Two summers ago, Mesut Ozil joined Arsenal for a club record fee. The German was an instant hit at the Emirates. By the end of the season, however, he was regularly criticized by pundits.
Last year, Angel Di Maria joined Manchester United for a club record fee, and also made an immediate impact. By the end of the campaign, however, he couldn’t get in the side.
This slump in the second half of their debut Premier League campaigns doesn’t seem unusual for attacking players, particularly those signed at great expense from La Liga.
Is this dip in form a reality, or did the media “novelty factor” overrate their initial performances?
The statistics provide a clue as to the answer.
The most decisive individual football statistics for attacking players remain the two simplest—goals and assists.
Therefore, to find an appropriate selection of players who can be judged by simple numbers, this survey exclusively features forwards and attacking midfielders signed by Premier League clubs in the past five summers. The idea is to ascertain whether big-name imports faded in the second half of their debut campaign.
Because the list of imports signed in the past half-decade runs into the hundreds, and this is about evaluating the impact of big-name players, the survey features only players signed for £8m or more. Clubs paying around £8m—the price of Rafael van der Vaart, for example—usually expect instant results.
There were 47 attacking players signed from abroad by Premier League clubs in the last five years for transfer fees in excess of £8m.
The final step was to apply some level of quality control, which means the player needed to record 10 (combined) goals and assists in their debut campaign. Any less than that, and we’re not really dealing with the right type of player: Ricky van Wolfswinkel recording 100% of his two scoring contributions (one goal, one assist) in the first half of his debut season, for example, is fairly meaningless. We need a decent number for this to be statistically significant, and double figures seems the logical qualifying numbers, weeding out the flops.
Then, we’re left with 25 players:
Sergio Aguero, Wilfried Bony, Santi Cazorla, Diego Costa, Angel Di Maria, Christian Eriksen, Cesc Fabregas, Gervinho, Olivier Giroud, Asamoah Gyan, Eden Hazard, Javier Hernandez, Sadio Mane, Juan Mata, Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Mesut Ozil, Graziano Pelle, Lukas Podolski, Alexis Sanchez, Andre Schurrle, David Silva, Roberto Soldado, Dusan Tadic and Rafael van der Vaart.
From there we can break down what percentage of their goals and assists came in the first half of the campaign, and the second half of the campaign.
Of these 25 players, 14 recorded more than 50% of their goals and assists in the first half of the campaign. Half as many—seven—performed better in the second half of the season. Four performed equally well in both halves of the campaign.
This shows the list of players, along with the percentage of their overall goals/assists that came in the first half of the season. Alvaro Negredo, for example, scored most of his goals closer to the first half of the season.
In terms of both goals and assists, there’s a big drop.
When you separate La Liga imports from other imports, the figures are drastically different.
Here are the figures for La Liga:
And for other nations:
Indeed, listing the players by in order of the percentage of goals/assists recorded in the first half of the campaign, and colour-coding which league they joined from, produces fairly striking results:
Red = joined from Spain
Orange = joined from Netherlands
Blue = joined from France
Grey = joined from Germany
Yellow = joined from Austria
Green = joined from Mexico.
There are some exceptions—Santi Cazorla and David Silva improved in the second half of the campaign—but most of the La Liga imports drop off in the second half of the year. Their dominance of the ‘top half’ is interrupted only by Gervinho (who can partly blame his Africa Cup of Nations participation) and the Southampton duo of Graziano Pelle and Dusan Tadic from last season, whose figures are inevitably interdependent.
And, finally, since the idea here is to determine whether expensive imports are the ones who fade away most spectacularly, here’s a scatter graph comparing transfer fees (in millions of pounds, along the bottom) and percentage of goals scored/assisted in the first half of the season (along the left).
There is less of a pattern here but the results are intriguing. Pay around £10m for a player and the results are inconsistent, but the more money you pay, the more a player is likely to fade.
Of the 11 players signed for more than £20m, 9 faded in the second half of the campaign. They are, incidentally, all La Liga imports.
The obvious question is why?
One theory is that while La Liga doesn’t enjoy a particularly extensive winter break—it’s basically just a rest over Navidad—it’s nevertheless key to helping attacking players rest.
More crucially, though, the reason may be because the game in England is more physical, with referees less inclined to whistle fouls in the box. Also, poorer weather means poorer pitches, which causes various problems—the game is scrappier, matches are simply more tiring. Physically and mentally (rather than technically or tactically) the Premier League presents a very tough challenge.
English football is attritional. And, for players accustomed to La Liga where—to paraphrase Axl Rose—the grass is green and the football’s pretty, the English Premier League can be exhausting.
It’s worth remembering, then, that if Pedro Rodriguez makes a flying start to his Manchester United career, or Arsenal land Karim Benzema and he’s an instant success, that the story might be very different by the end of the campaign.