According to research by football finance experts Deloitte, Premier League clubs spent £1.4bn on players over the 2021/22 season alone. Slightly more was spent the season before and over the entire history of the Premier League clubs have spent tens of billions of pounds on players. Whenever your own team sends £25m on a player, even if you had never so much as heard of them until the day of the deal, hopes are high that this is the person to change your club’s fortunes for the better.
Some signings are brilliant, ranging from the bargain basement (Everton’s signing of Seamus Coleman for just £60,000, to the very top end, such as the £75m Liverpool paid for Virgil van Dijk). Hugely different fees (you could get 1,250 Coleman’s for the price of one Van Dijk!) but both represent incredible value and truly brilliant signings.
However, our focus in this article is not on the players who made a difference, not on the signings that became club legends and the subject of passionate chants. Oh, no. Instead, our focus here is on the very worst signings in the long and storied history of the Premier League. Once again, we will be looking at both ends of the market. Just because a player was signed cheaply does not make them immune from our scrutiny, although given there is an emphasis on value, many of the players we will feature are the ones who have commanded huge, seven-, eight- and even nine-figure transfer fees!
So, in no particular order …
1. Romelu Lukaku – £101.7m, Inter Milan to Chelsea
Well, we said this was in no particular order but we thought the second most expensive Premier League signing in history was a decent enough place to begin. Many sources put Lukaku’s deal at just under £100m but the reliable Statista put it at £101.7m so we’ll go with that.
It is no doubt harsh to include the big Belgian in this list as he hasn’t been a total disaster and, moreover, it is very early to judge a player who is, at the time of writing, less than one season into their move. This is why Jack Grealish won’t feature, at least not yet! However, the case for the prosecution is thus: £101.7m is a lot of money and, what’s more, the club had previously sold him for “just” £30m. That signing, by Everton, would probably count among the Premier League’s better moves as the Toffees made a tidy £45m profit on Lukaku and got a productive three years out of him.
This brings us to the second reason his signing has been so poor. He should have done so much better. He wasn’t a gamble, or so it seemed, because he had a proven track record in the Premier League, having scored regularly with much poorer service at West Brom, Everton and even Man United. In addition, he hit the ground running with the Blues, scoring three times in his first three PL games.
Since then he has been poor though and this brings us to the last reason for his inclusion. Struggling for goals happens to a striker from time to time. However, sulking and publicly courting your former employer is not on. Lukaku may well prove us wrong if he stays at Chelsea but at the time of writing, eight goals from 25 Premier League games is not the return of a £100m striker and if he does leave the Blues in the summer they are unlikely to get that sum back.
2. Paul Pogba – £89m, Juventus to Man United
There are many differences between the two transfers we have listed first and second but there are obvious similarities as well. Like Lukaku, Pogba was returning to a former club for a fee substantially more than he left for. Like Lukaku, there have been glimpses of brilliance but overall the impression left is hugely underwhelming.
Whilst we accept many will question Lukaku’s place on this list, few will disagree that Pogba is fully deserving. He moved for a then world-record sum on the back of some fine performances at the 2016 Euros but has never found the form he showed for Juventus or for his national side for the Red Devils.
He has looked unmotivated at times and has not contributed enough on the pitch, whilst off the pitch he has provided negative attention too. At times during his time at Old Trafford it felt like not a week went by without some sort of story about him or his agent agitating for a move or bemoaning his situation (whilst earning a reported £290,000 per week). Ultimately, he just hasn’t been good enough on the pitch, with 39 goals from 233 appearances being a poor return given he has often played high up the pitch.
3. Nicolas Pepe – £72m, Lille to Arsenal
The third entry on our list of dreadful Premier League signings maintains our theme of relatively recent signings that were made at a huge cost. Somehow the repeated failings of Pepe are not major news but in truth, if we were to grade these signings in order, he would quite possibly be very near the top of the list.
He remains one of the most expensive signings in the history of the Premier League and whilst the defence of “he’s still young” might have washed at first, at the time of writing he is days away from his 27th birthday. If anything he is going backwards, having managed five league goals in his first season with the Gunners, 10 (though just one assist compared with six a year earlier) in 2020/21 and just a single goal (and one assist) with just a couple of games of 2021/22 left.
All in all he has managed 27 goals and 20 assists for Arsenal in 110 appearances. His stats for Lille were 37 and 18 respectively from just 79 matches. Whilst the Premier League is, of course, tougher than Ligue 1, when Arsenal paid in excess of £70m for Pepe they did so because they believed he was capable of making the step up. Thus far they have been wrong and, now valued closer to £25m, the former starlet’s time in north London may be coming to an end.
