It’s often claimed Premier clubs pay a premium for British players – a homegrown tax, if you will. But what does it look like when we actually compare fees for British players with those for their foreign counterparts?
At first glance it might seem logical to pay more for British players. They’ll arrive at your club training ground pre-acclimatised to living and playing in England. And, especially in dressing rooms full of foreign players, they can make for great leaders. In 22 Premier League seasons only four non-native English speakers have ever captained their club to the title.
It’s undeniable that a great many of the exorbitant fees paid recently have been for British players. Think Andy Carroll (£35 million), Stewart Downing (£20m), Luke Shaw (£30m) and Joleon Lescott (£22), to name just a few.
Sure, there have been foreign players bought at gobsmacking inflated prices – Dimitar Berbatov, Fernando Torres and Erik Lamela spring to mind – but they seem to be far outnumbered by those for domestic talent.
To test the theory let’s stack up transfer fees paid in recent times for British players next to those for their vaguely comparable foreign counterparts.
In essence the point of this is to determine whether clubs pay extra for a player just because he happens to be British.
First up, the aforementioned Carroll. Costing Liverpool £35m in January 2011, he is perhaps the most compelling reason to believe in the existence of the ‘British tax’. This deal raised more than a few eyebrows, even at the time. It was an astronomical sum for a player who scored a goal only every two-and-a-half matches for Newcastle, who spent a season in the Championship.
Compare that to the transfer of Alexis Sanchez this summer, from Barcelona to Arsenal. The fee wasn’t disclosed, but it’s believed to be somewhere between £32m and £35m. Sanchez, one of the world’s best wide forwards, clearly inhabits a different footballing galaxy to Carroll.
Sanchez was cheaper than Carroll, after adjusting for inflation. The only explanation? A British tax.
Not convinced? In the same window, the same club bought Luis Suarez, then an unmistakably gifted frontman with a gigantic upside and a knack for putting up obscene numbers, for £12.2 million less than Carroll.
And yes, the Merseyside club sold Spanish superstar Fernando Torres in the same window for £50m, which seems now to be inflated beyond belief. But remember, at the time Chelsea thought they were getting one of the very best strikers in the world, one who’d proved himself in England, no less.
A center-forward like that doesn’t come around too often. To give some context, in 2009 Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sold to Barcelona for £40m plus a 28-year-old Samuel Eto’o, who was valued in the region of £20-30m.
But perhaps these findings don’t hold up for players of other positions.
Fraser Forster, a 26-year-old England international goalkeeper, was last week deemed by Southampton to be worth Celtic’s £10m valuation.
Yet in 2012, Tottenham paid just £2m more for the then 25-year-old Hugo Lloris. The Frenchman, even then one of the most coveted keepers in the world, was already captaining his national team and had racked up 36 more caps than Forster has.
We see the same pattern in midfielders and defenders, too.
Brendan Rodgers paid almost twice as much for Joe Allen (£15m) as he did for Philippe Coutinho (£8m), two broadly similar players. Ask any Liverpool fan, Coutinho is undoubtedly the more valued member of that team.
Another prime example of the British tax is Luke Shaw. Bought by Manchester United this window for £30m, he’ll surely do very well to match the efforts of another Premier League full-back, Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta, bought two years ago for £23m less. Mathieu Debuchy, currently light-years ahead of Shaw as a full-back, only cost Arsenal £10m this summer.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless examples of similarly talented players going for vastly differing fees, for no apparent reason other than nationality.
Why do we see this? There are differing explanations, but probably none that make an actual difference to on-pitch performance.
Will we continue to see this? My guess is no. When clubs realise they’re paying unreasonable premiums for homegrown players they’ll simply stop buying British.
Indeed, some clubs already have. Newcastle United’s scouts seem to be obsessed with French players, while Arsène Wenger, the original Francophile, has recently switched his focus to German youngsters.
But for now at least, we’ll have to get used to the fact that British players simply cost more. All we can do is shrug our shoulders and chalk it up to a market inefficiency.