England Rules: Four Questions That Explain the Summer Transfer Window

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While there’s still more than a month remaining, something about the current transfer window just seems … off. Most of the big clubs — Chelsea, PSG, Arsenal, Barcelona, and Real Madrid — have been relatively quiet, and the star we all expected to leave looks like he might stay put in Italy for another year. Now, there’s been plenty of movement in Munich, Manchester, and everywhere else, but even those transactions have been underpriced, overpriced, or seemingly out of nowhere. In short, the silly season’s gotten weird. Here are four questions to sort through all the mayhem.

Why Did Juventus Sell Arturo Vidal on the (Relatively) Cheap?

Ryan O’Hanlon: We came into the summer expecting Paul Pogba’s pending move to Wherever The Hell He Wanted to Go to dominate the transfer window, but outside of a strange, public denial of interest from Real Madrid and some claims from an unsuccessful presidential candidate at FC Barcelona, all has been quiet on the Pogba front. In fact, Juventus recently began preseason training, and Pogba was one of the first players to show up.

One guy who won’t be running wind sprints in Turin any longer, though, is Arturo Vidal, who’s being sent to Bayern Munich for £25.9 million (plus add-ons). Our love for the man is well-documented, so I have a few questions: (1) Why will he only — only — be making £90,000 a week? (2) Why is one of the, I don’t know, four best midfielders in the world moving for less than a 23-year-old Brazilian with 10 national team caps? (3) And beyond Raheem Sterling’s move to Manchester City, is this really the biggest transfer of the summer?

Mike L. Goodman: It’s funny that you’re talking about Vidal in pounds and not euros, considering he moved from Italy to Germany. It’s not wrong or anything — at some point it’s helpful to look at all transfers in one currency — but it really drives home the point: €37 million doesn’t buy as much as it used to. Vidal went for a lot of euros, he didn’t really go for all that many pounds. Welcome to the summer of 2015 transfer season.

As of now, Vidal is probably the biggest name to move. The deal makes sense from Bayern’s perspective: he is almost three years younger than Bastian Schweinsteiger, who moved to Manchester United, and as you pointed out, he’ll be getting something like a third of what the German legend was making in wages. Maybe Vidal is injury prone, and it’s possible his best days are behind him, but the same could certainly be said of Schweinsteiger. Bayern got a little younger and a little cheaper — for a not-exorbitant price.1

As for Juventus, the fee looks much better in euros, and with Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez also moving on, it seems like the Turin club was eager to quickly give the keys to Pogba rather than dig in their heels for a few million extra for Vidal. Surrounded by smart, low-key acquisitions like Sami Khedira and Mario Mandzukic, in addition to pricey up-and-comer Paulo Dybala, it’s Pogba’s team now. The question is how much longer he will stay.

Pogba is not making anywhere near the kind of money he could be elsewhere in the world. But since Barcelona looks like the front-runner to secure his services, and they can’t technically bring anyone in until January, it seems like Juventus could realistically hold onto soccer’s future for one more year. Plus, the European Championships are in France next summer, so maybe he’s reluctant to throw himself into a new situation until after the tournament, too. Whatever the reasons, the possibility of the French superstar staying put probably played into the less-than-crazy price tag for his teammate: If you’re a mega club, you’d hate to think Pogba was unavailable, buy Vidal, and then realize you could’ve had the belle of the Transfer Ball, only a year later.

So instead we’re content to deal with a lot of smaller, but still important moves around Europe’s elite, and Liverpool’s second season in a row of bringing in a raft of players in the wake of one leaving.

Why Is Christian Benteke the Second-Most Expensive Transfer of the Summer?

O’Hanlon: For Liverpool it’s another summer of multiple moves to replace a mega-priced star. I wonder if there’s a statute of limitations on the Ewing Theory? Fernando Torres in 2011, Luis Suárez in 2014, and now Steven Gerrard and Sterling. Also, with Sterling and Stevie both leaving, can one team have two Ewing Theories in a single season?

And quite honestly, all the incoming players look pretty good to me: A bunch of cheap-ish, potential-filled, depth-bolstering players; a free, proven, top-level vet in James Milner; and an expensive, young, versatile stats darling of an attacker in Roberto Firmino.

OK, I lied. All of those moves looked pretty good, but then they went out and signed Christian Benteke from Aston Villa for £32.5 million. I have more questions: Why does an injury-prone, 24-year-old striker who hasn’t scored more than 13 goals since the 2012-13 season cost that much money?2 And I know the financial comparison isn’t one-to-one here, but can you lay out the logic of the deal for a Liverpool fan who looks at the Vidal number, compares it to the Benteke price, and then decides to become a Trappist monk?

Goodman: The Benteke move is really of a piece with everything else that Liverpool is doing. Don’t be afraid to spend, as long as the money goes toward young talent whose future you can more easily control. In other words, spend in a way that will benefit you later, either through wage savings on a player who suddenly makes the leap, or from sell-on fees. At 24, Benteke’s already a good, established Premier League goal scorer who fits that model. Vidal and Benteke being close in price says more about who was interested in Vidal (or maybe, who Vidal was interested in), and the gaudy price tag is more about the world market and less about Benteke. For better or worse, the financial power list looks like this: Super clubs, English clubs, everybody else.

