If you happen to be a fan of the NBA, then you're perhaps familiar with the work of Grantland's Bill Simmons. For over a decade now, he's written a column where he attempts to rank the NBA's top 50 players in regards to how valuable they are as assets. The basic premise is simple: If every team declared every player in the NBA available for trade, who would fetch the biggest return? Other Grantland writers have attempted similar pieces for Major League Baseball and the NFL.
Player transactions in American professional sports, though, operate in a different fashion than from the Premier League. For example, if the NFL's New England Patriots desired a player under contract from the Seattle Seahawks, they typically would trade one of their players (or perhaps numerous players) and/or draft picks (from the NFL's annual amateur draft) in order to make that transaction happen. In the Premier League though, transfer fees are the norm in business. An example of this is the £24-million that Manchester United paid Arsenal last summer for Robin van Persie.
Despite this different nature of transactions, a ranking system for Premier League footballers can be developed in a similar vein to the ones done by Grantland writers for the NBA, the NFL, and MLB. Metrics are far more advanced in assessing a particular player's value in American sports -- particularly for baseball -- but observers of football are certainly not short of opinion. In this piece, I'm going to have a subjective go at ranking 27 Manchester United players (perhaps a league wide ranking piece will be done on another day).
There are some key parameters to keep in mind as this isn't a simple comparison of quality between players. For example, Rio Ferdinand is probably still a better player than Jonny Evans. However, which player is the more valuable asset -- Evans on £65k/week wages at 25-years-old or Ferdinand on £115k/week at 34-years-old? Here are some very key factors to keep in mind for this player ranking of United players:
1. Contracts matter. The Ferdinand and Evans example I just provided demonstrates why. In addition, the latter still has three more years remaining on his current contract while the former's expires in the summer. Clearly, one player has a lot more sell-on value and more to offer in the future.
2. Age matters. Again, the Ferdinand and Evans example works well to explain this.
3. Keep in mind that this ranking is done for United and not for another club. This matters because while United can afford to pay players with wages north of £200k/week, a club like Wigan Athletic cannot. These two clubs would rank a player like Robin van Persie very differently.
4. Registered players only. I'm going to stick with the 24 players United have registered with the Premier League this season plus two Under-21 players. I'm not going to be including less established prospects like a Michael Keane or an Adnan Januazaj nor players out on loan. The only player I'm going to break this rule for is Wilfried Zaha because he's fun and he makes me less depressed about United's current winger situation.
5. Positional scarcity matters. For example, strikers tend to be more valuable than players at any other position while goalkeepers and full-backs tend to have less value.
6. It's a question of degree. Luis Suarez could be argued to be a more valuable asset as a footballer than van Persie -- again, you have to consider age and contracts -- but there's no way United would ever prefer the Uruguayan over the Dutchman for a plethora of reasons. Other clubs, though, might think differently if asked to assess the two players. Again, the rankings will be done with United context in mind.
7. The rankings run in reverse order. For example, the player I rank 16th is a less valuable asset than the player I rank 4th.
There isn't a full disclosure of wages in the Premier League like there is in the NFL, the NBA, and MLB. Therefore, the wages and contract length provided for each player has been found by my best internet searching efforts (this took an annoyingly long time). Contract information is very unlikely to be 100% accurate for each and every player.
GROUP 1: THERE'S PROBABLY NO FUTURE AT UNITED
27. Ben Amos | Age: 22 | Wages: £10k/week | Contract: 2 years remaining
I have nothing against Amos. He could end up having a really solid career. However, even though the Englishman is young, he's still the same age as the more talented David de Gea. Amos will not be the No.1 at United anytime in the near future, if ever.
26. Paul Scholes | Age: 38 | Wages: £60k/week | Contract: 0 years remaining
When the legend made a sudden return from retirement last season in January 2012, he was delightfully wonderful. It was an absolute treat to watch him brilliantly pull the strings as a deep-lying maker. His influence was so great that he even finished 3rd in the voting for FWA's player of the year (after just four-and-a-half months of work). Scholes, though, has been on the periphery as of late and it won't be a surprise at all if he decides to retire. If he does, I do hope we are treated to one more vintage performance.
GROUP 2: THEIR LONG-TERM FUTURE AT UNITED IS UNCERTAIN
25. Darren Fletcher | Age: 29 | Wages: £80k/week | Contract: 2 years remaining
Fletch has been an incredible servant at the club and his battle with ulcerative colitis these past few years has been incredibly unfortunate -- mostly for him but for the club as well. His energy once was so vital in screening for the likes of Scholes and Michael Carrick in the center of the park. Hopefully the Scot's chronic illness is being resolved rather than just the symptoms being relieved. If he does make a comeback, it'll be as a holding-midfielder rather than as an industrious box-to-box midfielder. It would be unfair (and foolish) to expect him to come back and be as influential as he was in the past.
