With a notice scarcely two lines long on the club website late one night earlier this week, Fulham said farewell to Bryan Ruiz. The Costa Rican has joined Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon on a three year deal, bringing his mercurial four year stint at Craven Cottage to an end.
The story of Bryan at Fulham is really one of a player at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Captain of his national team, Bryan arrived at Fulham on transfer deadline day in 2011 amidst eleventh hour rumours that Newcastle were going to gazump Fulham for his transfer with a helicopter on standby to take him to the North East. However, to much excitement the lure of Martin Jol’s Fulham brought the then FC Twente player to south west London.
His arrival was symbolic of how far we’d come as a club. Here was a player who was rated second only to Luis Suarez as the best in Holland’s Eredivisie. His eight figure transfer fee was meteoric for a club of our size and Bryan’s arrival was a significant statement of intent at a time when we appeared to have realistic ambitions of hanging with the Premier League’s big boys.
However, soon after his arrival it became clear the transition from Dutch to English football wasn’t going to be a straightforward one for Bryan. Here was a technically gifted footballer, but whose success at Twente was predicated on him playing a position that fundamentally didn’t exist for him at Fulham. At Twente, Bryan played on the right of a front three. It is the archetypal Dutch attacking system, born out of Ajax’s Total Football of the 1970s. Fulham, who had only 3 months earlier appointed former Ajax boss Martin Jol as manager, were an obvious fit.
It wasn’t quite that straightforward though. As Jol’s tenure progressed and his tactics meandered, Bryan suffered something of positional nomadism. With Fulham not operating a front three, Bryan was tried at right midfield, right wing, central midfield and as a Number 10 in his time at Fulham, yet was never fully able to make any position his own. Bryan often seemed the sort of player who needed a system built around him. That simply wasn’t possible in the various Fulham sides he played in.
Bryan’s Fulham career started quietly, but as part of the side that included Mousa Dembele and Clint Dempsey, his flair and technical skill were not out of place. His debut season goals against Bolton and Everton were two of the most magical scored at Craven Cottage in the Premier League, and were his greatest moments in a Fulham shirt.
When the following summer Dembele and Demspey were sold and not replaced, Bryan found himself as a lone creative talent left at the club. It was a burden that carried an enormous weight of expectation.
Alongside Dimitar Berbatov, there was a brief spell in which it looked as though Bryan had found a kindred spirit. The 3-3 draw at Reading in 2012 showcased the best of both players, including the now traditional once a season screamer from Ruiz.
Success was fleeting. Over the following two seasons Fulham’s team performances got worse, and Bryan often found himself scapegoated. His style of play is not visibly all action, and often looked out of place amongst a team struggling for cohesion.
With Ruiz as one of the team’s genuine stars, 2013 saw the club the player’s homeland during preseason and included a 3 – 1 win over Bryan’s former club Alajualense at the National Stadium. There was also a reception with Britain’s ambassador to the Central American country, such is Bryan’s status back home.
The next 6 months saw Fulham’s performances getting slowly worse with Bryan flitting in and out of the team. Following Jol’s dismissal, Bryan found himself surplus to requirements and was shipped out to spend the latter half of our relegation season on loan at PSV Eindhoven back in the Netherlands.
After a standout World Cup in Brazil last summer, Ruiz’s hopes were high for a move away from newly his relegated Fulham. Despite his strong performances for Costa Rica, Bryan was never granted his wish and remained at Fulham as we began life in the Championship. Isolated within Felix Magath’s regime, his demeanour worsened and it became increasingly obvious that his relationship with the club was a marriage heading for divorce.
When he was recalled to the first team, there was an obvious gulf in quality between Bryan and the majority of the other players, such is his technical prowess. Unfortunately the Championship suited Bryan’s style of play even less than the Premier League.
Too often than not there was a clash of styles. The Championship’s brute force not allowing Ruiz’s guile to take hold. Combine the World Cup performances, the price tag and the fact he was surrounded by youngsters and expectations were sky high for a player who was simply not the right fit for a team struggling to forge an identity in an unfamiliar league.
Statistically, Bryan was actually one of Fulham’s better performers last season, despite inconsistent game time. The highlight of his season being the stoppage time winner against Reading in January.
