Anthony Martial became the world’s most expensive teenage footballer when he joined Manchester United before the close of the transfer window. The French striker now has the challenge of being the latest young player to be saddled with a mammoth price tag and an expectation to deliver a return on United’s significant investment. Time will tell whether he can elevate his game to the next level or whether the transfer fee will prove to be too burdensome for the 19-year-old. Some young players thrive on the pressure and expectation, and have the talent to justify the outlay, but others struggle to prove why a club paid so much for them. Here’s a top 10, which includes Martial, of big-money moves involving players under the age of 23.
Benzema joined Real Madrid from Lyon at the age of 21 six years ago for a fee in the region of £35million. He arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu having won four titles with Lyon, scoring 66 goals in 148 appearances in all competitions for the club. He was also the top scorer and Ligue 1 Player of the Year in 2007/08. At Real, Benzema has been a consistent scorer, but trophies have not particularly flowed during his six years at the club as he has just one Champions League and La Liga title to show for his efforts. His goalscoring record is always going to pale in comparison to his team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, but he has scored 87 goals in 188 appearances in La Liga prior to this season and 30 goals in 54 Champions League appearances. He was linked with a £45million move to Arsenal in the summer, something Benzema says would never have happened, and that shows how he has retained his ability and has been a worthwhile investment.
Arguably the player on the list who has turned out to be the biggest flop, and in a way partly through circumstances beyond his control, Carroll cost Liverpool £35million from Newcastle United just before the close of the January transfer window in 2011 not long after the striker’s 22nd birthday. Liverpool had the money to spend due to Fernando Torres’ equally eye-watering move to Chelsea, but it was still mind-boggling to think Carroll had just been made the most expensive English footballer in history, especially when Liverpool paid less for Luis Suarez in the same transfer window. Carroll scored in just one match before the end of that season and, in total, he scored just six goals in 44 Premier League appearances for the club. Still, he did score the opening goal in a 2-0 Merseyside derby win over Everton at Goodison Park and also scored the winner against the same opponents in the FA Cup semi-final, as well as scoring in the final against Chelsea. Brendan Rodgers’ appointment as manager, though, ruined his Liverpool career as he played just 18 minutes under the Northern Irishman before joining West Ham on loan 18 months after his arrival at Anfield. He then signed permanently for West Ham in 2013, but he has been hampered by a variety of injuries in the past two years.
It’s easy to forget that Hazard was just 21 when Chelsea paid £32million to sign him from Lille three years ago given how he has always appeared such an assured and mature player. The Belgian playmaker had won the double with Lille in 2011 and had twice been named the Ligue 1 Player and Young Player of the Year. He was wanted by several Premier League clubs, but chose Chelsea and he won the Europa League in his first season at the club. Last season, he was the decisive player in Chelsea winning the Premier League title as he scored 14 goals and provided nine assists. He scored the goal which clinched the title against Crystal Palace, as well as important goals against the likes of Arsenal, Southampton, West Ham and Manchester United. He has improved with each season at Stamford Bridge and he now has the challenge of repeating his exploits of last season.
United are reported to have paid an initial £36million to sign Martial from Monaco, which is around double what Tottenham were said to have been quoted earlier in the summer. It’s certainly a signing which is based on potential rather than on what Martial has achieved so far as he scored just nine goals in 35 appearances in Ligue 1 for Monaco last season. He also wasn’t a regular starter for the club. United are said to have moved quickly for a player who has been likened to Thierry Henry in order to avoid a battle for his services with rival big clubs next summer. Capped at all age levels by France, Martial made his senior debut in the recent friendly against Portugal. It’s clear that he is highly regarded both in France and across Europe, but he must now turn that potential into being a proven performer, and he does have the pace and direct style which United have been lacking. The striker is also in the right place to seek advice on how to handle being an expensive teenager as a couple of his team-mates know exactly how that feels.
The Brazilian turned 20 in the month Paris St Germain announced a deal had been agreed to sign Moura from Sao Paulo in August 2012. Manchester United and Inter Milan were also reported to have been interested in a player who cost £35.5million and officially linked up with the PSG squad in January 2013. During his time with PSG, Moura has won the Ligue 1 title three years in a row, but there is a sense that the jury may still be out regarding the midfielder. His first full season at PSG in 2013/14 saw Moura appear more times as a substitute in Ligue 1 than start, although he did contribute 10 assists. Last season, he started 22 games in Ligue 1, featuring seven times off the bench, as he scored seven goals and supplied five assists. He has yet to score in the Champions League and also can’t yet claim to be fully established in the Brazil set-up. There is no questioning Moura’s talent, it’s a case of him being able to deliver consistently before it can be considered as money truly well spent by PSG.
