Swansea might be English football's smartest team in the transfer market
They could be billed as "best buyers" against "biggest spenders." When Swansea City and Manchester United meet on Sunday, it is with contrasting approaches in the transfer market and different strike rates. United have been outspent by their neighbours Manchester City this summer but have paid out some £230 million in transfer and loan fees, which is more than anyone else in the Premier League, over the last 15 months.
While that is a fact, any such title like the savviest operators in the transfer market is subjective. Southampton could also have a claim to that accolade, although their often-excellent record in recruitment is marred by the failure of the £15m spent on Dani Osvaldo, who was paid off, whereas Swansea have arguably only erred once when paying more than £3m and even then, Pablo Hernandez was far from a disaster.
Especially under David Moyes, Everton were specialists at bargain hunting and getting value for money. Yet Swansea's scouting and planning still stands out: since their promotion to the Premier League in 2011, they have strengthened their squad every summer (and some winters) and invariably without breaking the bank. It is the consistency of their success that stands out in an analysis of every year's dealings.
Key signings: Michel Vorm, Danny Graham, Wayne Routledge, Steven Caulker (loan), Gylfi Sigurdsson (loan)
Relegation favourites four years ago, Swansea's fiscal prudence seemed another reason to tip them for an immediate return to the Championship. Yet while they only spent around £8m in transfer fees, a pittance by Premier League standards, they finished in 11th, an achievement that earned Brendan Rodgers the Liverpool job.
Signings had a pivotal impact at either end of the pitch. Swansea conceded as few goals as fifth-placed Newcastle. They were given solidity by goalkeeper Vorm (a bargain at £1.5m) and centre-back Caulker, who displaced current manager Garry Monk from the team. Caulker represents a case of intelligent recruitment: He is a player whose finest form has come in a Swansea shirt. That is a recurring theme, offering proof they identify specific roles for players and provide an environment where they can flourish.
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Striker Graham is another example. Despite his lamentable scoring record for subsequent employers, he contributed 12 goals in his only full season at the Liberty Stadium. Bought for £3.5m, he also generated a profit when he left the following year for £5m.
Winger Routledge has displayed more longevity and after never scoring a top-flight goal for six previous clubs, has provided 11 in a Swans shirt. Sigurdsson's arrival on loan from Hoffenheim for the second half of the season gave Swansea an extra cutting edge, as Rodgers changed tactics from 4-3-3 to a more aggressive 4-2-3-1. The Icelander chipped in with seven goals.
Key signings: Michu, Chico Flores, Pablo Hernandez, Ki Sung-Yong, Jonathan de Guzman (loan)
Swansea's business had been conducted largely in Britain but the appointment of Michael Laudrup saw them exploit the Spanish market as the Dane's knowledge of La Liga was put to good use. Michu was the flagship success: a scorer of 15 La Liga goals for Rayo Vallecano the previous year, he cost a mere £2m and struck 22 times in his debut campaign for Swansea.
If they harbour regrets, it should be that they did not cash in on him the following summer, when his value seemed to have swelled to £20m. He will not produce a profit but did secure a trophy. Michu scored in the Carling Cup final win over Bradford while De Guzman, borrowed from Villarreal, struck twice.
Flores, another £2m acquisition, took over from Caulker as Ashley Williams' central-defensive partner. Swansea broke their club record twice to sign Hernandez (who flattered to deceive) and Ki, who has established himself as one of the best central midfielders outside the top six since Monk replaced Laudrup as manager.
Despite spending more than ever before, Swansea still showed their husbandry. Their buying was funded by Allen's £15m move to Liverpool plus the compensation they received when Rodgers went to Anfield, giving them a net gain in their transactions.
Key signings: Wilfried Bony, Jonjo Shelvey, Jose Canas, Jordi Amat, Alejandro Pozuelo, Jonathan de Guzman (loan), Alvaro Vazquez (loan)
"This summer was the first time where we agreed to spend that money on one player, and personally I don't like the idea of doing it," said chairman Huw Jenkins at a fans' forum in 2013. The sum was £12m; the player was Bony. Some 16 months later, after the Ivorian had scored 34 goals in 70 games for Swansea and Manchester City had paid an initial £25m for him, it appeared a better bit of business.
Shelvey was a more typical signing for Swansea: like previous successes such as Caulker, Leon Britton and Scott Sinclair, they found a player on the fringes of a bigger club's squad and granted him a pivotal role. Shelvey's occasional pratfalls mean his progress has not always been smooth, but he and Ki have now formed a terrific central midfield duo, costing less than £11m between them.
De Guzman apart, Laudrup's second summer of signing from Spain was less productive than the first and sowed the seeds of his departure. Yet at least his other additions had the merit of being cheap. When Swansea lose money -- and no club gets 100 percent of transfers right -- it is rarely that much.
Key signings: Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jefferson Montero, Lukasz Fabianski, Bafetimbi Gomis, Federico Fernandez, Jack Cork, Kyle Naughton
Considering the summer of 2014 was Monk's first transfer window as a manager, Swansea's achievements in the market were remarkable. His appointment brought the break-up of the Spanish contingent and a greater emphasis on Premier League experience as Monk, a former centre-back, placed an immediate emphasis on improving the defensive record. Fernandez proved an upgrade on the departed Flores, and there are suggestions the Argentinian will prove their next profitable departure to a superpower.
Conforming to the pattern of talented players needing regular first-team football, Fabianski may have been the free transfer of the summer. Sigurdsson was swapped with Tottenham for Ben Davies and Swansea got the better of that deal: only Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla recorded more top-flight assists than the inventive Icelander last season.
The £4m flyer Montero produced glimpses of his talent in his debut year, particularly against Arsenal, but has proved a more potent threat this year. Cork, who cost just £3m, was another unheralded bargain.
Gomis' arrival represented a piece of forward thinking in two respects. Swansea had a goalscorer in reserve so that Bony's January departure did not leave them without a striking threat. Thanks to Bony, this was another season when Swansea came out ahead in their dealings. That said, Gomis, who scored two winners against Arsenal and one against Manchester United, commanded a sizable signing-on fee. His arrival was a sign of things to come.
Key signings: Andre Ayew, Eder, Franck Tabanou
Like Gomis, Ayew arrived on a free transfer from Ligue 1 (Marseille, in the Ghanaian's case) albeit with the deal lubricated by a signing-on fee of £5.7m, according to reports in France. Like the striker, the winger has begun the season in the goals, prompting the thought he could be the signing of the summer.
Gomis' form means Portugal international Eder has been confined to cameos so far, while Tabanou has been an unused substitute in all three games. Yet the Frenchman's arrival, following on from the January arrival of Naughton, is a sign Monk is quietly looking to bring more dynamism to the full-back positions. The former Tottenham defender has displaced the veteran Angel Rangel, who arrived in 2007 for £10,000 and went on to make 124 top-flight appearances.
He is proof that Swansea's eye for a bargain dates back long before their promotion to the Premier League.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.