It’s been an exhausting summer of numbers and Financial Fair Play and nuance and all the rest of it when it comes to finance, and because at some point somebody should read about money matters and actually enjoy themselves (possibly), I thought I might take a simpler approach this week.
This transfer window, it seems that some Premier League clubs—Arsenal and Man United in particular—have performed woefully during the summer transfer window, while others (Manchester City and Spurs) have done well. While in previous years, success or failure in the transfer market was measured mostly in terms of what clubs were willing to spend, this year there is a sense that more is needed to succeed in the post FFP market than a pile of cash—you need a ‘strategy.’
Only this morning for example, Musa Okwonga called Manchester United’s transfer approach “muddled“, and yesterday Daily Mail writer Neil Ashton described Arsene Wenger’s scouting strategy as outdated, not fit for the times.
So why have Arsenal and Man United “failed” exactly? Mostly, it seems, because they made high profile bids for star players only to be publicly rebuked by the target club, thereby sullying the water for future negotiations a bit.
Arsenal bid £40 million plus £1 for Luis Suarez in an attempt to trigger his release clause, and then found themselves accused of using drugs by Liverpool’s American owner John Henry. More recently Arsenal made a £12 million bid for Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye, only to receive hell-fire and damnation from Toon manager Alan Pardew for breaking Cabaye’s fragile brain ahead of an important match against City.
Manchester United meanwhile most recently threw in on a two-fer for David Moyes’ former charges Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines for £28 million, which Everton manager Roberto Martinez called “a waste of time.” They’ve since tried to amend their offer, but this follows a summer-long pursuit of Cesc Fabregas which may still yet come to fruition, and the failed attempt to pick up Thiago Alcantara, who went to Bayern Munich for £21.6m. Moyes has been seeking a creative midfielder, and so names as far flung as Mesut Oezil and Luka Modric have cropped up with no subsequent bids.
While Moyes and Wenger spun their wheels, Manchester City wrapped up business early with successful bids for Fernandinho (£35.2 million to Shakhtar), Jesus Navas (£17.6 million to Sevilla), Alvaro Negredo (£22 million to Sevilla) and Stevan Jovetic (£22.9 million to Fiorentina). Meanwhile Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy is enjoying the summer of a lifetime having leveraged Gareth Bale’s asking price to Real Madrid to a reported £93 million plus Coentrao, picked up Paulinho (Corinthians £17.4 million) and Roberto Soldado (£26.4 million to Valencia) with Roma’s Erik Lamela and Anzhi Makhachkala’s Willian (the latter priced at £30 million on last check) likely on their way.
We have, of course, no idea how any of these clubs go about their business in the transfer market, nor do we know their specific goals. We have reasonable grounds to assume in Arsenal’s case that the club intended to acquire ‘top-level talent’—Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis said as much in early June. And it seems that there is consensus around Moyes’ desire to add a creative attacking mid.
This lack of inside info hasn’t prevented many people from speculating about the supposed importance of technical directors or former players in front office roles working connections with influential agents in helping to complete transfer deals. After all, what other explanation could there possibly be for why clubs with roughly the same financial resources performed so differently in the open market?
But what about the information we do have (sort of), like the bids that came off, and the bids that didn’t? Is there anything we can glean from that?
For the failed transfer attempts, we can make several observations. In many cases these bids were aimed at rival clubs in the same league (Suarez at Liverpool, Rooney at United, Cabaye at Newcastle, Fellaini and Baines at Everton). One would imagine offers for these players, who play for domestic competitors, would require more delicacy than two-for-one deals and clause-triggering tacked on pounds. But one might also ponder why, in a market in which many talent-laden teams on the continent are willing to sell, would top flight clubs bother buying domestic at all?
On the surface, getting proven players within the same league would seem to offer better odds they will make a smooth transition to a new team, but it’s not as if this strategy hasn’t failed before (see Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll, Fernando Torres etc.). Yet why shop at home when there is a diverse market abroad?
In fact, Arsenal have tried to work the overseas market this summer. You’ll remember the Gunners reportedly sought out Higuain before his £32.5 million move to Napoli from Real Madrid. Apparently Arsenal and RM couldn’t agree on the fee. Arsenal were also in line to buy Stevan Jovetic from Fiorentina, but balked at the £26 million asking price. They more recently lost the race for ex-Bayern midfielder Luiz Gustavo to Wolfsburg, and while the reason for the change isn’t known, there are rumours Wolfsburg offered a considerable sum.
As for Manchester United, their bid for Cesc Fabregas may still come to fruition in time for the closing of the transfer window, so it’s difficult to pass judgment on that front just yet. And the Thiago deal seemed simply one of personal choice on the part of the player (he had experience playing for Guardiola) rather than price.
Indeed, a lot of this comes down to bad timing and just plain old bad luck for both clubs. Yet part of it could also be that some clubs are misreading the field. It may be a buyer’s market in terms of the willingness of clubs in difficult financial straits to sell, but not in terms of the actual asking price for the players. Which makes sense. Clubs willing to sell want to move wages off the books and earn more revenue in transfer payments, but they also know it’s not worth losing a key competitive piece unless it’s for a generous valuation.
So does one need a “better transfer market strategy” to deal with these issues? Or do they simply need to use common sense when approaching football clubs, players and player agents with an eye to purchasing elite-level talent? I don’t have the answers, but the results in the transfer market so far speaks for itself.