Yet the over-riding feeling is that he never really showed what he was truly capable of in a Fulham shirt.
A true marmite player who divided opinions from almost the day he arrived, Ruiz now has the opportunity to rescue a career that took a four year diversion. The Portuguese league should be a perfect vehicle for Ruiz’s talents. There, he will get more time on the ball in a league where technical ability gets the opportunity to shine and referees spend most games with their whistles permanently attached to their lips. That a club the size of Sporting came in for Bryan shows the respect his talent commands.
In Enschede Bryan was a hero. At Fulham, he was a hero to some and a villain to others. Now, like many Fulham fans, I’ll be watching Lisbon closely to see what happens next.
The drawbridge is about to rise and another transfer window set to close. With that in mind, a quote in Felix Magath’s latest letter where he claims Fulham were quoted £12m for a Championship goalkeeper has left me wondering why Fulham seem to have so much trouble when it comes to selling players? We either seem to give them away on the cheap or can’t sell them at all?
This might actually be a false assumption. When it comes to transfers, appearances can be deceiving and reports in the press can be highly deceiving. Comparing one deal to another is a fool’s errand at the best of times, let alone without the full facts to play with. Seeing one well respected journalist tweet a comparison between the transfers of Ross McCormack and Xabi Alonso today shows the ease at which transfer stories can be manipulated and misinterpreted.
However, one undeniable fact is that, on the face of it, Fulham have for a while now, appeared to under-value our players when it comes time to show them the exit. Felix Magath’s £12m goalkeeper claim comes in stark contrast to the sale of David Stockdale to Brighton for a paltry £1m. Bryan Ruiz reportedly has a £3m price tag around his neck despite costing £11m and starring at the World Cup, while Kostas Mitroglou seems to have been linked to every team in Europe with nobody yet willing to pay us what we paid for him seven months ago.
So why then, do Fulham appear to come off on the bad end of these deals?
Communication (or-lack thereof)
Under the club’s current communications regime it is safe to say there has been a reluctance to share information. We may have actually profited on some deals, but Fulham could have sold Ashkan Dejagah to Qatari side Al Arabi for half of Doha and 50,000 barrels of crude oil and we’d still be told it was an undisclosed fee. The need-to-know basis on which information has been shared with fans and journalists over the past few years has restricted the flow of facts to the very minimum. This has led to rampant speculation amongst fans and a need to get information from other sources for journalists. Hence the talk of Ross McCormack’s fee being £11m coming from the Massimo Cellino spin machine at Leeds. With no retort from Fulham is it any wonder we’ve been the butt of so many ill-fated comparisons so far this summer.
*Of course there must be reason to Fulham’s methods, indeed one can’t help but think this week’s tub-thumping bout of verbal mud-slinging between Felix Magath, Shahid Khan and former owner Mohamad Al-Fayed has come about thanks to an apparent bypass of the club communication team. Although, while the public blame game has now turned somewhat unsavoury, it is at least nice to see Fulham actually make the papers. With perpetual undisclosed fees and player quotes normally coming straight from watered-down club website PR puff pieces this change of tact is at least a tiny bit refreshing.
Selling at the wrong time
Part of the blame for Fulham having to sell low is that we’re currently obvious sellers. Having been relegated and left with disillusioned players, Fulham’s negotiation poker face has been turned into a blank stare. When buyers know you want to sell, there is no incentive to pay fair value, let alone over-pay. The transfer window system has made the entire business of negotiating player movement one giant game of chicken. Unfortunately for us it is usually the party in the more eager position that blinks first. Fulham have been panic buyers in previous windows and are facing the prospect of being panic sellers on Monday.
An example is Bryan Ruiz in whom Fulham have a player they do not wish to keep, and one who himself does not wish to stay. With a year left on his contract, Bryan currently resembles a used car, if he stays at the club a minute past the transfer deadline, his value will plummet below its already deflated asking price.
