It occurred to me the other day that Robin van Persie must be one of the best pieces of business Arsene Wenger ever made for Arsenal, just on goals alone. When I thought about it further, I wondered where he would rank among the top strikers over the last 20 years or so, in terms of the cost of each goal scored; there can’t be many strikers who score 100 goals or more for a club that come cheap.
This counts out home-grown players like Raul, Michael Owen, Francesco Totti or Ryan Giggs, who had long careers with their boyhood clubs and broke records while obviously costing nothing in terms of a transfer fee. This would also count out someone like Demba Ba, who might well go on to score 100+ for Newcastle, but whose goals would cost nothing in terms of a transfer fee as he was signed on a free transfer. Getting players on a free is always great business, if it can be done, but it’s perhaps quite rare and of course it is unlikely to represent a player’s true market value.
And of course there are players who were signed very cheaply and scored a lot of goals, but who were perhaps snapped up quickly by a bigger club. Nicolas Anelka, for instance, probably didn’t cost Arsenal very much at all per goal, but he only scored 27 of them before a big-money move to Real Madrid. Fernando Torres might also have been money well spent by Liverpool (£20m), but he left before reaching a century for the Reds (81 goals in 142 games).
After a lot of digging, I found only one player playing in a top league in recent times who beat van Persie in terms of value for money per goal. As you will see from the table below, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of Manchester United, signed for just £1.5million, went on to score 126 goals for the club, at just under £12,000 a goal. When you consider that some of these goals contributed to numerous title wins, and of course a winner in the Champions League final, he undoubtedly looks like one of the best pieces of business in the modern game.
However, this is a signing made in the mid-90s, when transfer fees were still generally lower. In fact, if you look at the top ten players, van Persie is the only one in the top seven that was bought in the noughties; the next highest-placed being Frank Lampard, which is an exceptional achievement from a midfielder, no doubt, but still a player that cost £10million. Looking at the table, since the year 2000 the only other club to find a Centurian for under that price was Spurs with Robbie Keane (first spell).
I’d certainly be interested in hearing better examples if there are any, though I have done a lot of searching. My only criterion is that they have to be roughly within the last twenty years or we get to a point where we’re dealing with a very different transfer markets (one reason I left out Alessandro Del Piero was because it was very hard to find out how to convert the Italian currency from back then into British sterling now). I would also say that they should be players who have played in a top league, otherwise Henrik Larsson wins by a landslide with his 242 goals for Celtic after arriving for £650,000 – he was undoubtedly a player who could have done very well in a top league, but the SPL certainly isn’t one. Sunderland fans might be annoyed that Kevin Phillips doesn’t make the list either, but nearly half his goals for them came in the Championship. On those grounds perhaps Batistuta and Trezeguet are slightly questionable inclusions given they each spent one season in Serie B, but the vast majority of their goals were at the very top level, often including the Champions League.
So, no surprising conclusions to be made from these data then – good strikers cost a lot of money. Of course when you look at some of the records there, they seem more than worth it. The likes of Rooney, Shevchenko, Van Nistelrooy, Eto’o and Drogba have brought all kinds of success to their clubs, while Cristiano Ronaldo’s current record of 152 goals in 152 games with Real Madrid is nothing short of sensational, even if he is the most expensive player of all time at £80million.
Still, it confirms my suspicion that van Persie is a rarity in being such tremendous value for money, even if, like Shearer at Newcastle, his goals could not bring trophies. To represent that same value for Manchester United, he would have to score about 1000 goals for the club. Unlikely of course, but if he reaches just 100 he’ll be worth roughly as much as some of the best strikers on this list. Most players to reach that kind of number cost that kind of price, but it’s credit to Arsene Wenger and his ability not only to find talent but to nurture it, for finding a £24million player for nearly a tenth of that. Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp following not too far behind are further testament to that.