Since 2009-2010, there have been seven seasons in which a player scored or assisted on at least 40 league goals, not including penalties. Lionel Messi did it four times and Cristiano Ronaldo did it twice, and Luis Suarez joined the list with 31 goals and 12 assists for Liverpool in the English Premier League in 2013-2014. There is a good case to be made that Suarez was the best, or at least the most valuable, soccer player in the world over the past year.
Of course, he also bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini while playing for Uruguay during the World Cup and got himself banned from soccer for four months. Without that ban, it’s hard to say whether he would have been sold to Barcelona last week. But the transfer is now complete, and the fee is reported to be just less than $130 million. Can Barcelona expect a return on its considerable investment?
To investigate this question, I looked at the best scoring seasons over the past five years and picked out those who had been transferred the following summer. I found seventeen player-seasons, and overall I found a very high level of success. These players averaged 22.5 non-penalty goals and assists (NPG + A) in the season before their transfer, and a very solid 17.5 NPG + A in their first seasons with a new club. Some regression to the mean is expected, but not very much.
Most of this regression, further, comes in the form of durability rather than quality. On a per-minute basis, these players’ stats were nearly identical. They averaged 0.77 NPG + A per 90 minutes in the season before the transfer and 0.75 NPG + A / 90 in the season following. The drop in scoring was mostly a function of playing fewer minutes. They averaged just less than 2,700 minutes in the first year and dropped to about 2,100 minutes the next. Top players tend to remain elite on a per-minute basis, but some loss of durability after a great season is expected.
Overall, elite scorers have an excellent track record after big-money transfers. These are the seventeen players, listed with their NPG + A before and after the transfer.
More than half of these players continued to contribute at an elite level, and most of the rest were still quite effective. The only clear failures on the list are Tottenham Hotspur pair Erik Lamela and Roberto Soldado and Japanese star Shinji Kagawa of Manchester United. Including Clint Dempsey, Spurs actually have three of the bottom four players here. Perhaps Suarez should be particularly happy not to have been transferred to North London. In fairness, Dempsey’s huge 2011-2012 season for Fulham was understood to be an obvious career year at the time, and expectations for him were not as high as for Lamela and Soldado. Still, Tottenham’s transfers stand out as failures on a list otherwise brimming with success.
The best comparisons for Suarez on the list are probably Robin van Persie and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. (Technically, Ibrahimovic went on loan to AC Milan before being transferred, but it was clear at the time that he was a major acquisition for Milan and not likely to return to Spain.) Both elite strikers were incredibly productive on a per-minute basis in the season before their transfers. Van Persie averaged a goal or assist every 90 minutes for Arsenal, while Ibrahimovic’s NPG + A / 90 was about 0.93 for Barcelona. Both saw their per-minute production drop with the new club, van Persie down to 0.81 NPG + A / 90 for Manchester United, and Ibrahimovic to 0.78 / 90 for AC Milan. These are elite numbers, just slightly down from the year before. Regression is likely, but it is also not likely to be massive.
Suarez’s production towers over them all. He averaged 1.26 NPG + A / 90 for Liverpool last season. Barcelona probably should not expect Suarez to repeat that season, but if he can provide about 80 percent of his Liverpool production, Barcelona will be very happy with the outcome.