Most expensive transfer targets – Bale, Cavani and Falcao – are not pursued for tactical reasons, but to boost the self-image of the club. Manchester City, on the other hand, have bought wisely
In retrospect, appointing Arrigo Sacchi as technical director of Real Madrid in 2004-05 was probably never going to be a raging success. He was the high priest of the team game, placing the structure of his pressing above all else, demanding players subjugate themselves to the system. The galácticos squad was a monument to individualism and celebrity, while the policy of "Zidanes y Pavones" was the definition of what Sacchi opposed in football.
"It was about managing the characteristics of individuals," he said. "And that's why you see the proliferation of specialists. The individual trumped the collective. But it's a sign of weakness. It's reactive, not proactive. We were like that at Real Madrid. There is no project, it was about exploiting qualities. So, for example, at Real, we knew that Zidane, Raúl and Figo didn't track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend. But that's reactionary football. It doesn't multiply the players' qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players' abilities.
"In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can't do that. He doesn't have the ideas to do it, though of course, he's great at winning the ball. It's all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting X amount of talented players in and balancing them out with Y amount of specialists?"
Some clubs do stand for collectivity and harmony: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona all have a clear philosophy in which the team is paramount, and it is no coincidence that they have been the most successful sides over the past few years. But in the era of the superclub, as football essentially becomes the entertainment wing of the oil industry, it increasingly seems that transfers become almost an end in themselves, with little thought to the overall tactical picture.
For the new money that makes sense. How better for Monaco to alert the world to their arrival back in the French top flight than by picking up one of the most sought-after strikers in the game, signing Radamel Falcao for £50m or so. Look at us, that signing said: we are a major force, the sort of club who can attract top talent and pay big money. Manchester City did it with Robinho. It's the signing as advertisement.
Paris Saint-Germain, though, perhaps are still locked in the same mentality. Buying Zlatan Ibrahimovic last season was their way of announcing themselves, but with a squad that already contains Ezequiel Lavezzi, it's hard to understand where Edinson Cavani fits, particularly not given the presence of Javier Pastore, Lucas Moura, Jérémy Ménez and Marco Verratti at the club. Is there a rationale behind it, or did they just sign the Uruguayan because he was available and they know he's a good player?
But what's really baffling is when fans start demanding transfers almost for the sake of it, as though they need a £30m deal every summer just to convince themselves they still support a big club. You see it on deadline day each window, people taking to Twitter and comments sections to berate their club for not being involved – when of course the truth is that, in the vast majority of cases, deals done on deadline day are hurried and not necessarily well-conceived. Or take the reaction among some Manchester United fans to the signing of Shinji Kagawa last season: there was a discussion to be had about his ability and his capacity to adapt, about where he'd fit in the team, but at least some expressed frustration he was "only" an £18m player. The urge to sign Cesc Fábregas seems to follow a similar logic: that United must somehow "prove" they are backing David Moyes by making a glamour signing.
Or take Arsenal's sudden desire to spend, something so all-consuming that even Mikel Arteta has started talking about how exciting it is to be competing for big-name players. Arsenal, of course, have not actually signed anybody yet beyond the annual France youth international, but with others there is a horrible sense of clubs rushing around buying anything they clap their eyes on: a Mies van der Rohe chair here, a Turner seascape there, chuck in a Le Corbusier sofa, a Persian carpet and an Isamu Noguchi table – does it all fit together? Never mind, that's what Claudio's for.
This is the transfer as comfort food. Would Real Madrid be talking about breaking transfer records for Gareth Bale if they'd won la Liga or the Champions League last season? Or is this a way of convincing themselves that, despite the rise of the Bundesliga and the wave of cash running through the Premier League as a result of the new TV deal, they are still the big boys? There's a reason the curve rises so steeply when it comes to the most expensive players and that is vanity: the value of the deal is itself part of the value and so at the top end of the market there is a self-inflationary effect.
In no direct sense – footballing or commercial – can Bale be worth getting on for double Falcao or Cavani, but for pumping the self-image of Madrid he's ideal. But what seems to have been overlooked is the issue of exactly how he would fit in a side with Cristiano Ronaldo, or what the impact for Real Madrid might be of losing the industrious counterbalance of Angel di María.
Even Barcelona have perhaps gone down that route. After the embarrassment of losing 7-0 over the two legs of their semi-final against Bayern Munich, they brought forward the signing of Neymar from Santos: a star name to soothe a bruised ego. Talented as he undoubtedly is, though, there has been little evidence in his performances either for Brazil or at club level that he can become a cog in the wheel, that he can perform his defensive duties responsibly.
Dortmund and Bayern both seem to have bought sensibly, answering specific needs in their squad, while the Brendan Rodgers project at Liverpool, however clouded it may be in guruspeak, has the virtue of being a project, of buying a particular type of player to fit an overall scheme. But actually, the club who have probably performed best so far in the transfer market are Manchester City.
The club were much mocked for saying Roberto Mancini had been sacked as part of a drive to a more "holistic" approach, but the coherence of their philosophy is becoming increasingly clear.
The chief executive Ferran Soriano said in March that City would look to bring in "three or four players" and that he felt they had made the squad bigger but not better the previous summer. Sure enough, four major players have arrived: none of them perhaps are absolutely stellar names but the role of each in the squad is clear.
Fernandinho adds a creative edge from deep and can release Yaya Touré; Jesús Navas adds pace and penetration on the right; Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic relieve the pressure on Sergio Agüero, Negredo offering muscularity and goals and Jovetic technical ability and cover not just at centre-forward but as a second striker or a wide man.
Theirs has been a calm, coherent spree. Perhaps, given the determined Luddism that still governs large parts of English footballing culture, "holistic" wasn't the wisest choice of words, but as others snatch at stars, they have taken a major step towards the harmonious style that has brought success to Barcelona and Bayern.