Selling the wrong stock
Of course you can’t sell what you don’t have. Unless Alistair Mackintosh is sat at Motspur Park practicing his best Jordan Belfort impression, there is little chance of him conjuring up any miracle transfer fees. Of the playing staff from last season there was barely a player of decent value amongst them. Most were old and suffering from a decline in performance even Mohamed Al-Fayed’s ‘peppermints’ would have struggled to fix. The younger ones were nearly all played sparingly or out-of-position by Fulham’s cavalcade of different managers, diminishing any prospect of generating future hope value.
Those that did command fees on departure mostly left under the aforementioned iron curtain of undisclosed ambiguity, such as Kasami and Dejagah. Others, like Stockdale, were reportedly sold disaffected and un-wanted. It’s the exact method Roy Hodgson used so brilliantly to acquire the likes of Etuhu and Murphy for us in exchange for little more than a few grains of sand.
The outward transfer of Kerim Frei in 2012 was a prime example on the face of it. Our brightest academy prospect at the time, he left for Besiktas under-valued and over-weight. Players must be nurtured in order to yield magic beans come transfer windows and up till now the pressures of Premier League football have prevented that from truly taking place.
One look at Southampton this summer though and we can see where Fulham might be in a few years in terms of transfer fees received. There is little to suggest that the likes of Roberts, Woodrow, Dembele, Hyndman, Bettinelli and Burgess don’t have the talent to emulate the Lallana, Shaw, Forster, Chambers and Schneiderlin’s of the world in years to come. Given the right environment and regular game time these players could command significant fees in the future. Of course not every young player has the potential to be bought for £20m but it’s amazing the value that big clubs will place of young players who have actually played.
Alistair Mackintosh has always had a good reputation when it comes to negotiating. There often seemed a “take it or leave it” hard-line stance to our negotiations. We rarely usurped other teams when buying, and when we wanted rid of players we sold them with little fuss and fanfare. The Jol years slowly seemed to change that though and the now infamous Dembele & Dempsey summer was particular disastrous. The Belgian’s release clause was set at the frustratingly realistic sum of £15m, while we were surreptitiously held to ransom by a wantaway Dempsey. Of course, none of us know whether Mousa’s release clause was a condition of his transfer from AZ Alkmaar in the first place, but it was hard not to feel as if a part of Fulham’s soul got burned that fateful August week in 2012.
Whether you bear in mind the fact he largely dealt himself the hand in front of him, considering what he had to work with our CEO did actually do quite well to get any return on some transfers. Getting Monaco and Valencia to absorb the contracts of Dimitar Berbatov and Philippe Senderos felt a bit like giving a piece of rubbish to someone else to put in the bin. That both players are actually now playing at a higher level above and beyond their performances for Fulham is more a testament to our lack of decent coaching and management than anyone’s negotiation skill.
Ashkan Dejagah was sold almost immediately following a stellar World Cup and you rather feel we missed a trick not selling Bryan from a beachside cabana in Brazil while his stock was at its highest in July.
There is one other factor making sales difficult, foreign exchange. The British Pound is incredibly strong at present. The value of £1 Sterling has risen 10 cents from €1.16 to €1.26 in last year.
If you consider Bryan Ruiz’s reported asking price of £3m, currency fluctuations over the past 12 months would mean an increases cost of £300,000 (or €380,000) for a continental European buyer. If we also consider that Ruiz is likely to command anywhere up to £40,000 a week, currency movement alone has increased his wage by £208,000 a year (€262,000). Over the course of a four year contract that’s an additional £1,150,000 in total cost for a European team looking to buy Bryan. If you consider then that the majority of our more expensive players would be targets for clubs in the Eurozone (as opposed to domestic £GBP sales) and combine that with players’ ages, contract length and desire to leave along with our position as known sellers, the only realistic outcome is that asking prices become reduced.
Similarly, why would a club like Werder Bremen who are struggling financially mess around structuring a transfer deal in multiple currencies when they have the option not to?
It is cheaper for European countries to sign players from areas where the Euro is the stronger currency. It is perhaps then no surprise that we discover Werder Bremen’s biggest transfer outlay this summer has been €1m on Argentinean defender Santiago Garcia from Chilean club Rangers Talca. The Euro has risen almost 20% against the Chilean Peso in the past year. As Garcia was signed at a pre-agreed price following a loan spell, were the fee agreed in Pesos at the start of the deal, he would have been €200,000 cheaper at the end of his loan deal than at the start. Though that transfer was likely hedged against currency movement, the point still stands that it will always be easier to import to a strong currency than export to places with a weaker currency.
