It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a football club which purchases Moussa Sissoko is likely to be disappointed. That seems to be the general feeling for fans of Tottenham Hotspur, nearly one year after the club purchased Sissoko for a club record £30m on transfer deadline day. Normally, criticizing an expensive player after after a bad year has a whiff of armchair quarterbacking about it, but with Sissoko, there were enough red flags and fans who possessed strong misgivings about the move at the time, that saying “I told you so” is probably warranted.
Sissoko’s transfer is probably going to go down as one of the most disastrous transfers in Tottenham’s modern history, alongside David Bentley, Helder Postiga, and (sob) Roberto Soldado. The bigger question is why it happened. And strangely, it’s the New York Times who today provided some insight, in an article about the crazy world of player transfers and the sometimes insane amounts of money that change hands when players switch clubs.
Here’s what author Rory Smith had to say about Sissoko’s move last summer:
The market can move values, of course, but so can the environment. Last year, when Newcastle United was relegated from the Premier League, it knew it would have to cash in on its two most salable assets, the French midfielder Moussa Sissoko and the Dutch wing Georginio Wijnaldum.
Privately, the club believed that 15 million pounds would be a healthy price for each player. When Real Madrid inquired about Sissoko and suggested, without prompting, that it would be prepared to pay twice that, Newcastle duly increased its valuation. When news media reports suggested that Wijnaldum might fetch 25 million pounds — and his two most active suitors, Everton and Liverpool, were not deterred — Newcastle did the same with him. Both players soon departed, each at the new prices.
Woah! That’s quite a statement! What’s most interesting about this excerpt is that Tottenham isn’t actually mentioned by name anywhere in this article, but if you know the Sissoko saga and how it played out on deadline day, they are implicitly outed as rubes. Liverpool get the mention, but Spurs are the ones who paid more for Sissoko than the Reds paid for Wijnaldum.
So what actually happened? Why would a club like Tottenham, normally known for its tough negotiations in the transfer market and frugal fiscal spending, end up paying twice the rate for a player who had virtually no impact on their first team? Well, there are a couple of possibilities, none of which are mutually exclusive.
1. Real Madrid (inadvertently?) inflated the market for both players
It’s a truism of the transfer window that bids from larger, wealthier clubs can have an impact on the overall market, whether the rich, big club actually ends up buying the player or not. The NYT is pretty much saying that that’s what happened here.
So this is a really, really weird story and a strange thing for Madrid to be involved with. I have a really difficult time believing that Real Madrid were ever seriously interested in Moussa Sissoko, but for the moment, let’s assume that it’s accurate. In leaking to Toon that, hey guys, we’d probably pay £30m for him, y’know, if we were interested, which we’re probably not, they set off a huge warning klaxon that Newcastle should raise the price of their two biggest assets. This implies more that Newcastle had undervalued Wijnaldum and Sissoko and not that Madrid were doing anything untoward. Thankfully, Toon were able to find three clubs in Everton, Spurs, and Liverpool who were more than happy to squabble over both players at the new prices.
Meanwhile, the instigators casually stroll off, whistling. Thanks
Obama Real Madrid!
2. Tottenham are really dumb, and walked into a financial buzz-saw
There was really no rational reason why Spurs should’ve spent £30m for Sissoko, a player coming off of a good Euros but who had major question marks from his time at Toon. But they did, in part because of Madrid driving up the market, and in part thanks to an inexplicable bidding war with Everton that raised his fee even higher. That Sissoko’s transfer ended up being the most dramatic of the final day, one that involved the player ghosting Everton and turning around while en route to the airport to fly to Liverpool, only makes this entire scenario more ridiculous.
Maybe Spurs didn’t know about Madrid’s inquiries boosting the market, or maybe they did and didn’t care. Maybe this was a player that for whatever reason Mauricio Pochettino really wanted, regardless of the cost. Regardless, Spurs probably should’ve known better, and it was a really, really stupid thing to do.
3. Newcastle are actually really good at this
Let’s not discount the role that Newcastle had in both the Sissoko and Wijnaldum transactions. They are, clearly, the big winners in both of these transactions, as they were able to get £55m for two players that they initially rated at a total of £30m. That’s remarkable, and worth noting: it wasn’t just Spurs that they suckered, they got Liverpool to pay £10m over market value for Wijnaldum too. That gave Mike Ashley a nice pile of money that he could roll over into his club to help them promote back to the Premier League the following year. Which they did. If I’m Ashley, I’m laughing all the way to the bank.
The full NYT article is worth reading, and you should definitely do so as it gives further examples of the crazy transfer market for players throughout world football, but especially in the Premier League. The tl;dr is this: player transfer fees very rarely are tied to actual player value, and more often than not the market forces at play are chaotic and context-specific. It’s the jungle. It’s chaos. And quite often, when clubs and/or leagues are flush with cash it leads to situations like this one.
The Madrid involvement is confusing, and I kind of question it: there’s no real reason for them to get involved with Sissoko, and it’s unclear what their motives would be in trying to inflate the market, even unintentionally. It’s not like them to give free transfer advice to other clubs. However, the REAL question is whether Everton’s and Spurs’ bidding war would’ve inflated Sissoko’s fee up to £30m even without Madrid’s involvement. I don’t know the answer to that one.
Regardless, it would be wrong to blame Real Madrid for Spurs spending £30m on Sissoko. Nobody snookered Spurs into a last-minute bidding war with Everton, and it doesn’t make sense to attribute anything nefarious to Madrid’s involvement. Rather, you could say that this was a perfect storm of stupid that caught up both Tottenham and Liverpool by the end. Spurs overspent on a player that wasn’t very good. End of story.
Could this happen again? It’s possible; Tottenham are actively pursuing another overrated, underperforming star in Everton’s Ross Barkley, who at one point already this summer was rated at £50m by the Toffees. Thankfully, it appears that at this point Spurs are either cooling their interest or are going to wait it out and see if Everton will lower their asking price as the window progresses. That implies that Spurs have perhaps gleaned something from Sissoko’s transfer last summer. We’ll have to wait to see if they’ve taken that lesson to heart.