The Curse Of Expectations: Why Real Madrid's Kaká Is Undervalued

MADRID, SPAIN - DECEMBER 10: Kaka of Real Madrid reacts as he fails to score during the la Liga match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on December 10, 2011 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

Real Madrid acquired star Brazilian midfielder Kaká in the summer of 2009 for a then-record €68.5 million. Since then, Kaká has been widely criticised, and the transfer has been labeled a bust according to various analysts. In some ways, these nay-sayers are very correct: Kaká spent most of his second year injured, and has had trouble cracking into Real Madrid's starting lineup since. Even his first season left much to be desired, as the newly-created superteam failed to live up to expectations, failing to win a trophy in any competition.

But has Kaká's career at Real Madrid really been as bad as many would have us believe? The answer, as is almost always the case in this sort of debate, is yes and no. On one hand, nagging injuries have led to statistical "down" years during his time at Real Madrid--in 2009-2010, his only year as a consistent, first-team starter, Kaká recorded his worst statistical season since 2004-2005. However, it is possible--even likely--that he was hampered for almost the entire season by the knee injury that would eventually require surgery in the summer of 2010.

Kaká League Production, 2008-2012
Goals Assists Goals/Assist G/31 Games A/31 Games
2008-2009 (AC Milan) 31 Aps. 16 11 1.45 16 11
2009-2010 (R. Madrid) 25 Aps.
8 7 1.14 9.92 8.68
2010-2011 (R. Madrid) 14 Aps. 7 5 1.4 15.5 11.07
2011-2012 (R. Madrid) 13 Aps. 3 4 0.75 7.15 9.53

Statistical overview, Kaka

As we can see from the chart above, when Kaká returned in the winter of 2011, he produced almost identical numbers per appearance as he did in 2008-2009--and this was despite the fact that he was playing, in general, as a substitute. Ironically, if you were to ask a Real Madrid fan to name Kaká's least impressive season with Real Madrid to date, almost all of them would point to 2010-2011; in fact, statistically speaking (especially taking into account the amount of time Kaká physically spent on the pitch, as he was a starter in 2009-2010 and a reserve for many appearances in 2010-2011), 2010-2011 was not only Kaká's best season as a merengue, but in fact was one of his better seasons over all. When expanded over 31 games (more or less his average in a league season), his 2010-2011 numbers line up very well with the high end of his career averages--15.5 goals and 11.07 assists are only negligibly different than the 16 and 11 he put up in 2008-2009, and the 1.4 goal/assist ratio is essentially the same.

Entering the 2011-2012 season, Kaká looked to have a much larger role in Madrid's offense: with starter Mesut Özil struggling with his form, Kaká stepped into the starting lineup and performed admirably. Unfortunately, he once again succumbed to injury, which kept him out for much of the last month; since his return, he has looked tired, unsure, and not up to game speed, and has generally played poorly. Because of these speed bumps--and perhaps a shift in offensive tactics--the first half of 2011 has seen Kaká transform into a different player: his goal production has dropped off hugely (his G/31 indicate about 7-8 goals for the year, which half of what he averaged in his prime), but his assists have remained constant (more or less) at about 9-10 A/31. Consequently, his goals/assist ratio has shifted to 0.75, meaning that he actually creates more assists than goals.

The problem that Kaká is facing is pretty classic: Real Madrid purchased the rights to his contract with the expectation that they were receiving a previous Balon d'Or winner who would average 15 goals and 11 or so assists (and, let's be honest, not be hugely hampered with injuries). Instead, they received a high-impact sub capable, on his better nights, of being a player similar to his 2008-2009 self. This isn't what Madrid payed upwards of €68 million for; but that doesn't mean that Kaká's value is such that he should be sold right away.

At this point in his career Kaká is actually undervalued as a player, especially among Real Madrid fans (and the market in general). Aside from the publicity and merchandise revenue he has generated for the club--which is substantial--his level of play (when he has been on the field--I'll get in to this in a second) has actually been more or less what Madrid (should have) expected. After his injury that nagged him throughout the 2009-2010 season and the subsequent World Cup, Kaká has actually, statistically speaking (that is, on a purely per-appearance level), played the way we should expect from him. His problem is that, in practice, we expect that Balon d'Or level that almost no player will ever live up to.

Ultimately, Kaká's time at Real Madrid--barring any change in the next year or so--will be (and should be) remembered more because of his injuries and the merchandising and branding that he has brought to the club than his contributions on the pitch. Unfortunately, the new perception--and, admittedly, this perception is probably correct--of Kaká is that he is an injury-prone player who is unlikely to return much of his former value. But this perception is precisely what has made Kaká essentially undervalued: when he plays he's still great, just not as great as he used to be. But he's still great.

Right now, Real Madrid could expect in the range of €15-20 million for Kaká. This isn't a totally fair price in my book (I'm not sure exactly what a fair price would be, but this seems low), and this is exactly why Real Madrid needs to hang on to him. There's no reason to think that he won't continue to return value, both on and off the pitch; even with all the injury concerns, he remains a top option at his position.

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