Summer transfer squabble shows lack of Premier class
New UEFA rules have forced English clubs to make costly but uninspiring signings, writes Paul Wilson
The prices paid for unproven talent such as Phil Jones and Jordan Henderson suggests that value is no longer a prime consideration for England's big clubs. "I'd like to see some bullish signings," Ian Wright has declared, in the course of a newspaper rant lamenting Arsenal's new status as a feeder club for Manchester City.
Who wouldn't? Wright was speaking as a Gunners fan, though amid fears that Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri could follow Gael Clichy out of the club, at least Arsenal are bringing in Gervinho and talking about Juan Mata. Wright should consider how it must feel to be a Blackburn or an Everton fan, with no signings at all on the horizon, a Sunderland supporter struggling to get excited about another tranche of Manchester United reserves, or even a Liverpool follower failing to understand where all the midfielders are going to fit in.
This summer's transfer activity is already shaping up to be busier and more expensive than in the last close season, when Alex Ferguson pointedly restricted his spending after deciding there was no value in the market, though the only conclusion to be drawn from the prices handed over for promising but largely untested talents (Jones and Jordan Henderson) is that value is no longer a prime consideration.
Nationality and age are now important factors too, and while UEFA's rule tweaks appear well-intentioned and should have the ultimately desirable effect of reducing the Premier League's dependency on overseas talent, the immediate result has been clubs paying over the odds to secure what limited home-produced potential can be identified.
Expensive the new crop of signings may be -- Ferguson has already spent in the region of £50m and may still make a renewed bid for Nasri -- bullish they are not. Bullish would be United turning their financial guns on Jack Wilshere, not revealing interest in a player stalling on a new contract in the knowledge he will be a free agent in 12 months. If Nasri goes north, he will only be following a trail blazed -- unhappily -- by Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure. Arsene Wenger has done business with rivals before and generally got the better of it, even if it is difficult to see how he can keep up Champions League appearances at the Emirates if he lets both Fabregas and Nasri go.
Liverpool are widely supposed to be spending big with a view to regaining their Champions League status this season, yet even if they capture Stewart Downing from Aston Villa, the objection has already been raised that upwards of £40m will have been spent on three players who were not interesting any current top-four clubs. It remains to be seen how many games Henderson and Charlie Adam will play together, though it is a sobering thought that they notionally occupy the roles vacated by Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso.
Not only is it hard to sell that as progress to the increasingly bewildered Anfield faithful, it is impossible to regard it as bullish. Having brought in Andy Carroll the plan is clearly to provide accurate crossers in Downing and Adam who can put the ball on his head, though Luis Suarez needs the ball on the ground and one wonders what the skilful and shrewd Uruguayan thinks of Liverpool going back to the 1950s when Barcelona are wowing the world with such a sophisticated short-passing game they no longer even bother to put in crosses from corners.
It would appear, with even Wenger talking of signing taller players and the need to gain strength in certain areas of the team, that English football is going to stick to its guns and stay with the physical approach for the next few seasons, instead of trying to emulate Barcelona and switch to keep-ball. With the obvious exception of Fabregas, just about the only unsettled Premier League player who could easily fit into Barcelona's playing style is Luka Modric, and the Spanish champions don't need him.
Chelsea apparently do, though not as much as Tottenham if they are to have any hope of a Champions League return.
The most interesting aspect of a transfer tussle that can be confidently expected to last until the last few days of the window is that Chelsea seemed to think they could prise the best player from Spurs -- notoriously hard bargainers -- with an initial bid of £22m. The same Chelsea that blew £50m on an underperforming Fernando Torres in January, thereby giving selling clubs a licence to laugh in the face of opening offers of less than half that amount. Chelsea's attempt to be bullish in the January window backfired, and though Andre Villas-Boas may be just the young, thrusting
manager needed at Stamford Bridge, the eye-watering £13m paid to Porto in compensation stands out as the only startlingly bold investment by any English club this summer.
The Premier League's buccaneering days of raiding Europe and beyond for the most exciting talent are perhaps over. English clubs are for the most part buying players from each other, making safe, unremarkable purchases at prices that are anything but. This feels like a period of adjustment.
After being represented in six of the past seven Champions League finals, leading English clubs are no longer confident that Europe can be conquered. Manchester City may have all the money, but they are not going to beat Barcelona, and neither are Manchester United with Ashley Young. The standard is being set in Spain, England is no longer quite where it is at, and the challenge for the Premier League now is to take time out, regroup and come again rather than relapse into dangerous insularity.
Sunday Indo Sport