Some of the great success stories in the Premier League era has come through unearthing gems from the lower leagues. For instance, Jamie Vardy was playing non league football in 2012, but four years later he was a Premier League champion with Leicester. Dele Alli was a wonder boy at MK Dons who Tottenham Hotspur took a chance on. It’s paid dividends and if he was sold today, could well be the most expensive player in history. However what about those at the smaller Premier League clubs? Who perform admirably at a team fighting relegation, already well acclimatised to the league, and would command big fees? Can performing at those clubs be a good indication as to whether they are ready for the higher echelons?
Michael Keane was sold to Burnley in 2015 for £2million. A year and a half later, they want him back for £25 million, but he’s not the only one. Gylfi Sigurdsson, for example, was sold by Tottenham to Swansea for not quite hitting the top level, but fast forward a couple years and he’s being linked with a £30million plus move to Everton and Liverpool. Harry Maguire of Hull is, too, being linked with Tottenham, whilst Ben Gibson has been on the radar of Chelsea. Most of these players you’ll notice are defenders and have been in teams fighting relegation. Do they look better than what they really are simply because they have more defending to do? Will they get the same protection at the bigger clubs as they do at the Hulls, Middlesbroughs and Burnleys of this world?
The misleading world of statistics
The answer to both those questions is a resounding yes and no. Of course they have more defending to do at a smaller Premier League side, most of whom sit significantly deeper than their higher up counterparts, hence inviting pressure. If you judge a player on stats, defensive players in the lower end of the table will usually come out on top. For example, Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton has made the most saves in the Premier League this season with 139, whilst Jordan Pickford at relegated Sunderland is next and Lukasz Fabianski at 17th placed Swansea third. Are they the best shot stoppers in the league, or simply have more saves to make?
Ben Mee at Burnley made the most blocks in the league, followed by ‘current’ teammate Michael Keane. Do they read the game better than any other defender or face more shots to get in the way of? Not one team in the top six has a player who has made the most clearances. Again, what these statistics indicate is that these players simply have more defending to do. And that is where the doubts come in.
To sink or swim
What happens when they join a better side challenging for trophies and don’t get as much protection? Will they be able to cope when they are in a side set out to attack first, defend second? The truth is, there is no correct answer. It could be the case that these players are undiscovered and slightly unpolished gems, although the flipside is that they find themselves out of their depth. In the smaller sides, like Burnley, these central defenders are often protected by another defensive bank of four in front of them, sitting deep and narrow and clogging the space in front of them. In a bigger side, the style of play is significantly more expansive and defenders have far less protection from their midfielders.
There have been plenty of examples of both successful and failed signings who the big boys have gambled on signing from the lower teams. It comes down to the naked eye and whether the manager, scout, or technical director believes this is a player who can cope at the giant clubs. In other words, don’t judge a book by its cover. Or a player by his statistics. They can be very misleading.
Would Michael Keane excel at Manchester United? Do statistics paint a skewed picture? Let us know in the comments section below.