4. Ricky van Wolfswinkel – £9m, Sporting Lisbon to Norwich
Now for a change of pace. Norwich signed Dutch forward Van Wolfswinkel for an undisclosed fee, believed to be a (then) club record £9m, in 2013. Fans of the Norfolk outfit believed they had signed a player capable of scoring the goals that would keep them in the Premier League and as a full Dutch international, signed for a big fee, who had scored goals at a rate of roughly one per two games in Portugal, this seemed like a reasonable assumption.
Anyone who has ever had the joy of working in a call centre or other similar environment with cliché-packed “training” will know that “when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me”. Oh Norwich fans, how wrong you were. We don’t know what the Dutch for donkey is but for now, “Ricky” will do.
He made 25 Premier League appearances for Norwich, which, if nothing else does have an airport with direct flights back to Netherlands, easing RVW’s (even his name is annoying) travel plans. He was on the pitch for 1,394 minutes in total and in that time he managed just a single goal as his side were relegated. What makes this even worse he that he actually scored on his debut in a 2-2 draw against Everton! After a number of failed loan spells, he returned to his former club Vitesse for around £500,000 in 2016.
5. Angel Di Maria – £67.5m, Real Madrid to Man United
Fergie did not get all his transfers right at Old Trafford by any means but since he left the club United have appeared as if they are trying to outdo themselves in terms of the poor return they get on their investment. United could have so many entries on this list but for now it is the turn of Luis van Gaal signing, Angel Di Maria.
Signing a fast, attacking and skilful Argentina international from Real Madrid for a huge fee is sure to excite fans. Di Maria was described at the time as being world-class by his new boss and few pundits would disagree. The Rosario native settled quickly and was United’s player of the month in October but that was as good as it got.
Injuries affected his season, whilst off the pitch a burglary at his house unsettled him and his family a great deal. However, what the stats tell us, is that for their expenditure of almost £70m (back in 2014 when this was a lot of money!), United got just 32 league and FA Cup games and a very meagre four goals.
One season was enough for both parties and just under 12 months after buying him, the Red Devils sold Di Maria to PSG. Losing around £10m on the deal was, actually, seen as decent business by United, although when the former Galactico promptly returned to Galactico form in Paris, the whole signing started to look worse and worse.
6. Seth Johnson – £10.4m, Derby to Leeds United
Leeds’ financial mismanagement ultimately led to them going into administration and is so well known that “Doing a Leeds” even has its own Wikipedia entry! Johnson hardly set the world alight at his new club, with injuries limiting his time on the pitch to just 58 appearances in all competitions, spread over four seasons. The midfielder scored just four goals in his time at Leeds and never got close to capturing the form that earned him his big move.
However, the main reason for his appearance on our list is the famous, though almost certainly untrue, story about his wage negotiations. Earning around £5,000 per week at Derby, Johnson was, apparently, hoping to earn around £13,000 at Leeds. Leeds boss Peter Ridsdale, now highly denigrated for his role in the downfall of the club, is said to have opened the bidding at £30,000 per week. When Johnson looked aghast, he reportedly increased that to £37,000 and said that was as high as he could possibly go!
This story has taken on a life of its own in football circles and the city of Leeds but, if Johnson and Ridsdale are to be believed it never happened. Indeed, the player says he wasn’t even present for the contract negotiations. We suspect there was at least some truth in it though and given his average performances on the pitch, when he was able to play, Johnson is certainly worth his place on our list!
7. Fernando Torres – £50m, Liverpool to Chelsea
Fernando Torres scored 81 goals in 142 games for Liverpool following his £20m move from Atletico Madrid, where he had been a club hero, captaining the side at the age of just 19. He was much-loved at Liverpool too, his partnership with Steven Gerrard appearing telepathic at times and so it was highly controversial when he moved to rivals Chelsea.
In January 2011 the Blues felt they were getting the finished article and they were certainly paying top dollar for a player in his prime at the age of 26. However, things just did not work out for the Spanish international at Stamford Bridge and before too long it became apparent the transfer was a disaster. Some feel that Torres was a player that relied almost entirely on his extreme pace and that, having been playing top-level football since he was 16, he started to lose that extra yard earlier than most.
