell foul of a managerial change as Sam Allardyce didn’t seem to fancy him in the way which Slaven Bilic had done. Subsequently, he found himself featuring from the bench, if at all.
Case Studies of Two Mid-Table Clubs
As we can see, the top teams are able to spend much larger fees on players without needing them to play for the majority of minutes and still perform to a high level, whilst teams at the bottom of the league make so few of these transfers that they badly need those players to come up with a transformative impact. If they don’t, they will find themselves in trouble.
With that in mind, here are two sides that finished in mid-table who had differing fortunes with their transfer ‘success’ in 20/21.
Having only avoided relegation back to the Championship on the final day of the season in 19/20, Aston Villa were very careful in their recruitment in 20/21.
In 19/20, they spent a total of £143.55m on 13 permanent signings to varying degrees of success. Having spent so much money and only just avoided relegation, in 20/21, they only bought to increase the quality of their starting eleven.
This time around they spent £91.22m on 5 permanent signings. As you will see in the chart below, their hit rate for those players featuring for over 50% of the Premier League minutes was exceptional:
Had they not bought Morgan Sanson in the January transfer window, they would have had a 100% record:
I mentioned that the clubs at the bottom end of the table are looking for a ‘transformational effect’ from signings when they pay fees of over £10m and in Aston Villa’s case, they got this from these signings, Sanson aside.
Emi Martinez was widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League last season and has now established himself as an Argentinian international, winning the Copa America in the summer. However, Ollie Watkins was perhaps the most important signing. Although he cost a huge fee for a player moving up from the Championship—Villa paid £30m to secure him—Watkins gave Villa’s attack something completely different.
As you can see from his ‘Forward passes received (quality)’ performance on his TransferLab profile, last season, Watkins gave Villa a real outlet:
He was a threat running in the channels and stretching defences, giving his team the option of going direct to him to release pressure and turn opponents. The fact that he scored 14 goals and made 5 assists was also vital in the Midlands side finishing 11th on 55 points with relegation not being a concern at any stage of the season.
Villa’s signings were all so clearly picked carefully to be first-choice players in 20/21 that Sanson sticks out like a sore thumb. Although he has had injury issues since moving from France, he has barely played when he has been fit, which begs the question, ‘Was there something different about the recruitment process in his case?’ It may just be bad luck that it hasn’t worked out or perhaps it’s that point which Graham suggested—something was missed in scouting him and he’s not as good as they expected him to be.
Oddly enough, the team which stood out as spending a high amount of money with a poor contribution from their signings actually finished above Villa. Leeds United accrued 59 points and finished in 9th in their first season back in the Premier League after 16 years away. However, this was largely due to players who had already been with the club stepping up and performing very well at the top level, as well as one signing, in particular, making a huge impact:
As you can see, whilst Raphinha—signed from Rennes for a fee of just under £17m—was a key player, none of the other ‘big signings’ managed to even break 40% of the Premier League minutes available, let alone 50%.
It should be noted that Helder Costa was another loan that was made permanent in 20/21 and he began the season as the starting right winger before Raphinha arrived and quickly usurped him. However, we can see that the vast majority of Leeds’ transfer budget in 20/21 went towards players which struggled to really affect their team on the field.
In Leeds’ case, the reason for the lack of minutes played is an obvious one. As we already mentioned, Costa found himself down the pecking order after Raphinha’s arrival, but Robin Koch, Diego Llorente and Rodrigo all spent large swathes of the season injured. All three of those players looked like decent additions to the squad when they were able to play but far too often they were unavailable.
Given that the Whites spent a combined £56.7m on these three, this was pretty disastrous and could have had a catastrophic effect on Leeds’ season were it not for others—like Pascal Struijk coming in from the u23 side to play 2074 Premier League minutes—stepping up in their absence.
It’s notable that Leeds have still had injury problems from Llorente and Koch in 21/22, so they look highly unlikely to play over 50% of their minutes over the length of their contracts at Elland Road. On top of this, £13m signing Junior Firpo has had a couple of injury issues already in his time at the club. He is currently well above the 50% minutes threshold so far this season but it will be interesting to see whether he and £25m man Daniel James can take the rigours of life at Leeds under Marcelo Bielsa as there is perhaps a suggestion that new signings struggle to integrate into the intensity of the system.
On the other hand, Rodrigo has featured in 70% of the available minutes this season. If he can continue without injuries this season, he could be on the road to working towards featuring for over 50% of the minutes during his time at Leeds. Given that he’s now over 30 though and has a history of injuries, it does seem unlikely that he will avoid absences moving forwards.
As you can see from Raphinha’s TransferLab profile as a classic winger, the one transfer which was an unqualified success turned out to be one of the best attacking players in the division.
His dribbling and chance creation gave Leeds real star-quality in their attacking lineup and alongside Patrick Bamford’s goals meant that they always had the firepower to avoid a relegation scrap by a big margin.
It’s worth noting that Leeds will likely need a much bigger contribution from those other signings this season, as well as their new ‘big signings’ as the early signs are that those players who stepped up to the top tier extremely well in 20/21 have seen a tail off in performance in the first seven games of the season. They should have enough about them to avoid danger, but the fact it took them seven games before winning for the first time isn’t something to be ignored.
In order to make proper conclusions about Graham’s assertion, it would really need multiple seasons’ worth of data over multiple leagues.
For example, jumping to presume Said Benrahma to West Ham had been an unsuccessful transfer after one season where he played fewer than 50% of the minutes at hand—as he did in 20/21—would be an error. It’s taken some time for the Algerian to adjust to the demands of playing under David Moyes but he still performed well in the time he played last season, as shown by his TransferLab profile:
As you can see, Benrahma was particularly good in terms of chance-creation, and because of this, he has now earned the trust of his manager, featuring in 95% of the minutes available this season. This puts him on over 70% of the minutes played since his arrival at the club. However, this analysis does suggest that it’s correct to say that 50% of transfers don’t manage 50% or more of the minutes available to them. What’s not so easy to say is whether that means those transfers are ‘failed’ or not.
As mentioned earlier, that does generally apply to those clubs in the upper echelons whose budgets are simply in a different stratosphere to the rest. Generally, if a player outside the very top teams doesn’t contribute to at least 50% of minutes, that signing is going to be deemed a failure and will often have impacted their club badly as now more resources will have to be allocated in replacing that player.
There will be other examples of clubs like Leeds still performing way above their expected levels despite transfer failings but this is highly likely to be a single-season phenomenon rather than something that is sustainable over the long term. Generally, if a club has as many of their ‘big signings’ contribute as little as Leeds’ did in 20/21, they will struggle badly.
All of this just emphasises the need for a rigorous analysis throughout all stages of the recruitment process. It’s clearly important to try to cross off as many of Graham’s reasons why a transfer might fail before making a signing.
Aston Villa’s signing of Sanson after their incredible 100% summer window hit rate showed that even if it seems like a club has figured out a fool-proof process, it can still break down somewhere and you can never quite know how. The key is to have the best possible process in place to reduce these risks as much as possible so that the club can cope with having to make a loss somewhere.