Valuing the Invaluable

Valuing the Invaluable

Eager to replace Neymar, Barcelona have lodged a £90M for Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho. In the modern transfer market, how do clubs make sense of selling their biggest stars for staggering prices?

If reading the blogs, opinion pieces, and tweets this summer has taught football fans one thing, it’s that every player has a value. At a time when clubs are smashing transfer records on a weekly basis, the viewing public is stuck behind a computer screen scratching their head wondering whether their team got their money’s worth for their latest transfer acquisition. With the loss of Neymar to mega-rich PSG, Barcelona are scouring Europe for their next big star, and with the infusion of over £200M thanks to the sale, they have plenty of spare cash to do it.

For the first time in over ten years, Barcelona are on the other side of a mega-transfer. They lost the future face of the club, and with Messi declining year-on-year, potentially their best player. Neymar’s upside is enormous, and many fans across the continent forget he is only 25 years old, with plenty of runway ahead of him. He is the consensus heir to the throne when Messi and Ronaldo retire, and off the pitch he’s a marketing behemoth, drawing millions of fans on his own thanks to his enormous online presence.

Despite Neymar’s obvious impact on the pitch, many would determine that even in the red-hot bubble transfer market, £200M is more than a fair deal, with plenty of room for Barcelona to take to the market and replace him with multiple stars – perhaps not at Neymar’s level, but stars nonetheless.

It’s an issue than many clubs have dealt with as the transfer market has grown more and more unwieldy, it’s just not an issue that a club at Barcelona’s level has spent much time preparing for. Consider Tottenham’s sale of Gareth Bale for nearly £100M. Consider Liverpool’s sale of Luis Suarez for over £75M. Consider Liverpool’s sale of Raheem Sterling’s sale only a year after for £50M. All examples of clubs selling their best players. All examples of clubs reaping massive financial reward that experts would label as “money beyond the value of a single player.” All were transfers that clubs spun as opportunities to move the club forward thanks to the massive infusion of cash.

Reports indicate that Barcelona are sending scouts to nearly every major European league in an attempt to land a star (or two) that could replace Neymar. Football’s biggest names have lit up the front page of Catalan newspapers as potential options: Griezmann, Dybala, Coutinho, Hazard, and a half-dozen others. Barcelona have been met with closed doors from most clubs, with only Liverpool offering even a crack through which they have managed to whisper.

After years of rising and falling, Liverpool have managed to find relative stability. Last season, they finished top four for only the second time in eight years, and find themselves in a position from which they can build and potential ascend to the top of the Premier League table. They have been active in the transfer market if you believe the rumors, running around Europe trying to close deals to bolster their back line (Virgil Van Dijk) and midfield (Naby Keita). The prospect of selling their best player at this point seems unfathomable, but what if an enormous offer comes through the door? £100M? £150M? Most fans would say that’s more than Coutinho is worth, so why wouldn’t Liverpool sell? Why wouldn’t Liverpool take the money and rebuild their squad with new players from the bloated value they’ve received for Coutinho?

The simple answer is that there are certain players that, regardless of the value you could receive, regardless of how much time you have to spend the proceeds, regardless of the number of targets you could buy to help “strengthen squad depth,” are not worth any price as they are irreplaceable to the club. Over the last decade, a number of clubs have tested this principle, and they have widely failed to deliver, because replacing your best players with a number of lesser players is largely a losing strategy which enriches the club in the short term while infusing a losing mentality in the long term.

Over the course of a season, places in the table and advancement in cup competitions often come down to moments of magic. The difference between finishing fourth and fifth was a number of must-win matches for Liverpool in April and May of 2016. For those matches, for those moments which separate champions from also-rans, there is a need for one Coutinho rather than five Soldado’s (who was in fact purchased by Spurs with the Gareth Bale money). Big players win big matches. Big players play in big matches. Big players put butts in the seats for big matches. Entire eras of certain club’s history are defined by single players and for good reason. When we look back at the glory years we often remember the actions of single players who we would deem irreplaceable.

As Liverpool continue to meet with Barcelona’s representatives, they’ll likely be offered mega-bucks for their prize Brazilian, and as the end of August nears, those offers will continue to climb and seem as though not taking them would be foolish. But if Liverpool’s owners and staff are smart, they’ll see the anxiety in those Catalan faces, and realize that if they shake hands, Coutinho will go to Spain, and that deep-seated feeling of desperation will head to Merseyside. Coutinho should not be sold under any circumstances. There are just certain players who are never “worth it.”