x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bargain hunting for players on a tricky Premier League roulette

Transfers tantalise because they can only be properly assessed in retrospect. Duncan Castles looks at the players from the monetary perspective.

From 1million euros at Atletico Madrid two summers ago, David de Gea is now worth 20 times more.
From 1million euros at Atletico Madrid two summers ago, David de Gea is now worth 20 times more.

Two summers ago Wigan Athletic were offered a teenage Spanish goalkeeper. Tall and talented, a European champion at youth international level, and with a strong debut season as a Segunda B professional behind him, the player's credentials were impressive.

Atletico Madrid were ready to sell for €2 million (Dh10.75m). Some keen negotiation cut the fee to an initial €1m, yet still Wigan considered the deal too risky.

And so the DW Stadium lost out on David de Gea. The same De Gea who at the end of this month, once contractually free to change agents, is expected to replace Edwin van der Sar at Manchester United at a cost of €20m.

Transfers tantalise because they can only be properly assessed in retrospect. For years the most monied clubs of Europe eyed Fernando Torres until Liverpool decided to cash in and Chelsea were sucked into spending £50m (Dh301m) on a forward who did not have time to take a proper medical then returned just one goal in 18 appearances.

Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, was not alone in such high stakes manoeuvres.

Liverpool threw their January takings at Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez. Manchester City went for Edin Dzeko at £27m, Aston Villa purchased a £24m Premier League survival package in Darren Bent, and Tottenham Hotspur littered £30m-plus offers around Spain.

As Uefa observed the record spend with a pointed reminder that clubs were supposed to be balancing their books ahead of incoming Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, goals failed to flow like the cash. Between them the five strikers were to claim just 18 league strikes; half of those from Bent.

The newly opened window may be only marginally more considered. There are certainly good intentions. City, Liverpool and Tottenham plan to strip their wage bills of non-contributing high earners to make space for younger players with high resale values.

The problem is finding takers for their Wayne Bridges, Joe Coles and David Bentleys. The rest of the league has cottoned on to the strategy of concentrating resources on individuals who have yet to peak.

"It's actually quite a small pool of players that everyone is looking at," one senior scout said. "We all want 24 to 25-year-olds, we all want centre forwards and wingers, and there's not many that fit the bill. Everyone is looking at the same 10 guys so it takes big money to get them."

Adding to the competition is the unusual openness at the top of the league. United recovered the title with the lowest points total in a decade. Chelsea led for a long period, Arsenal thought they could steal between the two, City were within range, and even Tottenham declared themselves contenders.

Four of those five enter next season with serious title ambitions, while Liverpool and Tottenham seek to push incumbents out of Champions League berths. United, Chelsea and Arsenal are all set up to be more aggressive in the summer transfer market than they have been for years.

Part of the task for Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, is dealing with obsolescence. Ideally, he might have waited a season more for De Gea, but Van der Sar's retirement forced his hand. Gary Neville's departure during the campaign, and Paul Scholes's at the end of it, have created vacancies at right-back and central midfield, where Owen Hargreaves has also been released.

Though the Scot's masterful campaign to keep Wayne Rooney at Old Trafford convinced the Glazer family to release funds for contract renewals, Ferguson must spread his resources to a certain extent.

Wesley Sneijder, who is unsettled at Inter Milan, was targeted but he already earns an after-tax salary of €4.5m and would command a hefty transfer fee. With Daniel Levy seeking to rationalise Tottenham's squad, the more modestly remunerated Luka Modric is now the main focus of Ferguson's attentions.

A fight with Liverpool for Aston Villa's Ashley Young has swung in Ferguson's favour. Talks will take place next week to discuss extending the final year of Park Ji-sung's deal at United, while there is interest in Everton's Jack Rodwell and Phil Jones of Blackburn Rovers, who can both operate in midfield as well as the defence.

With a squad overloaded with older, foreign players those young English talents also appeal to Chelsea. The restructure of their playing resources, however, is being delayed by a broader overhaul of the club.

Abramovich has taken a more hands-on role in transfers than at any point of his ownership, yet is limited in the time he can spend on football business.

Buying Guus Hiddink out of his contract as Turkey coach will bring a trusted figure to the Cobham training facility, but having finally dispensed with failed sporting director Frank Arnesen and most of his scouting staff a new recruitment network is urgently required.

Abramovich is considering employing Ewan Chester, a diligent scout with a record of building well-organised and successful systems at Glasgow Rangers, Fulham and Norwich.

At Arsenal there is an unusual urgency to spend. Faced with a disgruntled support and now accountable to a majority owner, Arsene Wenger's inclination towards economy has shifted. "For the first time in a while, I will be very active," Wenger said.

Nicklas Bendtner, Andrey Arshavin, Denilson, Emmanuel Eboue and Carlos Velas are all on the market, while Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri's refusal to extend contracts entering their final years may force sales.

Once again Cesc Fabregas wants to join Barcelona, who believe they can acquire the midfielder and Italy striker Guiseppe Rossi for around €30m each. Wenger is placing inquiries in every position except right-back.

Liverpool's strategy has more focus. There are significant funds for transfers, and a concentration on home-grown players in their early 20s.

Sunderland's Jordan Henderson is a preferred signing in midfield, with Blackpool's Charlie Adam an option. As Young is expected to go to United, Villa's Stewart Downing is wanted on the wing; Blackburn's Jones favoured at centre back.

An approach was made to Benfica for Fabio Coentrao until it became clear the Portugal left-back was headed for Real Madrid. The UK-based options of Newcastle United's Jose Enrique and Celtic's player of the year Emilio Izaguirre have diminished in appeal as Liverpool have watched them with the latter now the subject of a £2.5m bid from Newcastle instead. Kenny Dalglish is, though, keen on Ipswich's Connor Wickham as a backup centre forward.

Ironically, it is Manchester City who plan the most conservative summer. Aware they must significantly cut wages to show willing on FFP, the priority is to sell or loan 10 or more surplus players, including Emmanuel Adebayor, Roque Santa Cruz and Craig Bellamy.

City hope that Carlos Tevez's £6.5m net salary and a £50m asking price will prevent them from having to replace the forward, as they continue a policy of only signing ambitious, younger individuals who will improve an already well-balanced squad.

Roberto Mancini would prefer to spend heavily again; he'd be better hoping for this summer's De Gea.

 

CLUB CALLING

MANCHESTER UNITED:
Budget: Up to £60million
Looking for: GK, RB, CM, AM/W, CF

State of play: Reasonably well advanced. David de Gea will join once a contract with his current agent expires at the end of this month, and United are in poll position for Ashley Young. Sir Alex Ferguson will focus resources on Luka Modric, who is ready to leave Tottenham, and may make opportunistic offers for Jack Rodwell and Phil Jones. Owen 
Hargreaves had been released Wes Brown is for sale, and a decision will be taken on Danny Welbeck and Dimitar Berbatov.

CHELSEA:
Budget: Generous support expected for new management team.
Looking for: Every position; particularly keen on playmaker to feed Torres.

State of play: Without a manager, director of football, chief scout or a strong chief executive, Chelsea are in a state of limbo. Top agents complain of communication difficulties and uncertainty over the club's direction. John Obi Mikel, Jose Bosingwa, Paulo Ferreira, Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba are uncertain about their futures, while the club's best academy product, Josh McEachran, is still waiting on a new contract. Preliminary conversations have been held over Neymar, Romelu  Lukaku, Gregory van der Wiel, and Sergio Aguero. Guus Hiddink has recommended Turkey playmaker Arda Turan.

MANCHESTER CITY:
Budget: Aim to fund purchases with sales.
Looking at: CD, CM, FW, LB, RB

State of play: Though there always remains the possibility of Sheikh Mansour indulging in something dramatic, internally City are  focused on controlling spending with FFP in mind. Clearing out surplus players  who "the club has outgrown" is a priority, though so generous are the  wages of individuals like Craig Bellamy, Wayne Bridge, Roque Santa Cruz, Shaun Wright-Phillips that sales or loans will prove difficult. Celtic want  Shay Given, Emmanuel Adebayor could stay at Real Madrid or be taken by  Everton.
There is interest in Leighton Baines should Alexander Kolarov leave, and a centre back will be signed. Udinese attacker Alexis Sanchez prefers to remain in Italy.

ARSENAL:
Budget: £25million plus sales.
Looking at: GK, CD, LB, CM, CF

State of play: A degree of uncertainty over Arsene Wenger's long-term future at Arsenal is reflected in a dramatic shift in transfer strategy. The Frenchman says he will be busier than in previous  summers and that there is a "need to improve the size of our squad. We need a bigger variety in the height of our players". With Cesc Fabregas increasingly unsettled, he may cash in on his captain, and has asked for a powerful penalty-box striker. A goalkeeper is wanted to compete with Wojciech Szczesny and there have been inquiries for PSG centre back Mamadou Sakho and the Blackburn duo Phil Jones of Christopher Samba. Leighton Baines  is an option at left back

LIVERPOOL:
Budget: Up to £50m.
Looking at: GK, LB, CD, CM, W, CF

State of play: With the club's American owners dismayed at a  wage bill that allocates close to a GBP1m a month to the rarely used Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovic, Liverpool's strategy is markedly focused on value  for money and potential resale value. Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson,  Phil Jones and Connor Wickham are all English, young, and relatively cheap in terms of wages. Left back remains a problem area with Kenny Dalglish and the scouting department cooling on Jose Enrique and Emilio Izaguirre,  while a back-up goalkeeper is needed after free agent Brad Friedel chose Tottenham over Anfield.

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