The summer’s transfer activity so far confirms Spain’s big two as the ultimate destination for the world’s best players, with James Rodríguez and Luis Suárez the headline signings for Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, though in keeping with its reputation the Premier League has a greater number of clubs splashing the cash. While English football might not be able to claim as many marquee names as it once could, spending in depth is still a Premier League speciality.
Take out Real Madrid and Barcelona business from the Spanish transfer window and all one is left with is a handful of intermediate signings by Atlético Madrid. In Italy only two clubs, Roma and Juventus, have spent more than £10m to date and the same is true of the Bundesliga, where Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen are leading the way. The French league is normally a minor player in these matters yet a £50m bill for David Luiz cannot go unnoticed, even if Paris Saint-Germain must have been tempted to check the small print in the deal after the defender’s erratic display in Brazil’s World Cup semi-final against Germany.
Receiving that amount of money for a player José Mourinho never really rated must be one of the smartest pieces of business of the summer, almost allowing Chelsea to balance the books after bringing in Diego Costa and Cesc Fábregas. If those two players bed in quickly, and there appears no reason why they should not, Chelsea ought to be able to justify their position as favourites for the Premier League title.
They beat Manchester City home and away last season and have strengthened since while the reigning champions have yet to make any additions to their squad apart from recruiting a new No2 goalkeeper. City might be satisfied with the players they have, indeed they may have one or two too many now that they have to comply with FFP sanctions, though along with Everton, who seem to prefer to look for loan deals and do everything on the last day, their parsimony sets them apart from the rest of English football.
Arsenal, so often reluctant to spend, have already parted with £35m for the exciting Alexis Sánchez; Manchester United have invested more than £54m in Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera with more money understood to be available if Louis van Gaal wishes to make a statement signing; Liverpool have spent well over £70m on Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Lazar Markovic, Emre Can and Rickie Lambert, while Newcastle, Southampton, West Ham and even West Brom have all forked out at least £10m, with Spurs, Hull and QPR poised to do the same.
Were there prizes on offer for spending alone, the Premier League would be at the forefront, even if several of the above transactions, particularly at Liverpool and Chelsea, were funded by sums raised on outgoing players. Spending wisely is a different matter. For the bargain of the summer so far look no further than Serie A, where Roma and Internazionale have picked up Ashley Cole and Nemanja Vidic for nothing. Both those defenders have plenty of life in them still, both will be missed by their former clubs in England, Chelsea and Manchester United, and in terms of value a free transfer is hard to beat.
Otherwise the standout capture appears to be Toni Kroos to Real Madrid for £20m. That piece of business, almost an afterthought next to the signing of Rodríguez for three times as much, is forcing people to look at English players – Lallana to Liverpool for £25m, for instance – and wonder how they get to be so overpriced.
Is Lallana overpriced at £25m? Well, yes and no. Southampton did not have to sell him, Liverpool wanted him badly enough to pay a few million over the odds, just as United did with Shaw. But you would not expect young internationals to trade up to bigger clubs for much less than £20m in today’s market, it is the Kroos price that has skewed the picture.
Bayern Munich, not unlike the German national team, are well off for midfielders and, though not many clubs count as a step up from the German champions, the European champions are probably an exception. All parties were happy with the deal, Bayern because Mario Götze and Thiago Alcântara will now get more game time, Real Madrid because Kroos is viewed as a successor to Xabi Alonso. The price merely reflected the fact that Kroos had only a year left on his contract at Bayern and had already turned down an extension.
This is not a trick every club can pull off but it helps to be Real Madrid when getting hold of a 24-year-old World Cup winner at a bargain price. Not that £20m is small change; it just looks that way beside Real’s previous splashes.
The £20m for Kroos is also the biggest fee any Bundesliga club has received this summer. Mario Mandzukic’s £17m move from Bayern to Atlético Madrid runs it close but those figures are dwarfed by the windfalls received in France and England for Rodríguez, Suárez and Luiz.
Bayern are not in a hurry to replace Mandzukic or itching to spend the £17m they have in the bank as they know they will have Robert Lewandowski for the coming season, on a free. In his prime at 25 and the top scorer in the Bundesliga last season, the Polish striker would be the deal of the summer even better value than Cole or Vidic, except that the business was conducted a long time ago and Borussia Dortmund supporters were unhappy about the departure.
Like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich are simply exploiting their status as a club that top players want to join. They are not just Champions League regulars, they have serious designs on winning the competition. At the moment the only club in England that can honestly say that is Chelsea. Arsenal are serial qualifiers rather than achievers, Manchester City are still novices in Europe and, while one can never quite tell with Liverpool, they are coming to the Champions League after a four-year absence.
So the challenge for Van Gaal at Manchester United is twofold. First he must restore Champions League football to Old Trafford, presumably at Liverpool’s or Arsenal’s expense. Then if he wants United to become a destination club again, a no-brainer for leading players wanting to play in England, he is going to have to knock Chelsea off their perch.