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Is the 'Bundesliga Tax' real?
It'd be annoying if irritating people in my Twitter mentions were right. But let's hear the case for it.
For the last few years, I spent a lot of time praising Jadon Sancho.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, Sancho hasn’t been flying at Manchester United so far. This didn’t go unnoticed on Twitter.
Credit where credit’s due, “bundass tax” is pretty funny. And I have no memory of writing that Messi tweet, but I’m sure it was tongue-in-cheek. (Also, kind of weird that people care enough about my tweets to dig through all my old takes like that. I’m not that interesting.)
Nevertheless, Sancho clearly isn’t performing to the same level as his Borussia Dortmund form. I could break out all the fancy stats to make this case, but one goal and zero assists in 937 Premier League minutes more than tells the story as it is. The “Bundesliga tax” line has been growing louder in recent years. When I look at some of my big misses in terms of transfer expectations (Luka Jović, Naby Keïta and Timo Werner to name three), there are plenty of players moving from the Bundesliga to another league.
There have been estimates to calculate this “Bundesliga tax”. Tony ElHabr estimated that the tax was at 17%, while Michael Caley had it at more like 12%. That’s a noticeable difference, yes. But it’s still not so huge to suggest Sancho for £73 million wasn’t a very good deal.
Perhaps these figures aren’t attuned to the current reality. They’re using data from the last ten years or so, which includes the seasons when Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund would face off against Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. Everyone agrees the Bundesliga was good then. The Premier League, comparatively, was in a slump where tactically disorganised sides would get dumped out of the Champions League to their often poorer continental counterparts.
I think we can generally agree that the Premier League is better today than it was for the majority of the 2010s, while the Bundesliga has gone in the opposite direction. RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg all failed to get out of their Champions League groups, leaving Bayern as the sole contender in Europe’s last 16. FiveThirtyEight’s “Global Club Soccer Rankings” has just three Bundesliga sides among Europe’s 25 best teams. The Premier League has seven, La Liga has six, and Serie A four. It’s not unreasonable to question how good the German top-flight actually is right now.
Then again, transfers between leagues fail a lot more often than most fans assume.
Here are the top ten (according to Transfermarkt) most expensive deals involving one player moving between countries since 2019:
João Félix, Benfica (Primeira Liga) to Atlético Madrid (La Liga): £114m
Eden Hazard, Chelsea (Premier League) to Real Madrid (La Liga): £104m
Romelu Lukaku, Inter (Serie A) to Chelsea (Premier League): £102m
Frenkie de Jong, Ajax (Eredivisie) to Barcelona (La Liga): £77m
Matthijs de Ligt, Ajax (Eredivisie) to Juventus (Serie A): £77m
Jadon Sancho, Borussia Dortmund (Bundesliga) to Manchester United (Premier League): £77m
Lucas Hernandez, Atlético Madrid (La Liga) to Bayern Munich (Bundesliga): £72m
Kai Havertz, Bayer Leverkusen (Bundesliga) to Chelsea (Premier League): £72m
Nicolas Pépé, Lille OSC (Ligue 1) to Arsenal (Premier League): £72m
Arthur Melo, Barcelona (La Liga) to Juventus (Serie A): £68m
We see two big “Bundesliga tax” deals on this list, Sancho and Kai Havertz, but they don’t really stand out because essentially none of these transfers have succeeded. That’s a pretty damning indictment of recruitment at the highest level. I compiled a list of every transfer in this category over £25m, but it was far too long to fit into this article. If you want to read all those names, you can do so here. I think most would agree the vast majority of those transfers have not been good value for money.
If we just limit ourselves to players moving from the Bundesliga to other leagues, we have the following handful of names:
Sancho, Havertz, Jović, Christian Pulisic, Werner, Joelinton, Ibrahima Konaté, Leon Bailey.
We’ll ignore Konate just because it’s hard to evaluate centre backs with data (my personal view from watching him at Liverpool so far is “promising but erratic”). That gives us six names. Let’s look at their expected goals and assists per 90 in their last two years in Germany (one in Joelinton’s case) compared to what they’ve produced in their new leagues.1
Jadon Sancho: 0.66 —> 0.28, 58% decrease.
Kai Havertz: 0.51 —> 0.43, 16% decrease.
Luka Jović: 0.72 —> 0.65, 10% decrease, with all the asterisks.
Christian Pulisic: 0.48 —> 0.49, 2% increase(!)
Timo Werner: 0.81 —> 0.61, 25% decrease.
Joelinton: 0.57 —> 0.27, 53% decrease.
Leon Bailey: 0.55 —> 45% decrease, minuscule sample size edition.
Ok, first off, congratulations to Mr Pulisic for beating the trend here. Not that you’re getting any credit for it. Pulisic has found himself in the “Bundesliga tax” conversation anyway, both down to injuries (they happen everywhere in the world) and the expectation that his last two years in Dortmund were already disappointing and he should be stepping up a gear. (And, let’s be honest, he has the only passport that can get someone more extra hype than young English players.) Nevertheless, it has to be noted that he’s not really playing any worse than he was towards the end of his time in Germany.
Jović has to have the significant asterisk that he went back to Eintracht Frankfurt last season and couldn’t get close to his previous standards. Something is happening with him, but it’s very hard to figure out how good he really is. Leon Bailey has barely featured, so let’s check back in this time next year. Joelinton plays for Newcastle.
That just leaves us with Sancho and the Chelsea trio. Compared to those three, Sancho clearly looks a big disappointment. Ralf Rangnick has talked about the psychological pressure he’s feeling, and I’m sure there’s some truth in that. Let’s say the average between the three Chelsea players – about 13% – is the baseline for what we should be expecting from him. That’s not far off Caley and ElHabr’s projections.
Maybe the “tax” is about tactical differences as much as anything else. People always talk about the Premier League’s “pace” and “intensity”, but I think that’s a misnomer. The Bundesliga is nothing if not fast. I always remember Werner talking in his first post-match interview at Chelsea about how he’d never faced three centre backs the size of Brighton’s before. The Premier League is more physical, and it uses that physical advantage differently.
I feel like I go on and on about this, but the Bundesliga is fairly unique in being such a transition-based league. Players who primarily blitz opponents on the counter, such as Werner, get more chances to do it in Germany than anywhere else in the world. If you want that kind of football elsewhere, you have to tactically adapt. It took Jürgen Klopp years to figure out how to change his template for English football, adding quality from the full backs to both dominate when in possession help force those transition moments.
All of this is to say that I have no idea just how real the “Bundesliga tax” is. The real tax, I think, is on just about any transfer. We should probably be more sceptical of just about every player replicating their previous form in a new environment. I still think Sancho can and will do more than he has so far in a Man Utd shirt. But it’s a valuable data point in understanding just how to evaluate these sorts of moves.
I’d say let’s come back at this in a year, but we still probably won’t know. We may never know. If we understood just about anything about football, the sport would get boring pretty fast. Thankfully, that’s not going to happen.