Tuesday 27 September 2016

Comment: Schweinsteiger signing sums up league's strength and weakness

Landing a World Cup winner can't be a bad thing but top clubs continue to spend big on players Europe's elite are happy to discard, writes Aidan O'Hara

Published 07/08/2015 | 02:30

Manchester United defender Bastian Schweinsteiger looks to pass the ball against Paris Saint-Germain
Manchester United defender Bastian Schweinsteiger looks to pass the ball against Paris Saint-Germain

When it comes to any purchase, one of the first questions a buyer must ask themselves is why is the seller willing to sell?

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It might be because they have something better in mind for themselves, perhaps they have noticed a vital component that is no longer as good as it was or maybe that the purchaser has so much money that the seller can practically charge what they want and get their price. When it comes to the top Premier League clubs buying from abroad, the answer is probably a mixture of all three.

When Yaya Toure arrived at Manchester City he came with the reputation of being Barcelona's water carrier, the man who won the ball back, gave it to the good players and let them play.

At City, he has regularly been the swash-buckling match-winner - albeit one who isn't too fond of doing the dirty work - yet it's unlikely that Barcelona feel they could have won much more had he still been in their ranks.

In the three Champions League games he has played against his former club, Barcelona have an aggregate 5-1 lead which doesn't fully illustrate their dominance.

Toure has undoubtedly been a success at City but, when the Premier League clubs are wondering why they're struggling to close the gap on Europe's elite, they might start by asking themselves why they continue to buy players for vast sums of money that their competitors have deemed surplus to requirements.

The answer, of course, is that those players are big names and usually improve the Premier League team but it's no surprise that the gap between the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United to Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich continues to grow when the best players on the first batch are ones that previously couldn't get a regular game for the latter.

Alexis Sanchez's skill and dog-chasing-a-ball enthusiasm make him an understandable fans favourite but it's a peculiar part of British footballing culture that places so much stock in a player's desire to win back possession without asking why the player gave away possession in the first place. At Barcelona, possession rather than passion is king.

It's no coincidence that the most important players at Manchester City and Chelsea are the ones who both clubs are enjoying in their prime, mainly because they had the money to buy them from established clubs, but hardly European royalty.

Sergio Aguero has been a revelation since arriving at Manchester City from Atletico Madrid but if City should fail again in the Champions League, a bid from Real Madrid or Bayern Munich might just underline where the power - on the pitch at least - lies within the European game.

It's a similar story with Eden Hazard who is flourishing at Chelsea having arrived from Lille and, unlike Toure, Sanchez or Mesut Ozil, couldn't possibly believe that his current club was anything other than a huge step up from the one he had departed.

Having had their fingers burned badly last season by spending big on elite cast-offs like Angel Di Maria, United are attempting to merge the two top Premier League templates for a successful summer of spending.

One template is snapping up the best players the Dutch league has to offer, which can occasionally throw up an Afonso Alves but also helps produce Ruud van Nistelrooy, Luis Suarez or Wilfried Bony.

It's a strategy which rarely goes too far wrong and, in Memphis Depay, United have signed a player who, like Hazard, will have the desire to prove that he can continue the upward trajectory of his career.

Yet, it's Bastian Schweinsteiger who arguably is the summer's most intriguing signing, fitting as he does the second Premier League transfer template of being a big name to excite the fans while perhaps being a little bit past his peak.

After Radamel Falcao's disastrously expensive loan, United know all about the dangers of trying to sign the player somebody once was rather than the player he currently is.

The question of why Pep Guardiola was willing to let Schweinsteiger leave is one that should at least have been considered by Louis van Gaal but it seems likely that he will immediately become one of the league's elite central midfielders, even though Guardiola reckons he hasn't been fully fit for most of the last three years.

This, however, is part of the problem for the Premier League, that a 31-year-old with plenty of mileage on the clock will, fitness permitting, be running the show for the vast majority of games in which he features.

Between 2005 and 2008 the Premier League had a minimum of one representative in the top three of the Ballon D'Or honours but it's seven seasons since Cristiano Ronaldo's win while a Manchester United player and Fernando Torres' third place during his time at Liverpool saw a Premier League player make the podium in the race to be the world's best player.

It's difficult to see any Premier League player other than Hazard getting close, and while United and the Premier League can pat themselves on the back with being able to attract the likes of Schweinsteiger, the weakness it helps to expose can be merrily ignored.

Among the hundreds of millions spent by Van Gaal, Schweinsteiger (pictured) could end up being the best value for money as United aim to go higher than the fourth place which, last season, for the first time in nearly 25 years, was deemed to be acceptable.

Getting back to Europe's top table, while feeding off the scraps they expensively acquire from those already there, will prove a far more difficult challenge.

Irish Independent

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