We live in an age of repeats. The films are all sequels, the sitcoms are all syndicated and if we are completely honest with ourselves, even the columns I file are of an increasingly similar tone: blah, blah, blah, the man wrote, as the world oscillated at its usual pace, regardless of his words, seemingly unaware that a rare talent was in its midst, only partially nude as he typed. What was I saying? Ah yes, we’ve seen it all before.
I went to watch a film the other day—let’s call it KF Panda, because I’d rather not reveal the full title. Very quickly—only an hour in—I realized that what I was watching was actually the second installment of said film—let’s call it KF Panda 2—a far inferior offering which left me unsatisfied and slightly dehydrated, though it was a hot day and I had forgotten to make myself a drink during the film so, fair enough, I will take some responsibility for the second part of my dissatisfaction. Worse still, even though I disliked the film immensely (I shouted abuse at the television throughout, again accounting for the dehydration) I am now hooked on the franchise and waiting impatiently for the prequel or second sequel. Apparently it might be called KF Panda 3. There is, I think this proves conclusively, no getting away from repeat-culture.
And as summer goes on, whether it is something in the air or something in the water, or the mild hallucinogenic I indirectly inhaled on the top deck of the 126 bus into Birmingham city centre, I’ve started to notice that football has joined in with the wider world’s tendency towards playing out again that which has already been played out.
The transfers we are seeing are creating a pattern. Edinson Cavani has joined PSG, where he will again team-up with Ezequiel Lavezzi, reliving their Napoli days. Radamel Falcao has joined Monaco where he will work with James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho, and possibly Hulk, if he signs on too: all ex-Porto buddies. Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo have both moved from Sevilla to Manchester City. Now Manchester United are attempting to join up Cesc Fabregas with Robin Van Persie for a second time, after their success as a pair at Arsenal.
You can even add that Pepe Reina has signed up for more psychological abuse from Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho is back in the loving arms of John Terry, if you want to.
If we ignore several major outliers, as I intend to and all good mathematicians should, the major transfer business of this summer—particularly that by the nouveau riche teams—appears to be almost exclusively about reuniting previously successful footballing units with one another. My first thought when I realized this was that I had become delirious after Kung Fu Panda 2—I mean KF Panda 2—and that obviously I had begun to connect pieces of information that did not really go together, creating (relative) significance out of player transfers where really there was none. But in fact I was (relatively) right. At least four of the richest teams in the world have spent or are trying to spend money on reuniting players who have worked well together before.
Okay, okay, obviously it’s not really some kind of dominant trend, but it does tell us something about how football clubs, particularly those with the most money, think at the moment. Importing a pre-existing or previously successful combination of players is a more efficient, risk-reducing way of putting together a team, even if it is laughably more expensive than the cost of the original combination. This is, then, the transfer market as negotiated by a big business rather than some old men in a pub*. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. Why put Falcao up front with Lavezzi when Cavani has already played with him and we’ve seen it work before? Statistical analysis is one way to predict who might work in your team, but it’s not a perfect system: two players able to score 50 goals between them whilst playing next to each other makes buying them at the very least a extremely good bet.
The thought of it really working like this, and of the trend continuing and deepening, is enough to make you weep. In a bad way. The trouble is that efficiency isn’t always great to watch, as KF Panda 2 attests. Entertainment and efficiency don’t always go brilliantly together. As tends to be the case, here, efficiently signing players minimizes the creative part—the risky bit—of building a football team. And wasn’t the risk fun to watch play out? Didn’t the risk sometimes pay off more than the safe bet ever would have?
Reducing the creative part of the task, by definition, reduces the amount of new ideas. “The combination from Yorke and Cole was out of this world” at Manchester United, but the spark wasn’t the same at Blackburn. There are two lessons from this. First: If you place together a team too carefully, you can miss the chance for sparks that no-one could have predicted. Second: Instead you end up with tired ideas which may not even work as well the second time around** – never mind being as exciting.
The repetition model is full of holes. Especially for the consumer. Repetition is reassuring, efficient and probably, although it’s still not an exact science, the correct business decision. Attempting something new is dangerous and you fail more often than not. But it’s also thrilling in the first instance, for the sake closing your eyes and really not knowing what will happen next. In the second instance, it’s even more amazing when it comes off. My vote goes to the second option.
But the people with the money are taking the opposite route, which is disappointing. Because however horrific it is, all the money they have represents vast potential, and yet what a bland, stunted way to channel it this is. It’s also another way in which the small clubs are left to shoulder the risk and, as I’ve discussed before, never quite get to enjoy the pay-off. Think of your own ideas, big teams ffs.
On a final note, when in god’s name is Kung Fu Panda 3 coming out.
*As of course all football transfers used to be done.
** Please do not point out that the reason Cole and Yorke did not work a second time was because of the passage of time reducing their abilities, as that would undermine the point I’m trying to make. Which, I like to think, I do well enough by myself. But no, seriously, change of place and time is where risk is introduced even in repetition. It is not a perfect repetition.