Whatever the reason though, Torres was a terrible investment by Roman Abramovich. He was loaned to AC Milan before a permanent move for a nominal fee in 2014. In his three years in west London he managed just 45 goals from 172 games, a huge downturn in productivity from his time with Liverpool. His first season was particularly bad, as “El Nino” managed just a single goal in 18 Premier League and Champions League appearances.
8. Andy Carroll – £35m, Newcastle United to Liverpool
Sticking with expensive strikers signed on the 31st January 2011, we turn to the man Liverpool sought to replace Torres with, Andy Carroll. The Geordie striker took Torres’ number nine shirt having notched 11 PL goals in 19 matches for his home-town club and made his debut for England. He looked to have it all and as well as his obvious physical attributes, Carroll had fine technique and was capable of scoring from outside the box as well. A bargain at £35m for a 22 year old with his best years ahead of him!
As with Torres, we will never quite know why Carroll flopped but his attitude and behaviour off the pitch are certainly to be questioned. At the time of the move Alan Shearer, a man who knows a thing or two about being a Geordie number nine, noted that “…he’s been in trouble once or twice before and that would be the major concern.”
Whatever the explanation, Carroll was an abject failure at Liverpool, despite having the brilliant Luis Suarez alongside him. That should have been a front two to strike fear (on all levels) into any Premier League defence but ultimately the two rarely played together. Carroll was eventually sold to West Ham in July 2013 for well under half of what Liverpool paid for him. He played just 58 times for the Reds and managed 11 goals, his tally of eight yellow cards embarrassingly close to that goals record. In 2011/12 he played 35 PL matches and recorded a meagre four goals, offering a terrible return on the £35m fee.
9. Andriy Shevchenko – £40m, AC Milan to Chelsea
Chelsea should have learned that spending big money on a striker is no guarantee of success because Torres was not their first such mistake. Five years earlier, in 2006, they had spent the huge sum of £40m on Andriy Shevchenko, believing they were buying one of the world’s very best transfers. In a sign of what was to come with Torres, it turned out they were buying a player who was well past his best and who would prove a terrible waste of money.
The deal for the Ukrainian Shevchenko was very much believed to have been pushed through by Abramovich, with the manager and scouts less keen. It was certainly a case of the owner’s influence proving negative as the 2004 Ballon d’Or winner, who scored at better than a goal every two games in his career overall, managed just 22 in 77 matches in the blue of Chelsea.
His return in the Premier League was especially bad, with just four goals in 30 games in his first campaign. In 2007/08 he improved a little, though played fewer minutes. Even so, five goals from 17 appearances was a poor return and Sheva’s time at the west London outfit was ended after just one league outing (and no goals) in 2009/10.
10. Ali Dia – Free transfer, Unattached to Southampton
We like to keep you on your toes with this list and so, after a raft of big-money signings that didn’t pay off, we now switch to a free transfer! How can a free transfer – and one on low wages and a short-term deal as well – be considered one of the worst signings in Premier League history? Well, fair question.
The answer is that Dia was not a footballer for a start, at least not really. Dia is perhaps best seen as a fraudster who somehow bagged himself, however briefly, a bona fide Premier League contract. Pretending to be legendary Liberian former AC Milan striker George Weah, a friend of Dia’s phoned then-Southampton boss Graeme Souness and suggested that Dia, according to the story Weah’s cousin, was worth a try.
Despite never having heard of him or seen him play football, Souness, perhaps the bitterest man in football, signed Dia on a one-month contract. He played 53 minutes in the Premier League, replacing the injured Matt Le Tissier against Leeds before himself being subbed off. Le Tissier explained that, “He ran around the pitch like Bambi on ice; it was very embarrassing to watch.”
Dia, who had already failed trials at a number of lower league clubs, was released after just 14 days of his contract. His transfer cost Southampton very little, apart from a lot of embarrassment, but even so, surely has to go down as one of the worst in the history of the Premier League. Dia graduated from Northumbria University in 2001 having played for a number of North East clubs during the mid and late 1990s, though only generally playing for one game!
11. Adrian Mutu – £17m, Parma to Chelsea
Okay, after that brief break for a signing that was more comic than tragic, let us get back to Chelsea signing strikers for big money and not seeing a return on their investment. Adrian Mutu was signed for around £17m way back in 2003 but only played 38 times for the Pensioners, scoring a very poor 10 goals. As a one-in-two striker at international level for Romania, Chelsea expected more but Mutu was a major letdown both on and off the pitch.
