Tuesday 20 August 2019

Managers can't rest while Europe stays open

Romelu Lukaku. Photo: PA
Romelu Lukaku. Photo: PA

Paul Wilson

Mauricio Pochettino is right about the transfer window deadline; it makes no sense to be three weeks out of step with the rest of Europe.

Given the way Romelu Lukaku has just left Manchester United in the lurch, basically forcing through his own departure with only time left for his club to make a half-baked and easily resisted attempt to sign the 33-year-old Mario Mandzukic as a new attacking figurehead, any manager in charge of a squad containing a player coveted abroad will not be able to rest easy until the beginning of September.

Such players include Paul Pogba, Christian Eriksen, Morgan Schneiderlin - sent off yesterday - and perhaps a few more whose amenability to a transfer overseas has not been flagged up all summer; as the Tottenham manager points out, it is "not common sense" to build that sort of crisis into your constitution when the earliest a replacement could be found is now around Christmas.

Real Madrid cannot seem to make up their mind about Eriksen, whose fate possibly depends on which other players the two Spanish giants decide to sign in the next couple of weeks, but it would not be too difficult to imagine Pogba being spirited out of Old Trafford against his employers' wishes. In that event it would not be too difficult, either, to envisage Ole Gunnar Solskjær putting a brave face on the matter, insisting Pogba was still a good mate and claiming the time was right to move on, exactly as he has just done with Lukaku.

United do not have to sell Pogba, of course, but theoretically they did not have to sell Lukaku, especially without signing anyone likely to replace his 42-goal contribution in two seasons. It is hard to escape the feeling that even before his first full Premier League season begins Solskjær has been left compromised. The need for a director of football, or at least a slicker, smarter recruitment model at Old Trafford, has never been more obvious; the club acknowledged as much six months ago and still proceeded to do nothing about it.

The almost comical aspect of the comings and goings at United often dominates windows - even Harry Maguire at a record price for a defender left Leicester looking like winners at the expense of Ed Woodward's nonexistent reputation as a negotiator - yet the general pattern elsewhere has been far more sensible. Sensible by Premier League standards, anyway.

Liverpool kept their hands in their pockets, happy with a Champions League-winning squad boosted by the return of key players from injury, Manchester City made a couple of expensive but shrewd acquisitions while moving out half a dozen peripheral players and, with Chelsea unable to spend the income from Eden Hazard's transfer, Arsenal and Spurs took the opportunity to show some of the adventure in the market their fans have been demanding.

Just for a while it appeared all the top-six activity might be put in the shade by the sense of adventure developing at Everton, who were briefly linked with Diego Costa before successfully turning their attention to the exciting Moise Kean and then attempting to land Wilfried Zaha. It sounded too good to be true and turned out to be just that. Season-ticket sales had no chance to go into overdrive before supporters were being told that Alex Iwobi would be arriving instead. With all respect to Iwobi, at £35m Arsenal will be the happier with that deal, with Everton left to console themselves with the knowledge that the transaction was concluded too late for the Gunners to use the money to fund their own bid for Zaha.

Crystal Palace claim they would rather have the player than the cash in any case, though this theory has never been properly tested and they appear likely to begin the season with a fairly disgruntled striker. At 27, one of the most eye-catching performers the Premier League has produced is running out of options to join a club in the Champions League bracket. Neither Arsenal nor Everton can promise that level of football at the moment though the latter's £60m bid was a bold one from a club in their position. Using the Aaron Wan-Bissaka fee as a benchmark Palace were possibly right to judge it too low, yet hopes of getting nearer to £100m for Zaha in future windows will quickly become unrealistic as time goes by.

The exception to the general rule of sensible spending has perhaps been Aston Villa, who unlike fellow arrivals Norwich (extreme caution, hardly any money spent) and Sheffield United (feisty mix of value signings and loans) have splashed out £146m on over a dozen new signings. Fulham did something similar last season with dire consequences, though Villa evidently believe Dean Smith will last longer in the job and adapt to the league more quickly than Slavisa Jokanovic was able to manage.

While it is always tricky for promoted sides to get their level of spending right, requiring as it does an almost impossible advance evaluation of how a season in the top flight is going to go, the situation at present is that last season's Championship winners are going with an austerity budget while the side that came up through the play-offs are rivalling some of the biggest clubs in Europe for summer outlay.

That's the Premier League for you. A league of excess, a league of extremes. Who has it right? At this stage of the season nobody knows anything.


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