Unsurprisingly, given that they’re owned by Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s summer feels very American. Rather than try to splurge for one older star (and the wages he’d command), they’ve continued to collect a ton of assets. What’s tough to figure out is what the end game is. You can’t turn assets into stars like you can in baseball or basketball. There’s no moment where you can package prospects and get James Harden. And as the last few years have shown, you don’t get any kind of built-in advantage that allows you to sign your young core to contract extensions. Liverpool seem like they’ve done a great job of rebuilding, but does it matter when the teams above you are just reloading?

How Did Manchester United Sign Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Memphis Depay for Less Than Benteke?

O’Hanlon: Last summer, it seemed like United kept getting into bidding wars with themselves: They spent a ton of money on “name” players from the World Cup (Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo) or guys who it didn’t seem like any of the other clubs in their financial bracket actually wanted (Luke Shaw, Falcao, Ander Herrera, and Angel Di Maria). If the goal was just to get back into the top four, it barely worked, but here they are. Now, I guess, they’re in a position where they can be a little more selective both with how much and on whom they spend. With Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin, they transformed the midfield in a weekend for less than £40 million, and that was after they brought in Memphis Depay, maybe the most sought-after young attacker not named Sterling, for less than £20 million. Compared to previous years and some of this summer’s moves, that doesn’t seem like that much money! In a weird way, does United’s massive bankroll let them pay less in transfer fees since they can give these guys such big salaries? Or is the £60 million S-S-D combo pack — plus £12.6 on right back Matteo Darmian — actually an over-pay?

Goodman: We’re in Year 2 of United’s “money is no object” plan, but while last season’s floundering around involved grasping at big-name stars — a pattern that goes back to Juan Mata in January 2014 — this window’s been all about prioritizing needs over shiny objects. None of the individual transfer fees stand out, but collectively they add up to a pretty hefty price tag. Plus, they may not be done, as rumors swirl about some ungodly amount of money being sent to Bayern Munich for Thomas Muller. Who knows if there’s anything to that, but the point is: United can spend forever.

The question, then, isn’t “Did they overpay for players?” Instead, it’s “Did they pick the right ones?” And it’s really hard to argue with what they’ve done so far. They’ve gotten serious reinforcements for their midfield, potentially one of the biggest young attacking stars in the world, and increased their depth at right back.

If there’s one concern, it’s that the guys they’re bringing in are all reportedly on sky-high wages: £150,000 per week for Schneiderlin and Depay, another £100,000 per week for Darmian, and a whopping £180,000 per week for Schweinsteiger. Now, that approach is part of the reason they manage to lure these players in the first place, but United is only two years removed from being a team with a bunch of under-performers on bloated contracts. If the roster they’ve managed to build works, then the wages won’t be a problem. If the alchemy isn’t right or if Louis van Gaal leaves in two years and the next guy in wants to mix up the squad, the high wages will limit the club’s ability to sell anyone off. Essentially, United is the anti-Liverpool: It’s about what you can do on the field right now, not what you might be worth in the future.

For now, though, the bottom line is thus: United have made themselves a lot better because they can afford to not look too closely at their bottom line.

If Crystal Palace Can Get Yohan Cabaye for Less Than £10 Million, Is Everyone Else Playing the Wrong Game?

O’Hanlon: To sum it all up: Arturo Vidal wasn’t super-expensive because everyone wants Paul Pogba, the euro is a garbage currency, and he probably hand-picked his destination. Liverpool is a basketball team that can’t make trades, and Benteke cost so much because that’s the going rate for a semi-proven, young-ish goal scorer these days. And for Manchester United, it’s easy to do good business when you can fund a never-ending payroll.

Now, while many of the European giants have been quiet, let’s end with a tiny club’s acquisition of a once-hot commodity. Just a few years ago, Yohan Cabaye was one of the best midfielders in the EPL. He left for PSG for £20 million, and now, just a year and a half later, he’s back in England, joining Crystal Palace for less than £10 million. When you look at what Cabaye was just a season ago, and then compare his price tag to most of the guys we talked about — £20 million looks like the basement — it might seem as if Palace has it all figured out. Tell me why that’s not true. Unless … it is?

Goodman: Sell high, buy low, and Alan Pardew is reunited with his midfield muse — nice work if you can get it. It’s the same story as the rest of them. If you’re an English team, it’s a great time to be buying players from Europe. Heck, we haven’t even talked about West Ham buying Dimitri Payet from Marseilles, Angelo Ogbonna from Juventus, and Pedro Obiang from Sampdoria, or Stoke kicking the tires on Xherdan Shaqiri before he stood them up, or Southampton landing Jordy Clasie as their Schneiderlin replacement, or Everton going to the Gerard Deulofeu well after the former Barcelona winger’s disastrous loan stint at Sevilla. The list goes on and on. The story of the summer is that if you’re not one of a handful of the richest clubs in Europe, then you can’t compete financially with England. That doesn’t mean that English clubs always buy the right players, but it increasingly means they get to buy the ones they want. Except for Pogba. For now, anyway.

Filed Under: Soccer, English Premier League, europe, Juventus, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, Christian Benteke, Liverpool, Manchester United, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay, Yohan Cabaye, Crystal Palace