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Aug 23, 2012

Bargains to be found on foreign shores

Many a manager pronounces one of his signings as a bargain. Rather fewer, instead of using it as evidence of their own brilliance, provide sound economic reasons why they have acquired such a capable player on the cheap.

Yet no sooner had Michael Laudrup brought Michu to Swansea City than he was expressing his incredulity at the price paid. Even before the Spaniard's two-goal debut at QPR, £2 million seemed absurdly cheap for the most prolific midfielder in La Liga last season.

"It is a bargain," Laudrup said when Michu arrived. "When you see the big newspapers in Spain and people commentating on how we can sign a player like that for such a small amount of money, then the Spanish economy must be really bad." There is a truth there, and an opportunity. The giants of Real Madrid and Barcelona may be immune to the economic disaster of Spain, but recession and mass unemployment hinders the lesser lights. So Michu, scorer 15 times last season for Rayo Vallecano, becomes affordable to Swansea.

And yet even Spain is not the sick man of Europe. That unwanted title belongs to Greece, forever threatening to send the world spiralling into financial apocalypse. So perhaps it is no coincidence that the top scorer in the Greek League, Olympiakos' Kevin Mirallas, has just joined Everton. The fee? Some £5.3 million. To put it another way, that makes the Belgium international 20% cheaper than Jay Rodriguez, the Southampton signing who has never scored a top-flight goal.

The difference between the British and foreign transfer markets can be summed up by Swansea and Norwich. They came up together in 2011 and sat side by side in the final league table. But while similar results have been secured with very different methods, the appointment of Laudrup has exacerbated the differences. Norwich have contributed their policy of buying British, usually players with a grounding in the lower leagues. Managed by a Dane whose CV incorporates time in Italy, Spain, Japan, the Netherlands and Russia, Swansea's focus has been trained exclusively abroad.

Among attacking midfielders, Michu cost less than Robert Snodgrass, a fine player but untried in the Premier League. Comparing central defenders, Chico Flores, a regular as Mallorca finished eighth in La Liga last season, was about as cheap as Michael Turner, surplus to requirements at 13th placed Sunderland and four years the Spaniard's senior. Looking locally has generally served Norwich well but it is unarguable Swansea have signed a higher pedigree of player. And Paul Lambert, having raided the lower leagues, has turned his attention to the Netherlands since his move to Aston Villa. One interpretation is just that there is greater value for money there. Tellingly, Newcastle, the best recruiters over the last couple of years, concentrate on the foreign market.

Buying British has long involved paying a premium, but it is getting bigger. The 70% increase in the next domestic television rights, which start next summer, mean Premier League participants have more money to spend. The knock-on effect is that Championship clubs are charging more. The prices being quoted for players like Blackpool's Matt Phillips and Huddersfield's Jordan Rhodes are around £6 million. Rodriguez cost still more. Indeed he, bought from Burnley, was in the same price bracket as Marko Marin, the Germany international Chelsea signed from Werder Bremen. The economic equation is complicated by wages, and it is a safe assumption that Marin earns rather more than Rodriguez, but fees tell a tale in themselves.

The price Liverpool paid this summer for Fabio Borini, a 21-year-old Italy international, was around half that they forked out 12 months earlier for Stewart Downing, an England player pushing 27, and less than a third of the tag attached to Andy Carroll, albeit in exceptional circumstances, six months earlier. Wigan have picked up Arouna Kone, scorer 15 times in La Liga, for less than £3 million. Sunderland could fork out almost five times as much for Steven Fletcher, who struck 12 times in the Premier League. The Wolves forward is younger and less injury prone, but neither explains the gulf.

It is not a direct comparison, given their differing roles, but Manchester United paid little more for Shinji Kagawa than Manchester City did for Jack Rodwell. The simplest explanation is that one came from Europe (Borussia Dortmund) and one from England (Everton). Indeed, studying events at Goodison Park gives an indication of the state of the transfer market. Few scout the Championship more assiduously than David Moyes. Arguably his finest ever signing, Tim Cahill, came from the second tier, but now, besides bringing Steven Pienaar back from Spurs, the Scot is ever more cosmopolitan in his dealings. He cannot afford to pay extra for English players, but he has raided his homeland.

Nikica Jelavic was one of the signings of last season and he has been reunited with Steven Naismith at Goodison Park. Moyes is leading the way in capitalising on Rangers' implosion, even if others are following suit. As in Spain and Greece, events at Ibrox illustrate that the global financial crisis can impinge upon football, especially when coupled with the sort of financial mismanagement and overspending of Rangers.

But English football can exist in a world of its own. In its bubble, the cash flow is never ending and the prices keep on going up. But an outsider was perfectly placed to assess its problems. So Laudrup looked overseas for bargains.

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