He finished his playing days in India and his native Romania after his Chelsea career ended in disgrace. In September 2004 he was banned from football for seven months following a positive drug test for cocaine. Chelsea sacked the forward and whilst his first season was not a total disaster on the pitch, the whole saga was a sorry one that ended with a protracted legal battle between player and club, with Chelsea claiming Mutu owed them millions of pounds for breach of contract. In 2018, the European Court of Rights rejected an appeal by Mutu in a legal battle that has spanned almost 15 years and numerous courts and arbitration bodies.
12. Alberto Aquilani – £18m, Roma to Liverpool
In truth, there are so many players who could make this list. After all, we have had three decades of Premier League signings with billions of pounds spent. Deciding who to include and who not to is an impossible task and unless we did a top 100 there would surely be players many feel should have been included but were not.
So, to Alberto Aquilani, signed for £18m, which was an awful lot of money for a central midfielder back in 2009. The Italian played for his national side at all levels from under 15 onwards, including the full side where his five goals from 38 appearances are respectable numbers. His career on Merseyside was far less impressive though.
Signed by Rafa Benitez to replace the brilliant Xabi Alonso, Aquilani never settled at the Reds and in the end played just 28 games, scoring twice. Various loans back to Italy followed before he was eventually sold for a fraction of the huge fee Liverpool paid, just over £1m. The Merseyside giants lost a huge amount of money on the transfer and paid out a lot in wages as well, making this a terrible transfer and certainly among the worst the Premier League has ever seen.
13. Jack Rodwell – £11.25m, Man City to Sunderland
Jack Rodwell is the penultimate entry on our list and his is an interesting case that should act as a cautionary tale to many young players, seemingly with the world at their feet. There are many such players, from fellow Everton product Francis Jeffers to players like Jack Wilshere and Dele Alli, who played for England and looked to the potential to become greats but then saw their careers stall and ultimately go into rapid decline.
At the time of writing, Rodwell is just 31 and if you are the world’s most optimistic optimist you may feel he could yet get back to his best football. The reality, however, is that he probably peaked in 2009/10 at Everton. His fine, charging, rampaging goal that season against Man United had the Red Devils and clubs around the world on alert for a player who seemed to have it all. Great athleticism, an eye for goal, superb technique, a range of passing and defensive nous.
Fast forward just a few years to 2014 and following a poor spell at Man City (who signed him for £13.5m from Everton), Sunderland thought they were getting a bargain in paying around £11m for the England international. Many players move to huge clubs and fail to quite settle, or simply don’t get the chances such is the quality within the squad. But Sunderland felt sure they had a top-quality midfielder who could make the difference for them and signed him eagerly.
Perhaps they were just a little too eager though because the contract they handed the Southport-born player was worth a huge £70,000 a week and did not include any provision for a reduction if the club were relegated. In the end, Rodwell played 76 times for the Black Cats, infamously going 39 league games spread over almost four years without playing in a win for his side. In 2016/17, Sunderland finished bottom of the PL but could not offload the frequently injured former star who continued to collect his very generous pay.
The following season they finished bottom of the Championship, sinking to the third tier. And still Rodwell continued to collect his £70,000 per week, despite rarely making it to the pitch (he made just two league appearances). Various parts of the story are disputed but Rodwell did eventually leave the club in the summer of 2018, heading to Blackburn on a free transfer. Now plying his trade in Australia, two North East newspapers named him the worst signing in the entire history of Sunderland AFC (and given they’ve had some shockers over the years that takes some doing).
14. Giannelli Imbula – £22m, Porto to Soke City
We really could just keep going with this list but we’ll draw it to a close here with another different sort of calamity signing. We hope this list makes you see that terrible transfers can come in many shapes and sizes and players and deals have made our list for a range of reasons. There is something fitting about ending with an unlikely sort of transfer, that of Giannelli Imbula to Stoke City.
Stoke were a Premier League regular for many years, competing in the top flight between 2008/09 and 2017/18. Their record ever signing was defensive midfielder Imbula, whom they brought in from Porto in 2016. One of countless players to have been dubbed “the next Patrick Vieira”, Imbula should have been a perfect fit at Stoke, with his rugged style of play.
Sadly, as his inclusion on this list would indicate, it didn’t work out for the man from Belgium, who now plays in Portugal after various stints at various clubs, including one in Russia. 29 at the time of writing, the twice-capped Congo international saw his contract with Stoke cancelled by mutual consent. In the end, he played just 26 Premier League games for the Potters, spread over two seasons, the second of which saw his side relegated. It was a huge sum of money for Stoke to pay for a defensive midfielder in 2016 and it was money very badly spent.