One of the first questions asked of any player who transfers to a new league is: "How will he be able to adjust?".
In the Premier League there is an old truism that it typically takes one season for players to fully acclimatise to the style of football. Then of course there are questions of league strength: if a player scores 15 goals in one league how many goals does that correspond to in another? Transfers that take a player from one league to another introduce a whole other layer of uncertainty for clubs.
With historical data we can go back and look at other players who have made the same jump between leagues and see which skills these players have been able to replicate. In the past 10 years there have been 25 midfielders and forwards who have moved directly from La Liga to the Premier League while playing over 1000 minutes both in their final season in Spain and first season in England. This obviously isn’t a very big sample size but there are enough players to start thinking about how successful these transfers have been.
25 players who’ve moved from Spain to England
Players reached 1000 minutes in final season in Spain and first season in England
To assess how different skills transfer from La Liga to the Premier League I compared some key performance indicators of these transferred players from their final season in La Liga to their first season in the Premier League. Before looking at the results it’s important to consider a few caveats.
Firstly, many of these players that come to England from Spain are elite or close-to-elite and are already producing outputs above the league average (15 of the 25 players transferred to Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City or Manchester United).
Secondly, in order to properly compare these players’ output in each league they needed to pass the 1000 minutes filter. This in itself takes away the big misses. Daniel de Ridder, Xisco, Iago Aspas, Giovanni Dos Santos and Jose Campaña are examples of players who made the move from La Liga to the Premier League, but failed to pick up the required minutes. These are all transfers that for one reason or another didn’t quite pan out, whether it is performance related, an injury or something else. So this exluides players who weren’t able to integrate themselves into the team in their first Premier League season.
Attacking and goalscoring comparisons
The following graph compares the average non-penalty goals, shots, offsides and successful dribbles of players in their last season in La Liga to their first season in the Premier League. The red lines represent league-wide averages for all midfielders and forwards.
The first thing that stands out is a drop of almost 0.05 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes. Over a season this represents approximately two goals fewer, despite an increase in the average number of shots taken.
This follows the league-wide trend of more shots being taken in the Premier League than La Liga despite similar goal numbers between the two leagues. This may be the result of a tactical difference between the leagues with Premier League coaches encouraging players to take more speculative efforts. These transferred players also shooting more frequently further suggests that is a tactical shift, rather than an over-eager player attempting to make his mark in a new league.
There is also a significant decrease in the amount of times these players are caught offside. Although an imperfect measure, offside frequency can be a reasonable proxy for indicating whether a forward is playing off the shoulder of the last-defender. This change seems to indicate more of a stylistic change between how these attacking players are employed in the Premier League versus La Liga, where they may be asked to drop deeper and influence the build-up.
Chance creation and passing comparisons
This next graph looks at creativity, perhaps a focus for these attacking players who may now be occupying deeper roles.
In terms of passing and chance creation an interesting pattern emerges. In La Liga in general more goals are assisted as opposed to unassisted, which could come from goalmouth scrambles or solo runs, for example.
However, midfielders and forwards who leave La Liga are above average in terms of assists, but their assist output the following year in the Premier League tends to be much higher than the Premier League average.
This seems to fall in line with what we’ve actually seen on the pitch. Creative players like Mesut Özil who join the Premier League are immediately amongst the league’s elite in terms of chance creation and are often at the nucleus of their team’s creativity. Even Ángel Di María, who was considered to be a disappointment by many during his only Premier League season, racked up an impressive 10 assists. This suggests that many of these players are recruited for their creativity above all else and that this is the primary role they are being asked to perform with their new teams.
Transfers this summer
To date, four players (with over 1000 minutes last season) have transferred to Premier League clubs from La Liga: Alvaro Negredo to Middlesbrough, Nolito to Manchester City, Isaac Success to Watford and Sofiane Feghouli to West Ham. Despite some of the clearly transferable creative skills, none of these players are considered real playmakers and all but Feghouli are natural forwards.
In terms of adapting to a new league Negredo will probably have it slightly easier than the others since he already has Premier League experience, but it is still worth looking at their performance in La Liga in the context of the information above to get an idea of how we can expect them to perform this season.
One point to note is that Nolito and Negredo are both going to clubs where the managers have experience coaching and playing in La Liga. Whether or not this will lead to any stylistic differences in how these incoming players are employed and how they transition remains to be seen. In the context of the previous transfers it is fair to expect these forwards’ goalscoring contributions to drop, although Nolito’s case may differ as he is moving to a stronger team. Nolito and Negredo in particular were already high volume shooters in Spain and they will likely see these numbers increase in England.
Negrado’s previous transfer to the Premier League saw his output drop from 0.62 non-penalty goals per 90 to 0.47, still an impressive tally. His shots also dropped from 4.49/90 to 3.44/90, which runs counter to the common trend of players moving from La Liga to the Premier League, and maybe related to the fact he was playing under Manuel Pellegrini, a manager with plenty of La Liga experience.
So… how will these players adapt?
Often when we talk about players who move from one league to another we talk purely in terms of league strength. However in reality the transition is much more complicated and involves factors beyond on-field performance. Some skills do transfer better across leagues than others and in terms of this specific league transition it is worth nothing players do a decent job of replicating their form, however goalscoring tends to suffer more of a drop-off than chance creation.
The main takeaway message here is that players from Spain have been very successful at taking on creative roles in the Premier League. The teams they are moving to they tend to be high possession teams that dominate matches and are looking for creative players to help unlock defences. It seems like this type of player has the smoothest time adapting to the Premier League. In future these calculations could play into wage and transfer fee decisions when weighing relative risk of bringing different types of player from La Liga to the Premier League.