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Spend big on goalkeepers, not defenders in the transfer market

Editor's note: As the summer transfer window gets set to swing open, Gab Marcotti examined the biggest moves of the past five years and gave each a grade, factoring in fees paid, players' ages and performance as well as their contract situations. The results might surprise you.

It's transfer time again. And that got me thinking about whether there are any patterns or greater truths out there, particularly when it comes to throwing around huge amounts of money.

So I divided players into six different categories: keepers, full-backs, central defenders, midfielders, attacking midfielders and forwards. And I looked at the top 10 transfers by fee in each role in the six seasons from 2008-09 to 2013-14. The idea was to assess to what degree the transfer was a success.

I left out deals from last summer because I figured one season wasn't enough to judge. And I only went as far back as 2008 because I wanted to stick to more recent deals.

A few caveats: The numbers all come from Transfermarkt.com. They're about as meticulous as can be, but when clubs don't make fees public, they have to rely on media reports, which may or may not be accurate. Still, at least there's some consistency to their numbers. But try not to focus on the micro; look at the macro instead.

As for the assessment, it's based on one to five stars, and it's only about the outcome. In other words, if a guy moved for a lot of money, got injured and hardly played, he gets a low score, through no fault of his own. The idea is that injuries are always a risk, and if you buy an expensive player, obviously there are going to be more risks associated with him.

My assessment is based on performance, fee, contract situation and age (spending €50 million on a 22-year-old is cheaper in real terms than spending €50 million on a 30-year-old because you'll be able to amortize the fee over longer and have decent resale value). That's why David De Gea, for example, is marked down somewhat: There's a very real risk that United will take a huge loss on him simply because he has not extended his deal.

Note too that we're not looking for hard and fast rules as much as general patterns. And we are looking within the context of the position. Strikers generally cost more than keepers and defenders and there's a reason for it; that's not something we're getting into here. Rather, the idea is figuring out how big money transfers have fared within a specific grouping.

Goalkeepers

Cost (€)
From-To
Year
Rating
Manuel Neuer
30m
Schalke-Bayern
2011
5
David de Gea
18m
Atletico-Man Utd
2011
4
Hugo Lloris
12.6m
Lyon-Spurs
2012
4
Samir Handanovic
12m
Udinese-Inter
2012
3
Simon Mignolet
10.6m
Sunderland-Liverpool
2013
2
Shay Given
9m
Newcastle-Man City
2009
2
Sebastien Frey
9m
Fiorentina-Genoa
2011
2
Heurelho Gomes
9m
PSV-Spurs
2008
1
Thibaut Courtois
9m
Genk-Chelsea
2011
5
Roberto
8.6m
Benfica-Zaragoza
2011
2

Average fee: €12.78 million
Median fee: €9.8 million
Average outcome: 3 out of 5

Notes:

Neuer is the undisputed No. 1 for club and country and one of the top keepers in the world, and he's still just 29. De Gea endured a tricky start, but lived up to expectations as one of the best in the Premier League. He's marked down because United's handling of his contract means he'll likely leave for a cut-rate price.

Some doubted Lloris at first, but he has established himself as a very reliable No. 1. At 28, his transfer value is still very strong. Handanovic promised plenty, and despite the fact that he struggled behind some very poor defenses, still lived up to his fee. Mignolet's performance dropped sharply in Year 2 and he was even benched for a while.

Given spent 18 months as a starter before being dropped in favor of Joe Hart. He was then sold to Aston Villa at a loss. Frey gave a poor Genoa team two solid seasons before being sold, at 33, for a €4 million loss. Gomes started reasonably well at Spurs, only to fall off sharply and spend two and a half of his final three years on the bench, before leaving on a free.

Courtois was bought by Chelsea and immediately loaned to Atletico Madrid, where he was twice named top keeper in La Liga. He has since become one of the best in England back at his parent club. Roberto spent two years on a poor Zaragoza team that was relegated, getting two stars because they did manage to get their money back for him.

Wide defenders

Cost (€)
From-To
Year
Rating
Dani Alves
35.5m
Sevilla-Barcelona
2008
5
Fabio Coentrao
30m
Benfica-Real Madrid
2011
1
Aleksandar Kolarov
27m
Lazio-Man City
2010
1
Jose Bosingwa
20.5m
Porto-Chelsea
2008
1
Glen Johnson
20m
Portsmouth-Liverpool
2009
3
Aly Cissokho
16.2m
Porto-Lyon
2009
2
Domenico Criscito
15m
Genoa-Zenit
2011
3
Lucas Digne
15m
Lille-PSG
2013
2
Jordi Alba
14m
Valencia-Barcelona
2012
5
Mauricio Isla
13.9m
Udinese-Juventus
2012
1

Average fee: €20.83 million
Median fee: €18.35 million
Average outcome: 2.5 out of 5

Notes:

Alves has set the gold standard for attacking right-backs since his move. He has won plenty of silverware and is still going strong. Coentrao failed to win the starting left-back job at the Bernabeu under two different managers, earning little playing time given Marcelo's form.