24: Anders Lindegaard | Age: 28 | Wages: £40k/week | Contract: 3 years remaining
I enjoy Lindegaard interviews: he's engaging and well-spoken, full of ambition, and he clearly expresses his gratefulness to be at United. Despite his desire to be the No.1 at Old Trafford, the Dane is clearly a lesser talent than de Gea -- and 8 years older. Lindegaard provides decent depth, but if he's no longer content with sitting on the bench, then the club wouldn't be too bothered if he requested a transfer.
23: Ryan Giggs | Age: 39 | Wages: £75k/week | Contract: 1 year remaining
I tried to convince myself that Giggs should be higher up the list. Yes, he'll be 40-years-old next season and he obviously has no tangible value as an asset if the club hypothetically wanted to sell him. He's been tremendous this season, though, particularly in the past 3-4 months. With the woeful form of the other wingers this season, his injection of creativity and tactical discipline -- the best example being his incredible display against Real Madrid at Old Trafford -- has been a blessing. The Welshman has given a boost to the attack just as Scholes did for the midfield last season. That's a reminder, though, at this advanced age, Giggs can slip any day now (just as Scholes has now) and no longer be a reliable performer. That day is soon coming, we just don't know when precisely.
22. Alexander Buttner | Age: 24 | Wages: £15k/week | Contract: 4 years remaining
The glimpses we've seen of the Dutchman have displayed an energetic left-back that loves to surge forward in order to join the attack. Buttner seems to have no fear getting stuck-in and he's shown a willingness to take on defenders by trying to dribble past them. He had wonderful performances this season against Wigan Athletic and Sunderland as well. It's tough, though, to accurately assess his ability since his appearances have been so limited. Is he a true contender to be Patrice Evra's long-term replacement or is he merely cheap depth at left-back?
GROUP 3: THE OLD GUARD
21. Rio Ferdinand | Age: 34 | Wages: £115k/week | Contract: 0 years remaining
The former United and England captain has had another wonderful season. He's lost a bit of pace but his positioning, awareness, and ability to organize the defense remains elite. He's still strong in the air and terrific on the ball. Rio probably has been United's top central-defender this season and amongst the best in the Premier League. How long will this continue, though? Rio is likely to get a new one-year contract in the summer and he'll be re-assessed on a yearly basis after that. His leadership -- by a lot of accounts -- is invaluable in the dressing room but some of those that he is mentoring -- Evans, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones -- are gunning for his first-choice spot.
20. Patrice Evra | Age: 31 | Wages: £90k/week | Contract: 1 year remaining
The vice-captain has been on the decline in recent years, but he's been better this season in comparison to the two previous ones. United, though, were apparently pretty active in trying to recruit Everton's Leighton Baines to Old Trafford in recent transfer windows and had that transaction occurred, Evra's time at the club would soon be done. For now, there is speculation United will extend the Frenchman's current contract by another year and during that time, the club will likely to continue assessing long-term options at left-back. Buttner and Fabio da Silva (currently on loan to Queens Park Rangers) are contenders, but I don't think anyone is entirely certain at this moment in time that they can make the position their own.
19: Nemanja Vidic | Age: 31 | Wages: £90k/week | Contract: 1 year remaining
The captain has been a rock again at the back in recent months after returning from two very serious knee injuries. The club and the team of doctors treating the Serb have seemingly managed the knee well. It'll be interesting to see how United treat his contract situation going forward. The best guess is probably one-year rolling contracts as long as his performance levels remain high.
GROUP 4: IS IT TIME TO GIVE UP AND MOVE ON?
18: Anderson | Age: 24 | Wages: £80k/week | Contract: 2 years remaining
Ando offers a unique dynanism to the United midfield. He also frustrates (and eats) like no other midfielder on the squad. Injuries have played a massive part in his disappointing career at the club, but that's not the sole reason it hasn't worked out. If United decide to give up on the Brazilian, this summer would be the optimal time to sell with him just being 24-years-old and with his contract still having two years left on it. He could possibly stay for another season and then be sold the following summer. His transfer value, depressingly, probably wouldn't significantly drop that much.
GROUP 5: HOPE
17: Nick Powell | Age: 19 | Wages: £5k/week | Contract: 3 years remaining
If I were to repeat this exercise a year from now, Powell is a player that could potentially leap much higher up these rankings. Will he, though, in the next year, get enough playing time so that he can properly develop as a player? He's only featured six times for the first-team in all competitions this season -- only two of those have been starts -- and he's spent most of his time with the Under-21 side. Might he head out on loan next season? Powell's age, potential, modest wages, and contract length all make him a valuable asset.
* Click here for Part 2. It includes players ranked 1 through 16.