Friday 15 December 2017

James Lawton: Premier League suddenly sane in football world beyond any kind of restraint

'Jurgen Klopp shrugs away the Neymar deal as a bizarre emanation of football rearing beyond any kind of restraint.' Photo: Getty Images
'Jurgen Klopp shrugs away the Neymar deal as a bizarre emanation of football rearing beyond any kind of restraint.' Photo: Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

What happened to the idea that English football is the compelling powerhouse of the world game where sooner or later the great coaches and players must prove themselves?

It got lost somewhere in this summer of blazing transfer action and speculation - a bit like that old question about how Lionel Messi might fare on a wild night at Stoke City. Or that more recent one on how keen Cristiano Ronaldo was to return to his old glory at Old Trafford.

And never has it been more elusive in this week when along the boulevards of Paris nearly every little breeze is shouting the name of Neymar, while in the cafes of Barcelona most of the talk concerns who will replace the €222m Brazilian.

All the candidates are inevitably sprinkled liberally with fantasy stardust, from Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho to Antoine Griezmann.

Meanwhile, the league which never misses a chance to say it is the richest and most competitive in the world can only pop its eyes at the quality of such an exotic vintage.

The Premier League continues to spend money in prodigious armfuls, but with the new season less than two weeks away where is the sparkle, where is the most riveting point of attention?

The brutal truth, five years after English football landed its last Champions League title so improbably with Chelsea, is that there simply isn't one.

Instead of chasing a Neymar, Manchester City - probably the only club to match the Qatar-backed PSG in unfettered resources - have settled for a superior Portuguese midfielder Bernardo Silva at £43m and a small regiment of defenders costing the best part of £130m.

From Pep Guardiola, the coach who helped fashion the game of Messi into a wonder of the football ages, it is not the kind of team-building to create a racing of the blood.

But then maybe, along with his esteemed rival Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, he has another kind of impact in mind. This is the one which comes when a coach turns aside from the appeal - and the dangers - of the star system and invests in the certainties of the players he knows, and who know what he wants from them.

Guardiola no doubt wants to shore up behind an outstanding forward threat, not least from his Brazilian protégé Gabriel Jesus.

Guardiola's point, no doubt, is that lashing out around £50m each on full-backs Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy and another £26m for Danilo, who can cover either flank, wasn't the last word in lost attacking horizons, but a meeting of a pressing priority, a secure base for a team of great but too often unrewarded creative force.

Klopp, so far, has been quite tentative in his transfer probing, signing Mohamed Salah, hoping to land Virgil van Dijk and insisting that Coutinho will stay at Anfield, at least until Barcelona offer a lot more than half their Neymar windfall.

Plainly, though, he believes, like Guardiola, that he has the basis of a winning side, a conviction which was hardly damaged by a sprightly 3-0 win over Bayern Munich and a defeat on penalties to Atletico Madrid in the Audi Cup.

A developing sense of a real team will, the coach believes, be further displayed in tomorrow's friendly game with Athletic Bilbao in Dublin.

Klopp shrugs away the Neymar deal as a bizarre emanation of football rearing beyond any kind of restraint- confirmation that the game has become less the world's most engaging team sport and more a business threatening to go off its head.

He shakes his head and says: "I thought Financial Fair Play was made so situations like this couldn't happen. But it seems it was more a suggestion than a rule. I don't understand how it happens. There are only two clubs who can pay transfer fees like this - Manchester City and PSG.

"But I hope this deal is an exception and not the next step for football."

Klopp steps on the side of the football angels when he makes his philosophical point but maybe there is a growing consensus among leading coaches - and certainly the Premier League is not the poor neighbour in this department with Guardiola, Klopp, Antonio Conte and the impressive Ronald Koeman at work.

It is perhaps an argument that more valuable than one fantasy player, however talented, is the understanding of a team who have grown to know and respect each other.

Jose Mourinho may, however subliminally, have been making the same point when he paid £40m to his old club Chelsea for the power and commitment of defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic and £35m for the earnest professionalism of Benfica defender Victor Lindelof.

None of this dealing would earn much kudos along the Champs Elysees - or Barcelona's Ramblas - in this week of Neymar, but who knows, maybe the Premier League has got something right.

We will see soon enough, not later, certainly, than in the crucial stages of the Champions League.

It is an intriguing idea, certainly, that to move on to more serious ground the Premier League first had to come down to earth.

Irish Independent Sport Star Awards

Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport