Josh Hobbes has the latest instalment of our Transfers Gurus series, focussing in this piece on Luis Campos, his time at Lille, and what he might bring to PSG
The footballing world was shocked earlier this summer, as Kylian Mbappe opted to remain with Paris Saint-Germain, rather than making a long-expected free transfer to Real Madrid. The rumoured details of Mbappe’s deal are eye-watering, which led many to believe that the Qatari-backed club were about to throw around its financial might more than ever before.
However, it appears they are preparing to go in another direction. The appointment of Luis Campos, known as a shrewd acquirer of young talent with a high upside, suggests that either PSG are recalibrating their approach, or Campos is going to be asked to deal differently to how he made his reputation.
There’s no doubt that PSG have the funds to spend freely, even before the inevitable FFP restrictions kick in. But, despite the money on offer in the French capital, the Ligue 1 champions have been increasingly finding that players they desperately wanted to buy, such as Aurelien Tchouameni, were choosing destinations like Real Madrid instead of them.
In fact, it’s been some time since PSG signed a world-class player in their peak years. Of course, Lionel Messi joined the club in 21/22, but he was 34-years-old when he signed and that transfer was more to do with Barcelona’s situation than anything else.
But signing Campos suggests that PSG have an answer to this. The Portuguese has built a reputation for signing prospects with high potential upside throughout his career. During his previous spells working in France, Campos built two title-winning squads, with his Monaco and Lille sides the only two to stop PSG from winning the league since 2012/13.
Of course, PSG don’t need Campos to help them build a title-winning squad. They won Ligue 1 very comfortably in 21/22. However, with their new football advisor in place, they could build a squad which can grow over a period of time, with the ultimate aim of finally delivering the Champions League.
Notably, much of Campos’ reputation has been built on the sales he has made for his teams. Monaco made enormous profits on Bernardo Silva, Fabinho, Ederson, and others that he signed during his time at the helm of the principality club. However, this will likely be of lesser importance to his new employers. They want to see world-class players developed to continue in Paris.
Throughout this series, we have concentrated on one particular period of a sporting director’s career to attempt to gain an idea of their philosophies regarding transfers. In Campos’ case, we will look at his stint at Lille, which ran from the summer of 2017 up until December of 2020, meaning he left the club midway through their title-winning season. We will only include permanent signings in this analysis.
During his stint at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Campos signed 38 players and allowed 36 to leave. A total of €224.83million was spent on incoming deals, while the club earned €353.8m. That meant that they turned a profit of €128.97m, which is very impressive, considering that they won the league in the season Campos left the club. This figure does not include sales made after Campos left: Boubakary Soumare, Jonathan Ikone, and Mike Maignan were all sold for significant profits following the title win, meaning that the total profit Campos made for the club is actually even more impressive.
Throughout this series, we have used a chart like the one below in order to help us understand the strategy of each sporting director. In Campo’s case, it is extremely easy to interpret.
The chart shows that by far the highest proportion of Lille’s transfer under Campos – in and out – involved players in the ‘potential’ (17-20) and ‘pre-peak’ (21-23) age groups. There were transfers for peak age (24-28) players, but they were clearly not as important a part in the sporting director’s strategy, as the average age of incomings was below the age of 24-years-old. Campos prefers to sign players in the early stages of their careers.
The other age group which will be discussed later in this article is that with ‘declining returns’, which includes those above the age of 29. As you can see from the chart, there were very few of these signings under Campos, but they were important ones.
Trading potential and pre-peak players
As we have established that trading potential and pre-peak players formed the bedrock of Campos work at Lille, we will now drill down into the details of how that played out.
Firstly, here is the list of the players in the potential phase that were brought to the club during the period we are analysing:
Campos signed 16 players from this age group during his time at Lille and further enhanced his reputation for identifying the world’s top young talents as he spread the net wide in terms of where those players were signed from. As shown above, the largest portion of the players came from the academies of other Ligue 1 teams, particularly PSG’s, which is likely a primary reason why the French champions have employed the Portuguese. However, the two largest fees were spent on players competing in Belgium, in Jonathan David, and Victor Osimhen, whilst there were also signings from Portugal, Croatia, Netherlands, Slovakia, England, Brazil, and Mexico.
Huge profits were made on Rafael Leao – signed on a free and sold to AC Milan for €29.5million – and Victor Osimhen, whilst Soumare was sold for €20million and Ikone for €14million. Additionally, Sven Botman has just been announced as a Newcastle United player in a €37million deal, turning another significant profit the club
Osimhen’s sale for €75million brought in the second largest fee that the club have ever earned for a transfer, and his is the perfect example of Campos’ talents as a sporting director. The fee that Lille paid to bring him to France was a very large one for a player from the Belgian Pro League. In fact, it was the highest fee ever paid to a Belgian club at the time.
Campos did not baulk at the fee, though, and trusted that they had identified a player who might go on to be one of the best and most desired strikers in the world. He was proven correct in that assessment: Osimhen was only at the club for one season, scoring a very healthy 13 goals in 27 appearances, before Napoli came calling with a huge fee.
After the Nigerian was sold, Campos repeated the same trick. Many would have been tempted to move for ‘proven quality’ to replace their top scorer but instead Lille signed another striker from the Pro League in Jonathan David.
As the graphic from Transfermarkt shows, the Canadian international made a slow start to life at Lille, but exploded in the second half of the season, as his form propelled his team to the title. David remains at the club now and is very much the star player, having added 19 goals in all competitions in 21/22. He is now valued at €45million by the German website.
David is just one example of how Campos replaced players who moved on from the club after showing buying bought as they entered into the pre-peak stage. Below are all the players which moved on from the club in that age-group:
As well as David coming in to replace Osimhen, Botman was a replacement for Gabriel after he moved to Arsenal, whilst Yves Bissouma’s sale was made easier by the fact that Soumare was already at the club.
Looking at the incomings between 21-23, there were also important signings:
On this list, we can see several players which have been core first-team players over the last few seasons, including Xeka, Jonathan Bamba, and Zeki Celik. Meanwhile, Nicolas Pepe was one of the best players in the league in his one season at Lille, scoring 22 and assisting 11 Ligue 1 goals and tempting Arsenal to pay €80million for his signature.
Again, note that almost none of these signings are from the ‘Big Five’ leagues. In fact, the only country where Campos made more signings from than Brazil was France itself, as he signed six players from Brazil’s Serie A during his time at Lille. Primarily, those picked up from France were cheaper deals for young players that Campos had likely been tracking through age-group football. The deal for Nicolas Pepe from Angers is an outlier in that regard, as it was a big fee for a French-based player, comparative to the rest of Lille’s business.
The highest fee in this age group was committed towards the other player from a top league, in Renato Sanches. This was a risk, since the Portuguese former wonderkid had floundered at Bayern Munich. However, again Campos backed the talent ID and trusted that Sanches could still play to a very high level in the right environment. This turned out to be spot on, as the midfielder was another of the important players in Lille’s title win; he is now being touted as having another big move in his future, perhaps even reuniting with Campos at PSG.
Here is his TransferLab profile from 20/21, which shows he was one of the best players in the league in his position, particularly at progressing the ball from midfield.
Committing a very small portion of the budget to peak players
As we have shown already, the majority of transfers came in the potential and pre-peak age groups. It does not mean that peak age players were completely ignored, but Campos only signed seven players in this age group over the course of the seven transfer windows he presided over at Lille.
As the table above shows, he was also careful not to spend high fees on those players, not breaking €10million for a single one and spending only €40.5million in total. That accounts for only only 17.79% of the total spend, compared to 44.57% spent on the potential group and 34.56% on pre-peak. This is likely because peak age players have more downside if they don’t work as signings, as they are harder to make money back on.