It eventually emerged that Barcelona had paid over £70million to sign the then-21-year-old Neymar from Santos in 2013. By that time, Neymar had already been named the South American Footballer of the Year twice and there are few young players in recent memory who have excited quite as much as the forward. He started half of Barcelona’s games in La Liga in his first season, but still scored nine goals and provided eight assists. It was last season when he established himself at Barcelona as part of the awesome attacking axis also comprising of Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. He scored 22 goals in 33 appearances in La Liga as well as 10 goals in 12 Champions League appearances as Barcelona won the Treble in Luis Enrique’s first year as coach. He also averages two goals in every three games for Brazil and it seems inconceivable that he won’t surpass Pele’s tally of 77 to become his country’s all-time leading goalscorer. And, should Barcelona ever decide to sell, amid reports of interest from Manchester United, then they can command a world-record transfer fee and thus make a profit on Neymar.
The Colombian has already been involved in two big-money moves. He first made his name in Europe with Porto when he joined just before his 19th birthday, winning three league titles and the Europa League during his time with the Portuguese club. The attacking midfielder then joined Monaco for a sizeable fee while he was still 21 in 2013. He had a fine season with Monaco as he scored seven goals and created 11 assists in 33 Ligue 1 appearances. It was at the end of that season at the World Cup in Brazil where Rodriguez really exploded onto the scene as he scored the goal of the tournament against Uruguay, in addition to finishing as top scorer with six goals. Just a few days after his 23rd birthday, Rodriguez became the latest Galactico to join Real Madrid and he again showed he was not in awe of his price tag by scoring 13 goals, and creating the same number of assists, in La Liga last season.
Few English players have polarised opinion quite as much as Rooney and there will always be a sense that he will be unable to convince some people of his ability as a footballer. There are unquestionably bad games from Rooney, but in terms of what he has delivered for Manchester United, it’s hard to quibble that they haven’t got value from the roughly £27million they paid to Everton in 2004, which at the time was the most spent on an 18-year-old. Rooney made a quick return on the investment by scoring a hat-trick against Fenerbahce on his debut in the Champions League, a trophy he won in 2008. He has also won five Premier League titles during his time at United and was the Player of the Year in 2010. Rooney has just broken Sir Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record for England and will no doubt now have sights on the one Charlton set at club level with United, but even then he will still remain something of a divisive figure. A request to leave United, before ultimately signing a new contract, certainly harmed his reputation, but his effort can’t be questioned and Louis van Gaal clearly sees something in Rooney to have him as his captain.
Like Rooney, Shaw is in the position of being able to tell Martial all about the pressures and expectations which come with a big-money move to Old Trafford as a teenager. Shaw was still 18 when United paid Southampton £30million for the left-back in the summer of 2014. By that point, Shaw had already made his England debut, was set to be the youngest player to feature in the World Cup in Brazil and had also been named in the PFA Team of the Year. But his first year at United was beset by fitness problems as he started just 15 games in the Premier League. He was hampered by ankle and hamstring injuries, and there were times when he didn’t look in the best shape. This season, though, Shaw looks in a much stronger condition and he has made an impressive start to the campaign. It’s still far too early in Shaw’s United career to effectively evaluate whether he can handle the pressure of the price tag or whether it’s money well spent. He has the ability and potential to be United’s left-back for the next decade or more. If that comes to fruition, then it will likely be a bargain signing.
The 20-year-old became the most expensive British footballer in history when he joined Manchester City from Liverpool in the summer for a fee somewhere in the region of £49million. That figure puts Sterling in the top 10 of the most expensive signings of all time. He was the third youngest player to appear for Liverpool when he made his debut against Wigan in March 2012 and, just a few months later, he was making his England debut in a friendly against Sweden. He had to wait nearly 18 months for his next England appearance against Denmark in the same match in which Shaw made his debut. Sterling was selected in England’s World Cup squad on the back of an impressive second half of the season with Liverpool and he was arguably the national team’s stand-out performer in Brazil. He scored seven goals and seven assists in 35 Premier League appearances for Liverpool last season before things turned sour for the winger at Anfield. He eventually secured his move to City and has made an encouraging start to his career, enough to ensure Manuel Pellegrini’s side are now favourites with Betfair to win the title. He created an assist against Everton and scored his first goal for the club against Watford. Like Shaw, he has the potential to be at his current club for the next decade or more, and it’s hard to envisage Sterling not being able to live up to his price tag. And, even if he doesn’t stay at City for the next 10 years, the likelihood is it will be because he will be joining a club such as Real Madrid and he would cost more than £49million if that happens.