Kolarov started 40 percent of league games for City and shared time with Gael Clichy. He hasn't performed badly, but for that money, you expect a starter. Bosingwa was a Chelsea regular in his first year, then injuries and performance slowed him down. He was released on a free transfer in 2012. Johnson has spent six seasons at Anfield, making 67 percent of league starts and mostly providing decent service. He tailed off at the end and is leaving on free.

Cissokho performed reasonably well for three years but then eventually sold for just €6 million. Criscito has made steady contributions for the Russian champions over four seasons, pretty much as billed. Digne is still just 21, so he could yet justify his fee, but for now has failed to establish himself as first-choice down PSG's left flank.

Alba missed a chunk of his second season through injury, but is an undisputed first choice for the European champions and, at 26, has plenty of solid years to come. Isla failed to win the starting job at Juventus and was loaned out to Queens Park Rangers, where he failed to help them avoid relegation.

Central defenders

Cost (€)
From-To
Year
Rating
Thiago Silva
42m
Milan-PSG
2012
3
Marquinhos
31.4m
Roma-PSG
2013
2
Joleon Lescott
27.5m
Everton-Man City
2009
1
Dimitro Chygrynskiy
25m
Shakhtar-Barcelona
2009
1
David Luiz
25m
Benfica-Chelsea
2011
4
Bruno Alves
22m
Porto-Zenit
2010
2
Phil Jones
19.3m
Blackburn-Man Utd
2011
2
Mamadou Sakho
19m
PSG-Liverpool
2014
2
Kolo Toure
18.7m
Arsenal-Man City
2009
1
Andrea Ranocchia
18.5m
Genoa-Inter
2010
2

Average fee: €24.84 million
Median fee: €23.5 million
Average outcome: Two out of five

Notes:

Silva won plenty of silverware and has lived up to his fee, although without surpassing expectations. Marquinhos has been solid when called upon and is still just 21, so he can develop further. But for that sort of price tag, you'd expect an instant impact.

Lescott spent five seasons at Man City and won two titles, but managed more than 20 league starts just once. He left on a free transfer. Chygrynskyi was a huge signing at the time, but made just 10 starts for Barca before being shipped back to the Ukraine at a €10 million loss after just one year. Luiz was consistently inconsistent over three and a half years at Stamford Bridge, but you have to mark him up because Chelsea doubled their money when they sold him.

Alves didn't turn Zenit into a European force, but he did contribute to two league titles. He left for €5.5 million, which isn't a bad fee for a 31-year-old. Jones is just 23 years old, so he still has room to grow. Injuries have slowed him; he has started just 56 percent of Man United's league games and has yet to establish himself.

Sakho has been able to start less than half of Liverpool's league games due to injuries, and when he has played, the Frenchman hasn't been stellar. Toure enjoyed a reliable first season, before injuries and a drug suspension limited him in his final years. He left on a free transfer. Ranocchia hasn't found life easy playing in a mediocre defence, but the Italian simply hasn't been the leader they hoped he would be or his fee implied.

Conclusions

Central defenders don't seem to provide much value given their generally high fees. And that plays into the broad narrative whereby, supposedly, there are few top centre-backs around. Injuries have no doubt affected the central defenders on this list too, but overall, the impression is that spending big on the position generally hasn't offered much value at all. Youngsters like Marquinhos and Jones may yet justify their fees.

It's a similar tale among wide defenders, though the Barcelona pair raise the average considerably. As a group, they fared marginally better than centre-backs. What's curious here is that many of these guys went for big money in the middle of their careers, when we already knew they weren't likely to develop into game-changers.

Goalkeepers, on the other hand, appear to be somewhat undervalued. It may be fallout from long-standing stereotypes about their impact on a team's performance -- that's backed by some analysts who argue that as long as you don't have an awful keeper, the added value of a great one opposed to a decent one isn't significant. Yet when you consider that keepers offer far more in terms of longevity and that there are fewer concerns in terms of team chemistry, it does appear to be an area where you can push out the boat a little.

Thursday: midfielders and forwards

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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