Transfers and Negotiation Theory

Image: SpursWeb

In any negotiating it’s a good idea to establish the principle, then haggle over the price (as the actress said to the bishop):

Will you sell me your classic car for £5,000?

No! Go away!


No! Are you deaf? 

How about £30,000 for that car and those three other cars?

Now you’re talking!

In the 2015/2016 episodes of the Saido Berahino transfer case, West Brom originally let it be known that they did want to sell Berahino at all, but in any case definitely not for anything less than £25 million! They conceded the principle. Tottenham came in with £15 million or thereabouts as their price. A boring war of nerves ensued.

All negotiating boils down to a few existential issues: Security, Resources, Control, Reputation/Recognition and Risk. The best negotiators trade within and between these ideas.

This three-way negotiation (Tottenham v West Brom v Berahino/agent) was all about trading Resources and Risk:

You say Berahino is worth £25 million? We’re sure he’s worth £15 million, but not sure he’s worth a further £10 million. Come on, nor are you! So let’s share the risk on that part, by having further payments according to results?

West Brom were unimpressed by that ingenious argument, insisting on a higher price up front.

There were two other factors at play here. Time and Trust.

In most negotiations Time is more or less flexible, since flexibility suits the parties:

We’re close to a deal! Let’s agree to finish it tomorrow, ignoring that deadline we set ourselves.

In international negotiating, Time can be unlimited. Issues drag on for decades if not centuries: Cyprus, Korean peninsula, Russia/Ukraine/Poland/Germany. Brexit?

For football transfers Time is in effect fixed: transfers take place only within specified dates. This generates noisy media pseudo-excitement. It also forces to the fore Trust. Are all concerned negotiating in good faith? There are only so many options to be kept open as the transfer deadline clock counts down:

If we keep talking to you, are you serious? Can expect to clinch a deal? If you mess us around, we’ll run out of time to talk to anyone else.

In the extended machinations between Tottenham and West Brom over Berahino, the reputation of the two clubs’ respective chairmen eventually came publicly into play. In other words, a new factor emerged: Pride. Neither person wanted to end up looking ‘weak’ or ’embarrassed’. No deal was done.

This is a powerful example of the importance of ‘subjective’ factors in negotiating. A dispassionate outsider might listen to what the different parties are saying, and identify possible outcomes that are fair and reasonable. But once the parties’ own emotions come into play, pride and stubbornness can take over and lead to everyone getting a bad outcome.

It’s hard not to look at the Berahino saga and not conclude that West Brom blew it when they failed to clinch a deal with Tottenham in 2015. They ended up with a miserable, underperforming Berahino who scarcely played for a year and who eventually was bought by Stoke for (it seems) less than Tottenham offered.

But did Tottenham too get a bad result by digging their heels in and not paying more when Berahino was younger and performing well? Maybe. We can’t watch all the goals he didn’t score. We can see Robert Soldado and now Vincent Janssen not scoring at anything like the rate expected.

The point?

In transfer negotiations no-one knows, including the players concerned themselves, what they might become. For every missed Berahino there is a Holtby who plays well but never quite works out, a Soldado who works like hell but just can’t score, an Eriksen who grows steadily into a world-class talent, a Lamela who flickers brightly but gets injured and hasn’t (yet) quite caught fire, a Wanyama who more than justifies his fee from the first kick, and a Bale who starts off poorly but mutates over a few years into a colossus. And a Dele Alli, whose value is already at dizzy heights.

Within all this uncertainty and with a necessarily tight budget, the best path to success lies in being methodical. Having a strong system, an unrelenting work ethic, and tip-top team spirit. That’s what Tottenham have now, for the first time in decades. If there’s no Berahino in that mix, too bad for Berahino and for West Brom. Pride is expensive.

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