Sunday 21 January 2018

James Lawton: English clubs forced to accept painful reality

Manchester United are understood to be keen on signing Bastian Schweinsteiger
Manchester United are understood to be keen on signing Bastian Schweinsteiger
James Lawton

James Lawton

Those who say the trouble with money is that it can't buy you love - at least not the purest kind - need not look beyond the Premier League for some rather compelling evidence.

As members of the richest league in the world, the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United still have oodles of the stuff, but never before this summer have they struggled so hard to turn the heads of their most attractive targets.

Maybe the most poignant indicator of the dwindling appeal of the organisation that has long preached that power comes not in the barrel of your gun but the weight of your wallet is the polite reaction to Premier League interest of Bastian Schweinsteiger, a reigning world champion with Germany but a faltering force of nature at Bayern Munich.

When appraised of the continued interest of United manager Louis van Gaal, Schweinsteiger pronounced himself 'flattered'. But then he would be, wouldn't he?

At 30 he has covered a lot of terrain since Van Gaal first picked him out of the Bayern youth system and gave him his licence to charge to the top of the world game as a brilliant, driven ramrod of the Munich team.

Now, though, as he struggles to hold his place in the Bavarian juggernaut, Schweinsteiger looks more a candidate for the oldest new frontier in football, that of the United States, in the company of such ageing figures as Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and Steven Gerrard.

No, he doesn't have quite so many miles on his clock but they have been hard driven.

That United should see him as a likely, and more crucially, perhaps amenable target in their search for a midfielder who could maybe return them to the high ground of elite European competition perhaps tells its own story of necessarily more limited ambition.

File photo dated 19-03-2007 of Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrating after scoring a penalty during the FA Cup quarter-final replay at Old Trafford, Manchester. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Thursday January 29, 2015. Turning 30 usually signals the final years of a footballer's career, but such an astonishing physical specimen is Ronaldo that few would bet against him playing for another seven or eight years. See PA story SOCCER Ronaldo Overview. Photo credit should read Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

United, who once believed in their right to sign the very best of talent - as they did when Alex Ferguson came close to grand larceny by stealing Cristiano Ronaldo away from Lisbon, now seem resigned to picking something less than the best of the latest crop.

United, like Chelsea and Arsenal, were apparently interested in Atletico Madrid's Turkish craftsman Arda Turan but all that came to nothing when Barcelona clicked their fingers.

Turan's agent had made clucking noises in the Premier League direction but then, of course, Barca are Barca, and the Turk was ready to cool his heels - or go out on loan - until the European champions had cleared the transfer ban that is only lifted at the start of next year. Barca coughed up a mere £24m - and made some sponsorship deals with Turkish companies.

Meanwhile, United were left to trumpet their £25m signing from PSV Eindhoven, the quick and prolific Memphis Depay.

The 21-year-old plainly has much promise - he scored 28 goals in 40 games for his club - but is perhaps not the kind of prize which consumes the interest of the ever stronger power brokers of the European game, the Spanish giants and Bayern.

Depay is simply not the type of A-list player who has shown a declining interest in the sweetheart deals offered by the Premiership.

Luis Suarez took refuge in the Premier League for two turbulent seasons before his inevitable exit to Catalonia.

Ronaldo talks nostalgically of his time at Old Trafford but rumours of his return have never looked more fanciful.

Alexis Sanchez

At Arsenal, Arsene Wenger is rhapsodic about the value of his great signing Alexis Sanchez, so much so that it seems callous to point out that the Chilean, for all his combative instincts, was simply considered no longer fit for the highest purpose at the Nou Camp.

And, of course, the highest purpose has become utterly obligatory in the true power centres of European football now, which are, of course, Barcelona and Madrid with Bayern hanging on and Paris SG perhaps the likeliest contenders for new membership of a club whose exclusivity is no longer determined simply by the heft of the budget.

Also required: the level of style and vision which has left the European crown in the hands of Bayern, Real and Barcelona in the last three years. And what was it about these triumphs which seemed to define a new era of club football? It was the sheer concentration of the most extraordinary talent.

In Italy, a nation of intense football sophistication, there was, for example, much praise for the Champions League effort of Serie A champions Juventus. There was even an unexpected flush of optimism when Juve drew level in the second half of the final but then, just as quickly, it was supplanted by recognition that Barcelona, with a front-line of Messi, Suarez and Neymar were simply operating in another dimension.

Maybe the penny is dropping in the Premier League. All the evidence, certainly, says that money alone will simply no longer do the job.

Read more: Bastian Schweinsteiger to Manchester United: German "flattered" by interest

Read more: De Gea move to Real Madrid on after sponsors confirm Iker Casillas' departure

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