Why are the world's best goalkeepers seemingly so affordable to buy?
Every once in a while, a transfer comes along that works for everyone: the buying club, the selling club and the player himself. It does not normally work like that, of course. Ordinarily, there is at least one winner and at least one loser. The case of Petr Cech is different. It seems everyone's a winner here.
The player, first: he gets to join a team in the Champions League and with genuine aspirations of challenging for the Premier League title for the first time in a decade. He will be a first choice, too, possibly for the next five or six years as long as he can stay away from injury and, given the sort of issues that generally afflict Arsenal goalkeepers, smoking in the shower.
For Arsenal, the benefits are obvious. For just £11 million they get a goalkeeper who remains one of the finest in England, a player of proven quality and vast experience. They strengthen a position in which they have been suspect for quite some time on the pitch while off it, Cech equips them with the sort of characteristics they have long seemed to lack: an iron mentality and a taste for trophies.
It is hard for everyone in football to get away from the traditional narrative around transfers, but the perception that Arsenal have won and therefore Chelsea have lost is, in this case, wrong.
The Premier League champions have sold their reserve goalkeeper at a profit after 10 years of service. They have a goalkeeper who is already Cech's superior in Thibaut Courtois. They can expect the Belgian to improve over the coming years, too. There is no reason to believe that in a strictly football sense, they will miss Cech.
It is easy to understand why Jose Mourinho might have preferred to sell him to a foreign side, of course, but as he saw with David Luiz this season, even shipping a player to the continent does not mean they cannot come back to haunt you. The only clubs who can afford Cech are Chelsea's rivals for either the Premier League or the Champions League. They are going to strengthen someone somewhere either way.
Interestingly, Cech's move across London will most likely be the first of three transfers involving some of the world's best goalkeepers this summer. The second, whenever Real Madrid deign to lodge a serious offer (they tend to behave very badly when they know a player wants to sign for them), will see David De Gea return to the Spanish capital from Manchester United.
De Gea has just a year left on his contract and if you believe the reports in the newspapers in both Spain and England, he appears to have told his teammates on no fewer than a dozen occasions that he is departing. This must be very tiring for the rest of United's players. "Oh, it's just another Whatsapp from David, saying he's going. That's the third this week. We get it, mate, you get to go and we have to stay here with Phil Jones."
The third deal will come when that sale has been completed. That will be the point when United try to persuade Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy to sell them Hugo Lloris. If that does not work, they may be forced to turn toward Jasper Cillessen, the blond ghost who plays in goal for Ajax.
Two things catch the eye about all of this activity and both are related to cost. Or, rather, the lack of it: Cech cost £11 million; because of his contractual situation, De Gea might be a little more than twice that, though it will be hard to discern an actual price for him if he's included as part of a swap deal for Sergio Ramos. Meanwhile with his value inflated by United's need, Lloris could hit around £25 million, too.
In football's absurdly inflated market, though, these are surprisingly modest prices: £11 million is what a mid-table team in the Premier League pays for an over-the-hill midfielder and £25 million is what Chelsea give Fiorentina for a player they don't need or seemingly even want.
To get a player of the quality of De Gea, Lloris or Cech for those sorts of fees is quite staggering in the modern age. Particularly because, as John Terry said on Monday, these players are essentially guarantors of points. The Chelsea captain believes Cech is worth "12 or 15 points" a season to Arsenal. It is hard to quantify quite how many points Manchester United earned last season because they had De Gea in goal and not someone even marginally inferior. It's certainly not much of a stretch to suggest he got Louis van Gaal's team into the Champions League.
In other words, goalkeepers remain chronically undervalued to such an extent that even the very finest in the world are traded for the sort of sums that would barely register in the market for strikers. (This was echoed in Gabriele Marcotti's recent analysis of transfers by position.)
They are not the only ones, either. Part of the problem that may result in Sergio Ramos leaving Real Madrid is that the club will not offer him wage parity with the rest of the best centre-backs in the world. He wants to earn as much as Thiago Silva at Paris Saint-Germain because he believes (wrongly) that he is in the Brazilian's class. Silva earns £140,000-a-week. A forward as good at scoring goals as he is at stopping them would expect to command at least twice that. Like its approach to goalkeepers, football's attitude to defenders is deeply irrational.
There is one exception to this rule, and this was the second eye-catching thing about the Cech deal. In 2001, Juventus paid Parma £32.6 million for Gianluigi Buffon. That deal is perhaps the only time a goalkeeper has commanded a truly premium fee. £32.6 million was a lot of money in 2001. Adjusted for inflation, it is somewhere in the region of ££50 million now.
That remains the world record fee for a goalkeeper. Given how little worth they are afforded in the transfer market, it seems unlikely it will be beaten; it may well stand forever, like the athletics records set by East German women in the 1980s, a remnant of an age now long past.
And yet more than anyone, Buffon proves just how valuable an truly world-class goalkeeper is. He has been Juventus's first choice for 14 years. He has played 535 times for the club. If we assume he has earned an average of £100,000-a-week since joining Juventus (which is generous in the extreme), each of those matches has cost the club a little under £200,000. How many points has he won them? How many titles and trophies could not have been secured without him?
Buffon intends to carry on playing until the 2018 World Cup, by which time he will be 40. Consider that his homage to Dino Zoff. He is already by far the country's most capped player (148, 12 ahead of Fabio Cannavaro) and if he can achieve his aim of playing in Russia, then he will doubtless have set a record that will never be broken.
MORE FROM RORY SMITH
- James Milner has transcended expectations
- Premier League clubs spend too much on forwards
- Why are goalkeepers cheaper than other positions?
- Jack Wilshere's interests bode well for his future
- Liverpool woe due to FSG's Rodgers confusion
- Costa will remain controversial and invaluable
- Nine years on, Argentine trio returns to Berlin
There have been players that have been cheaper than Buffon, of course, players that stand out more as bargain buys than market-busting purchases. Football is obsessed with such deals and trying to exact as much value as possible from every penny by shopping in the right places and for the right people. It dresses this up as its own version of Moneyball. Everyone in football thinks they're playing Moneyball.
They aren't. They are ignoring two of the key tenets of Moneyball. One: there is value in undervalued positions. There is no position more undervalued than that of the goalkeeper. Two: the most expensive deals can sometimes work out the cheapest. That is the case with Buffon. Buffon was a Moneyball signing. He may be the best Moneyball signing there has ever been in football. The game, though, has not learned its lesson. It has not learned where value truly lies.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.