Arsenal or Tottenham fans may not welcome the comparison but, in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Dele Alli, both north London clubs have players whose contracts have received more attention than their on-field performances. Is there any basis to the charge that long-term deals lead to a loss in motivation, though?
To some extent, the assumption that a player’s contribution wanes as soon as the ink dries on a new agreement is rooted in the idea that performances peak before a contract extension. Aubameyang is a case in point: criticism over the three-year deal he signed in September 2020 is partly due to his failure to maintain the phenomenally high standards he set during the 2019-20 campaign, when he scored 29 goals in 44 games, including match-winning contributions in both the FA Cup semi-final and final.
Evidence supporting the concept of a “contract year”, when a player’s performances improve during the final year of an existing deal, is mixed. A study of 275 players who spent two consecutive seasons in Serie A between 2012 and 2014 – the dates before and after signing a contract – suggested players performed better in the final year of their agreements.
Speaking about the subject in a recent interview, Burnley midfielder Jack Cork, who is among a group of players set to leave Turf Moor when his contract expires in the summer, hinted that players entering the final year of existing deals were keen to impress potential suitors, as well as their current employers. “We don’t want to let ourselves down,” said Cork. “If results go badly, it only really reflects badly on us and that’s not something you want on your CV, that you didn’t want to do something because you were all out of contract in the summer.”
The idea of a contract year is not lost on managers either. When asked this week whether he will pick Paul Pogba over the next few months while his contract is running down, Ralf Rangnick offered the opinion that the midfielder would be especially dedicated as he is trying to impress potential suitors. “Even if it’s only to show enough for a new contract elsewhere, he will be highly motivated,” said Rangnick. “Why should I not play him?”
However, a 2019 report analysing 249 Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 players between 2008 and 2015 found little evidence of a clear relationship between contract length and performance when looking at indicators such as shooting and passing accuracy, successful tackles and minutes played per match.
The polarity of views is perhaps unsurprising, given the complexity of the subject matter. The authors of the study ‘Analysis of elite soccer players’ performance before and after signing a new contract’ draw attention to the fact that “individual performances could be influenced by collective strategies and tactics, potentially disguising small effects that signing a new contract might have on observable individual performance indicators.”
It’s a statement that could be applied to the debate about Alli’s form since the Spurs midfielder signed a six-year deal in 2018. While his performances have dipped markedly since he agreed the contract extension, accusations of demotivation ignore Tottenham’s collective malaise over the past four years, not to mention the number of different positions Alli has occupied due to injuries, a lack of squad depth and changing tactics.
This isn’t to say that players’ motivation is completely unrelated to incentives, though. In a recent episode of The Football Psychology Show, Professor Marc Jones described the way in which motivation is influenced by an individual’s autonomy, relatedness and competence, and how a new contract can fuel belief in the latter.
“Footballers are highly talented people and they’re going to be attracted to incentive-led, financially rewarding contracts,” said Jones. “It’s both a recognition of their expertise and their competence.” Jones points to the contract negotiations that predated Ashley Cole’s move from Arsenal to Chelsea in 2006 as a case in point.
In Cole’s autobiography, My Defence, the former England defender talked candidly about his discussions with the Arsenal board. “It all started while I was sitting in the sunshine at Sopwell House, the hotel in Hertfordshire used by England before we flew out to Portugal for Euro 2004, when an eager voice called out, ‘Ashley!’ Mr Dein was stood there,” Cole wrote. “He told me I wasn’t earning enough and my salary was going to be increased. My face-cracking smile told him all he needed to know. I was buzzing, really buzzing.
“His tone soon wiped the smile from my face. I felt his attitude suggested he was doing me a favour, like I was a 17-year-old trainee. The deal he offered was a £10,000-a-week increase to £35,000. A hell of a lot of money. But, when taken in the context of football wages and his own estimated value of me of £20m, and when placed next to those other Arsenal wages of between £80,000 and £100,000 a week, his offer was a piss-take. It was a slap in the face, not a pat on the back.”
While Cole’s behaviour – and subsequent move to Chelsea – is often held up as an example of outlandish greed, Jones views Cole’s reaction through a psychological lens. The outburst is symptomatic of a player demotivated by the club’s perceived failure to recognise competence. “It wasn’t the money in and of itself because it was a substantial sum of money: it was what he thought it said about how the club viewed him,” argues Jones.
Jones’s view is backed by Blackburn Rovers psychologist Dr Andy Hill, who explained how footballers are consistently ribbed about their place in the game’s pecking order. “You hear stories of very successful players who will run around the pitch on a match day telling other players how much money they earn, just to try and rattle them a bit,” he told The Football Psychology Show. “It does matter to footballers because it’s about how they feel valued. It’s not about the money for most of them, in my experience, it’s about what it represents.”
After signing a new five-year contract in August 2021, James Ward-Prowse spoke with Southampton’s club website about the way the Saints “sat down and told me their admiration for me and the way they want me to lead the team.” The quote shows how, by recognising competence, a long-term contract can motivate a player to improve. Since extending his deal in the summer, Ward-Prowse has been in excellent form, scoring six goals in 19 matches.
“Anecdotally, there are many individuals probably known within the game whose performance improves in the final year of their contract, before dropping off once they get that contract,” says Jones. “But the need to offer large contracts is probably in and of itself a positive for the game as a whole because of the way it positively benefits the motivation of a particular individual, in recognition of their competence.”