However, peak age outgoings have made up the biggest portion of the transfer fees coming in:
The €156.9m accounts for 44.34% of the fees received. Of course, that is mostly accounted for by the fee for Pepe, but there were some other decent examples of profit being made. Campos was not afraid to sell first-team players such as Thiago Mendes or Ibrahim Amadou and replace them with young players coming through, as he did with the pre-peak players earlier.
Signing experience smartly
Despite the success Campos had signing young players, there were some very important players brought in from the ‘declining returns’ group. With a high proportion of the squad being young players and with many of those players being sold before hitting their peaks, a little bit of experience needed to be brought in to give the squad a better balance.
In the list of declining returns incomings above, there are two signings that were particularly important. They were both over the age of 34-years-old and picked up for free. Those signings were Burak Yilmaz and Jose Fonte, who were both vital in Lille finishing in first place in the league in 20/21.
Fonte, the former Southampton centre back, proved to be the perfect partner for the far less experienced Botman, with Fonte starting every game of the season, bar the two he was suspended for. That partnership was the bedrock of Lille’s exceptional defensive record, which saw them concede the lowest total in the league of just 23 goals.
Meanwhile, Yilmaz provided thrust at the other end of the field. The Turk scored 16 goals and assisted five on the way to the title, with his lethal finishing making the difference for his side on several occasions.
The goal below came with Lille closing in on the title with three games left of the season.
In fact, Yilmaz outshot his non-penalty xG by 4.7 over the course of 20/21, which was one of the biggest over performances in the division, as demonstrated by his exceptional finishing performance on his TransferLab profile.
How will Campos work at PSG?
One thing that has not been touched on much in this piece is that Campos is an expert in building his squads so that homegrown talent has a pathway to the first-team. Of course, Kylian Mbappe was already a sublime talent as a teenager, but with Campos as sporting director, Monaco did not sign an experienced forward who would block the minutes of a player they expected to play a lot at an early age. Clearly, that was the right call as Mbappe has become arguably the best footballer in the world and Monaco earned €180million from his sale to PSG.
With that in mind, PSG’s appointment of Campos may be about where they don’t spend their money, as much as it is about where they do spend it. PSG have a very poor recent track record of squandering young talent. Elite clubs across Europe have reaped the rewards of PSG’s inability to facilitate the progression of players like Christopher Nkunku – now valued at €80million – and Moussa Diaby – now valued at €60million – both of whom left in the summer of 2020.
In the case of those two, they left in the same summer that 27-year-old Pablo Sarabia joined from Sevilla. The Spaniard has never been more than a rotation player since moving to Paris and it’s signings like that which are much less likely to be made with Campos involved. He is much more likely to recognise that one of Nkunku or Diaby could have played the minutes that Sarabia has. Had that been the case, they would likely have forced their way into playing even more or made the club a bigger fee if they still chose to move for regular game-time afterwards.
In order for players like Nkunku or Diaby to thrive in Paris, the French champions will need to stop signing ageing players on huge contracts, which is something which doesn’t fit with Campos’ modus operandi in the first place. However, it will be interesting to see how he goes about building a squad which has an expectation of winning every domestic competition it enters and has designs on finally winning the Champions League, while still looking to bring down the average age and to create a pathway for the elite academy players they have missed out on.
It could be the case that Campos is not the right sporting director for a club that has generally looked to buy players at their peaks as they have attempted to win the Champions League. His approach may not work so well at a club that isn’t an underdog like Lille were. It will be particularly interesting to see how PSG’s summer works out from here, with Vitiniha’s arrival from Porto and 19-year-old Hugo Ekitike’s potentially signing from Stade Reims suggesting that Campos is going to try and do things his way moving forwards. Whether it can be a successful approach at a ‘super club’ remains to be seen.
Image credit: Shutterstock/Romain Biard