When Manchester City splashed out a Premier League-record £105.75m to wrangle the mercurial talents of Jack Grealish away from Aston Villa last summer, the transfer was heralded as a statement move from a club determined to tighten their grip on the domestic game in England.
However, Grealish has so far struggled to produce the kind of form that encouraged City to complete their nine-figure deal to sign him and the 26-year-old has gone from weekly match-winner at Villa to peripheral bit-part player in Manchester.
The enormous price tag and expectation that comes with it seems to have weighed heavy on Grealish, who seems to be second-guessing the passes and shots that came so naturally before, though the schemer has plenty of company in the realm over underperforming big-money transfer protagonists in the Premier League.
Top ten Premier League transfers – more flops than hits?
A glance at the top ten incoming transfers in Premier League history shines a light on just how difficult it has been for clubs to make a money-spinning deal work.
Of the ten most expensive players listed, even the most optimistic observer would count far more hits than misses, while the realists among us might single Virgil van Dijk’s switch from Southampton to Liverpool in 2017 as the only bona fide success from the bunch.
Romelu Lukaku – who has the ignominy of making the list twice – was chased out of Old Trafford after a failed move from Everton to Manchester United and though the Belgian striker was believed to have “reinvented himself” in Italy with Inter, the 28-year-old has failed to deliver again in the Premier League following his £100m+ move to Chelsea.
Paul Pogba has shown quality in flashes at the Theatre of Dreams since moving back to United from Juventus in 2016, though the World Cup winner has never quite hit the heights expected of him, and question marks over his consistency still remain as he heads for a summer exit as a free agent in 2022.
Heavily-memed centre-half Harry Maguire – who is enduring a nightmare campaign – probably isn’t quite as bad as the internet likes to make out, though the defender certainly hasn’t played like the world’s most expensive defender should since swapping Leicester blue for United red in 2019.
Further down the list, we have Jadon Sancho and Kai Havertz, who left the Bundesliga as highly-regarded hotshots in 2020 and 2021 respectively, though the jury is still out on both as they get to grips with life in the Premier League.
Nicolas Pepe’s transfer from Lille to Arsenal still looks like one of football’s biggest con jobs, however, and the Gunners’ decision to sanction a £72m fee for the Ivorian winger in 2019 is still hard to fathom. As was Chelsea’s call to spend the same money on lightweight Spanish goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga a year earlier.
Why do so many massive moves fail?
The mystery surrounding the high number of failed big-money moves is difficult to unravel, though there are a few possible contributing factors that are easier to peel back than others.
Expectations too high to meet
With enormous price tags come expectations to match and sometimes that presumption of peak performance can make it impossible for the player to ever meet the demands placed on them.
For £100m, the club’s decision-makers and its supporters will demand an instant impact. In footballing terms, that impact includes regular match-winning displays, world-class moments, and general unplayability.
Naturally, any sky-high fee invokes instant superstar status for the player involved, though achieving nine-figure standards on the pitch (whatever the hell they are) isn’t ever going to be as easy as signing a contract.
Media pressure builds
Any journalist or publication looking for a cheap payday can always bank on the mantra that “negativity sells” – and this is particularly true for football coverage.
Only the highest-profile players change hands for record-breaking transfer fees and stories labelling them as flops move faster than puff pieces that praise them. That might seem super cynical, but it’s just the way it works.
If your club’s new centre-forward fails to hit the ground running, a thousand hatchet pieces will spawn for every missed chance they spurn and every game that goes by without them scoring.
From there the pressure builds and starts to increase with every fluffed opportunity. The same cause and effect can be applied to defenders at the other end. A gigantic price tag means mistakes are amplified, while positive moments are minimised and brushed past.
If perfection isn’t maintained, football’s mass media is waiting to pounce and once a flop narrative is created around a player, it’s quite a tricky thing to reverse.
Clubs are simply overpaying
The transfer market at football’s highest level has become an intense arms race over the past decade and the battle to skim the cream off a talent pool infested with agents, scouts and clubs with eye-watering financial clout has never been more ferocious.
However, sometimes attempts to land reinforcements ahead of rivals can lead to muddied decision making, and often winning the skirmish to sign a player trumps the need to sign the right puzzle piece at the right price-point.
The problem at the top is further exacerbated by the dwindling number of high-calibre players – or at least the declining number of footballers who genuinely stand out among their peers.
Now, there are opposing arguments here, but we still essentially end up with the same issue. At one end of the discussion, there is a case to suggest that there is a genuine dearth of talent available, which forces clubs to part with huge fees for substandard instead of genuine articles. Assets who are ordinary, but still the best of an ordinary bunch.
The flipside of the argument is that the baseline level of players is higher than it’s ever been and that the gap between the worst and best footballers has never been slimmer. However, if that holds weight, then clubs are still chucking record fees away on players that aren’t £80m-£100m better than their counterparts.
In a game now dominated by analytics experts and data whizzes, perhaps the need to break nine-figure barriers on transfers has become redundant. If a selling club quotes close to £100m for one of their assets, clubs might be wiser to accept that the ship has sailed on that target and instead plot a more creative move for a thriftier alternative.