The final point is that relative value is generated in each particular market. This is not necessarily a currency point and more a multi-layered question as to a player’s style, experience and perceived compatibility to a particular league. Does a £1,000,000 fee in England for one player equate to a €1,000,000 fee or a €1,260,000 fee for an identical player in Europe? Is it a question of currency or relativity? With the in-built wealth present in the English game, it is inherently a question of relativity.
The highest transfer fee paid domestically in England this summer was the £30m paid by Manchester United for teenage left back Luke Shaw from Southampton. The biggest domestic fee in Germany on the other hand was the €14m paid by Bayer Leverkusen for Hamburg attacking midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu. The highest fee in Italy was €22m, paid by Roma for Argentinean winger Juan Iturrbe from Hellas Verona, however, Hellas themselves had simultaneously exorcised a €15m purchase option in Iturrbe’s loan from Porto in order to cash in on a player who had taken immediately to Serie A. The Iturrbe deal aside, the next highest domestic fees in Italy were the equal €5.5m deals Lazio completed for Dusan Basta and Marco Parolo respectively, while the highest in Spain was the €20m Barcelona paid Valencia for experienced French centre half Jeremy Mathieu.
Would any of those transfer fees have been as high if there were only foreign clubs in for the players? Maybe as each players value comes as a result of supply and demand, but as long as there’s a player who’s a proven commodity in any particular league, demand for signature will always be higher. This explains the Ross McCormack price as he is worth more to a team in the Championship, where he is proven, than a team in the Premiership where he’d present a risk.
The magnitude of those domestic European deals serves to reinforce the assertion that the intrinsic value held within the English game places it at a premium above its European rivals. For a smaller club like Fulham looking to the European markets to sell, this premium can make it incredibly difficult to sell unless our expectations of fees received come down.
When you put all these together, perhaps it’s little wonder that Fulham haven’t been able to cash in this summer.
There are clichés abound as to January being the hardest time for a football club to get value for money in the transfer market. Fulham are in particular need of a trip to the transfer supermarket this January and we are all well aware of the constraints on budget a team in our position face when entering such a market.
The question with transfer targets then becomes which players can Fulham sign within budget at a price that can be considered worth the value that has to be paid.
With the enigmatic talent that is the Bryan Ruiz experience set to complete his loan move away from Fulham to Dutch side PSV Eindhoven, I asked myself this question; why is it that players, attackers in particular, from the Eredivisie seem so hit and miss in England’s top flight?
There are many factors as to why a player succeeds, not least their physical attributes, but is it possible that the league a player comes to the Premier League from can play a role in their success once they get there?
Perhaps strikers who score goals in a league where it is statistically easier to score goals should come with a warning label. The Eredivisie averages nearly a goal a game more than France’s top division for example. So should the price paid for 20 goals in Holland equal the price paid for 20 goals in France?
Should it be then that clubs like Fulham look to sign players who excel in the opposite trait to the league they play in. Surely a striker who scores goals in a league where goals are hard to come by must have more about him than a striker scoring goals for fun in a league where defending is at a premium.
Simultaneously, would a defender who excels above and beyond his peers in a division such as the Eredivisie be worth more than a defender in a league where attacking is at a premium?
Take 7 major European leagues; Barclays Premier League (England), Eredivisie (Netherlands), Serie A (Italy), La Liga (Spain), Bundesliga (Germany), Ligue 1 (France), The Championship (England)
Here are there stats for goals scored in the 2013/14 season up to last weekend:
Number of Matches
Average Goals Per Game
On the basis of these statistics, Ligue 1, France’s top division, and The Championship, the second tier of English football, are the hardest to score in. Holland’s Eredivisie and the German Bundesliga are the easiest. What the stats cannot explain, at least at this level, is whether the results are as a result of good defending or profligate striking or vice versa.
