The Biggest Transfer Flops in Modern Football
Fernando Torres’ exit from Chelsea last week signified the end of what was has been a traumatic episode. While Torres, in his own words, won the trophies that he aimed to in that tenure, he’s undoubtedly failed to live up to the expectation surrounding his huge £50m move.
It wouldn’t be fair to have labelled him as a weak link in Chelsea’s side last year, but they’ve been a significantly better entity since Diego Costa’s arrival, the only real change in their team bar Thibaut Courtois’ return. But the fact that you can even talk about him in those terms summarises just how much he’s declined.
His signing highlights a greater trend however. That expensive players, in demanding, high pressured squads, can fail to perform in a different club setup. Often a player can hit exceptional heights because they have a team built around them, catering for their needs and playing to their strengths. When they then join a superior squad where they play a more peripheral role, their performances can suffer when they’re not used in the way they once excelled.
Torres was the focal point of Liverpool’s impressive Benitez side. Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso played directly behind him, two creative players, feeding balls into him and threading him through attacking channels. Dirk Kuyt, a striker in his past, adapted to become a defensive winger, while Albert Riera was a sole provider, feeding Torres from out wide. Chelsea offered him no such service. His decline was profound.
Barring Torres, what are the other 3 other biggest flops in modern times?
Andriy Shevchenko, Milan to Chelsea, £30.8m, 2006
It seems apt to start with Shevchenko, the 2004 Ballon d’Or winner, who’s move to Chelsea draws so many parallels with that of Torres. His £30.8m move became the catalyst for a turn in form that was near on inexplicable. The Ukrainian, in no uncertain times, was Europe’s deadliest striker during his time at Milan, and there was an almost crude assumption that quality in excess would translate smoothly to any team, or any system, in Europe.
It didn’t. Shevchenko scored four league goals in his first season, and was eventually deemed inferior to Didier Drogba who became quite a force in English football. Drogba’s role in that decline was important, and reflects Torres’ situation too.
Like Torres at Liverpool, Shevchenko often played in front of a quartet of creative midfielders at Milan – Kaka, Rui Costa, Pirlo and Seedorf were built to feed him into positions. Both were the main men in their former teams, deadly poachers finishing off chances created for them. Both were the victim of different approaches that did not suit them. Both suffered a lot. Both ultimately replaced by strikers who brought more physical power to their teams.
Kaka, Milan to Real Madrid, £56m, 2009
Sticking to the been-good-at-AC-Milan-and-became-bad theme, Kaka’s transfer to Madrid also succumbed to an equal level of disappointment.
Despite the larger fee involved, his time there was better than Shevchenko’s at Chelsea – he performed well in patches, but was unlucky with injuries.
Having joined at the start of the 2009-10 season, nine goals and eight assists was by no means an appalling return to start with, especially for an attacking playmaker, but it was still disappointing on what he consistently achieved at Milan. But again, it supports the idea that at Milan the team was built around him, while at Madrid, he was expected more to accommodate Cristiano Ronaldo’s tendencies out wide.
Undeniably, his time there was categorised by his eight month absence at the start of the 2010 season, which coincided with Mesut Ozil’s arrival after a stunning World Cup. Seeing how Ozil was more attuned to Ronaldo’s movements prevented then-manager Jose Mourinho from referring back to him. He never fully nailed down a starting place after that.
He returned to Milan on loan, (like Shevchenko eventually did) in September 2013, before heading onto the MLS and now Sao Paulo.
Denilson, Sao Paulo to Real Betis, £21.5m, 1998
A player who many will probably never have seen play or even vaguely remember. Denilson’s arrival at Betis in 1998 was a world record at the time, an astronomical fee for a club of Betis’ size and stature. Such was his form, that his arrival in Seville coincided with the club’s relegation. Whatever you say about the other flops in this bracket, Torres, Shevchenko and Kaka come anywhere near to that level of disappointment.
The argument of having a team built around you also doesn’t ring true here- Denilson was the main man at Betis, as opposed to the others who had to accommodate new teammates upon moving. Denlison went to a mid-table team at the time, expected to be the catalyst to elevate them to new heights. How wrong things went. Within three years, at the age of 23, he had already been loaned back to Brazil, with the Seville-based Spanish club financially crippled by their initial investment.
Adjust that figure for inflation, and generally consider that Chelsea and Madrid were bankrolled by far more lucrative streams, and this is perhaps the worst transfer in the modern game.
Upon joining, to top the package off with some horrific irony, he chose the no.20 shirt because he was ‘twice as good as any no.10 out there’.
His horrow-show-saga was put to bed in 2005 when he migrated north to Bordeaux.