In the middle of May, football returned to Germany with a surreal Rivierderby. In a match estimated to be the most-watched league fixture in the country’s history, Borussia Dortmund thumped Schalke 04 in playing conditions without precedent. It also provided the larger world with more glimpses of Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho, two players heavily linked with moves to the Premier League in the near future.
The performances since of these two players, along with Timo Werner of RB Leipzig and Kai Havertz of Bayer Leverkusen, have provided plenty of fodder for those anticipating big-name signings over the summer. To be fair, all four players have been on the radar of multiple clubs for well over a year now with Manchester United’s interest in Sancho and Liverpool’s flirtation with Werner (enter Chelsea) well established.
For all the excitement surrounding these players, it would be useful to take a step back and examine historical transfers from the Bundesliga to the Premier League, especially in the forward positions. Among players aged twenty-three and under, the biggest moves in terms of money have been Christian Pulisic, Leroy Sané, Joelinton, Roberto Firmino, Heung-Min-Son and André Schürrle. It is fair to say that none of these players had great first seasons in England.
Werner is the oldest of the current lot at twenty-four and the most likely to make an instant impact. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Dimitar Berbatov and to a lesser extent, Papiss Cissé and Shinji Okazaki, are the only forwards who have arrived from Germany and hit the ground running. Edin Džeko moved from Wolfsburg to Manchester City in January 2011 in a Bundesliga record transfer at the time and while he took some time to adjust, would go on to have three prolific seasons at the club before a dip in fortunes.
The common thread that runs through these five players when they made their moves is that they all had more than 200 senior appearances before heading to the Premier League. Werner is the only one to tick that box among the players being discussed. The German was always the player that looked the best value amongst the four with his attractive release clause. Liverpool’s reluctance to activate it, while understandable, may backfire in the long term.
While Havertz has the talent to play anywhere along the frontline, his best work has often been in attacking midfield. The Bundesliga has provided a few fine central midfielders with Ilkay Gündogan and Michael Ballack showing their pedigree at Manchester City and Chelsea respectively. The transition is rarely smooth for midfielders in advanced positions though and Kevin De Bruyne is the only one who has been able to seamlessly transfer his skills to the Premier League. His failed stint at Chelsea before moving to Wolfsburg no doubt helped.
Exceptional players like Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Shinji Kagawa, who were expected to dominate the league, failed to make much of an impact and quietly exited English shores. The wait for Naby Keïta to justify the hype and money at Liverpool continues two years into his stint at the club.
The pace and intensity of the games in England is something that Havertz will have to contend with and while he looks like a player who has all the tools, things can unravel fairly quickly in the rough and tumble of the Premier League.
If and when these young starlets make the journey, and Werner is almost certain to, the past shows us that the odds are heavily stacked against them making a blistering start. Around this time last year, Sébastian Haller and Joelinton were being head-hunted by West Ham and Newcastle United before being eventually unveiled as club record signings. They only have eight goals between them this season.
It cost City a Bundesliga record £55 million to bring De Bruyne to the Premier League. Werner will cost Chelsea almost the same and the numbers being bandied about for the other three players are considerably more. If the clubs seeking to buy Sancho, Havertz or Haaland are looking for immediate results, they might as well spend the big money on more established players. The Premier League has a habit of tripping up young players from overseas and in the current climate, £60-80 million mistakes can set a club back a couple of seasons.