If, however, for the sake of argument, we assume the hypothesis is correct, and strikers who excel in a league in which it is traditionally hard to score are more likely to have success in England, should Fulham be looking to France for a new goalscorer?
If we exclude all players from mega-rich sides Paris St Germain and AS Monaco from discussion as there is as much chance of a player leaving those for Fulham as there is Darren Bent being World Cup Golden Boot, here is a comparison of two players Fulham could consider if trawling the French transfermarche:
Shots per goal
Dispossessed per game
Player A is Andre-Pierre Gignac. The Marseille forward will be well known to Fulham fans after a move to South West London fell through for the Frenchman at the eleventh hour in 2011. Having scored 9 times in the league this season Gignac has shown a propensity to score for an underperforming team. His statistic that shines out is his strength in possession, as shown by an impressively low 0.7 dispossessions per game. This ability to hold up the ball would suit Fulham’s 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations, which at present lack any semblance of a target man to lead the line.
Player B is Alexandre Lacazette. At 22 the Olympique Lyonnais forward is 6 years younger than Gignac. Statistically, these two forwards have identical success rates of one goal every five shots. In comparison, incumbent Fulham striker Dimitar Berbatov averages a goal every 8.25 shots this season. Lacazette’s age would likely render him more expensive than Gignac as would Lyon’s infamous stance on selling young stars.
However, which of the two would be more suited to the Premier League, and Fulham in particular?
Gignac, at 6 foot plus and 10 kilos heavier may be more attuned to the immediate physical demands of being a lone target man in English football. Being dispossessed 1 time less per game also indicates Gignac has an ability to hold up the ball, a characteristic long missed by Fulham following the departures of Bobby Zamora and Pavel Pogrebnyak some time ago.
Shots per goal
Dispossessed per game
Now consider the case of Player C, Vincent Aboubakar of Lorient. At 1.84m and 82kg, Aboubakar is a similar physical specimen to Gignac, and at only 21 he also has the opportunity to improve his physical stature. His goal stats are impressive in what has been a breakout season following his move from Valenciennes in the summer. However, the Cameroon international also shows signs of rawness, his dispossessed statistics indicate a man who’s yet to fully learn his craft.
So which then of the three players would you want Fulham to look at? Name recognition would suggest it be Gignac. The statistics back that up, but would a 21 year old with near identical, if not better, numbers from a lesser fancied club not be the better value signing?
Simultaneously if we look at The Championship where it also proves difficult to score relative to the Premier League. Compare the following two strikers:
Shots per goal
Dispossessed per game
The two hottest striking prospects in the Championship, Rhodes and Ings will both surely end up in the Premier League one day, should that be with Fulham?
On the basis of the above statistics, Rhodes might just be the answer. The Blackburn striker has age on his side and has the physical attributes required to succeed in the physically demanding Premier League. His ability to hold up the ball is impressive, but what is remarkable is his conversion rate. At 4.3 shots per goal it is nearly twice as good as that of the aforementioned Berbatov.
Unfortunately when it comes to finding value, The Championship is not a good marketplace. English, or Scottish as would be the case with Rhodes, young talent is vastly overvalued when compared to its continental rivals. It is the so-called British tax.
There is also the difference in quality of leagues that needs to be taken into account. Both Ligue 1 and The Championship are of a lesser quality than the Premier League. However, Fulham’s relative stature and size of transfer war chest (or transfer piggy bank if you will) means targeting players from the other major European leagues in Germany, Spain or Italy becomes more difficult.
With there needing to be a focus on recruiting players in form and in their prime, there has to be a new found focus on value for Fulham’s transfer activity. There should be no more scatter-gunning of aging former names with no sell on value from the substitutes bench of other clubs from the major leagues. Scouting must get clever.
There is of course another reality, that there are still strikers in Holland worth paying for, where the increased price still results in value for the purchaser. Alfred Finnbogason’s 17 goals in 15 league games at a goal every 4.05 shots will make him a much sought after commodity. Are his chances easier though? What would Gignac, Rhodes or Berbatov do if they were playing for Heerenveen?
We’ll probably never know, but it is time Fulham did something to shake up the system. From start to back the team isn’t working. Defence is the major problem.
For all I’ve written about strikers above, it is a new defence that will keep us in the Premier League. Having the worst goals against record is something to be ashamed of and is a far cry from the halcyon days of Hughes and Hangeland under Roy Hodgson.
Watching some of Jermaine Defoe’s introductory press conference at Toronto FC, CEO Tim Leiweke quoted Bobby Kennedy when he said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Well, why not Fulham fans. We can survive if our club dreams to make it so. The next three weeks will be crucial. After several seasons of doing the minimum, it is time for Fulham to dare to dream. By standing and waiting for the miracle solution to present itself, we might just let it pass us by.
Football can be the cruellest of games. In no other sport can the margin between the achieving of what would be a cheering victory, or of suffering a deeply disappointing defeat be so cigarette-paper thin. Thus was it in this closely contested game, which Fulham could have won if only………………
To the uncommitted soccer aficionado this would have been a super game to watch, full of incident, played at considerable pace between two teams who aspire towards the passing & pressing game, and where the result was in doubt up to almost the expiry of normal time. Despite their early lead Everton were never able to establish dominance. Twenty minutes into the second half and with Fulham still one-nil down, Martin Jol initiated a brave tactical ploy. Danny Murphy was withdrawn and Bryan Ruiz brought on. Quiet extraordinarily the Fulham set-up went to a 4-2-4 (with Bryan on the left of Steve Sidwell in midfield), which morphed in and out of a 4-1-5 as Bryan took on a ‘roam and get forward’ role.
Although in no way reminiscent of Brazil of the early 1970’s, who are usually associated with such a deployment, Fulham adapted well to this rare, attacking mode and even appeared to be gaining the upper hand. First, within a few minutes of the introduction of this new system, Bryan scored with a delicately calculated chip into the top right hand corner of the goal, executed from just outside the left-hand side of the penalty area. With the scores level Fulham appeared to be the more likely to prevail. Bryan had a second good effort from inside the penalty area saved. Then with a minute to go of normal time Bobby Zamora in possession close in front of goal, clear and with the keeper dummied, managed (goodness knows how,) to miss. So Fulham could and possibly should have won, though of course in the event our team didn’t, with Everton scoring twice in extra time.
An unbiased appreciator of the game would also have enjoyed the opportunity to see both Everton and Fulham each respectively field a young talented footballer, both at the beginning of their Premier league careers. Everton had on from the start Royston Drenthe, a young Dutch player who has been with Real Madrid. It was he who scored Everton’s first goal in third minute of the game, (a powerful 20 yard strike,) as well as playing a part in both their late goals. A stocky powerfully built player with a characteristic crouching stride and impressive short burst acceleration, he was for me Everton’s most effective player. Possibly in the making what the Italians term a ‘fantista,’ (a player who by the application of a rare and special individual skill or ability can turn a game).
Fulham fielded Bryan for a good part of the second half. (I use the name he has stated he would prefer to be know by, as ‘Ruiz’ is associated with his father who abandoned him.) From this game we now know just a bit more about his talents. Although a left footed player, he is not predominately left sided in his play. This was marked by his fluid mobility off the ball, and by his quick and precise short passing which included a couple of neatly executed give-and-goes. He clearly has an eye for goal, readily getting forward into goal scoring positions, and most importantly his goal was evidence of very good technique. Although the extent and full potential of his talent is yet to be established, what we saw in this game is encouraging.
With the result of this game it is now clear that Fulham have made a poor start to the season. Unless there is an early improvement in fortune with the accumulation of significant additional points between now and Christmas, the club could well face the unhappy prospect of a prolonged struggle against relegation. It is however an allusion that safety can now be achieved by a conservative approach. Martin Jol should continue to give opportunities to the young and promising players in his squad for Premiership games. (Mathew Briggs is now an outstanding prospect. The unstinting work-rate and all out commitment of Pajtim Kasani is truly impressive. Players like these and Bryan need the experience of regularly playing with top opposition if they are to develop and fulfil their full potential for the club.) Martin Jol should be supported in his endeavours to introduce greater flexibility and a more attacking approach to play, as well as encouraged to bring-on and integrate new talented players.