Friday, 29 August 2014

Why Di Maria’s Fee Is All About Timing

The problem with the English transfer window remaining open three weeks after the season starts is that clubs seem to begin their campaigns in a holding pattern.  Teams are stuck in a kind of limbo as journalists and fans speculate about that one last minute player who can transform their club’s fortunes.
That this is rarely successful isn’t the point but it’s tough to think of one recent example where a last minute big money addition has made that much of an impact.  Mesut Ozil maybe? 
It remains far more common to work the other way.  A glance at the highest fees ever paid by a British club will shortly have Di Maria placed just above Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll, hardly the most auspicious of company.
That Di Maria is a fantastic player isn’t really up for debate.  For their reported £60 million Man Utd are getting someone who scored 36 goals and provided 72 assists in 190 games for Real.  Last season despite being moved further back into midfield to make way for Gareth Bale he was still the top assist provider in Spain.
Why then does this seem like a panic buy?  Partly it’s the fee, the general rule of thumb is that if PSG are pulling out of negotiations then you’re probably overpaying.  What hasn’t helped is the sense that Man Utd have pushed for this deal so hard because of their first two non-performances.
Van Gaal himself admitted after the disappointing 1-1 with Sunderland that his team had most let themselves down with their lack of midfield invention.  Di Maria will undoubtedly help with this.  Fixing it by himself is something else.
Also, given that this isn’t a new problem (it’s been evident since some time before Ferguson left) surely something could have been done to remedy it earlier?
Chelsea had two glaring problems with their team last year, a lack of goals from central midfield and not being able to call on a reliable central striker.  They signed Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa early and both are firing and already look settled.
Last season Man City had a plan, signed players early and won the league.  Man Utd ended the transfer window by enduring the disappointment of failing to land Ander Herrera and actually signing Marouane Fellaini.  This is a simplification of course but when you buy as much as who you buy is certainly a factor in their success.
In Germany business is normally done amicably (Dortmund and Bayern aside) and early.  When your club is being run as frugally as possible this is how it works.  Transfer deadline day in Germany now consists of watching the chaos unfolding in England with amazement.
Man Utd fans may well blame Van Gaal not being available until after the World Cup for the delay and there’d be some truth in this.  The two deals concluded early (for Luke Shaw and Herrera) were originally lined up by David Moyes.  Given that the problem was as bad last season under a different manager surely the blame has to lie with Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward?
There’s a sense that for whatever reason Woodward can’t get deals done.  Last year’s window ended with the club fighting the impression that they were panic buying.  This one has done little to alter that impression.

The problem with everything to do with Di Maria’s arrival is that it sums up what Man Utd are being forced to do to catch up on past mistakes.  He may well end up being a massive success (although you could argue they’re still two top class midfielders short).  The timing of it hasn’t helped anyone make that possible.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Premier League Preview

The Premier League is back.  Which of course suggests that it ever really went away.  The best and worst thing about it is that it’s always there, hovering over us at all times like a commercially mega successful Death Star looming over Alderaan.  This year more than most. We’ve already had a Premier League flavoured World Cup (in the early stages anyway) and the now traditional Premier League summer world tour.  Now at least the proper stuff starts again.

Given that last season was the most unpredictable in living memory it’s unlikely to quite reach those heights this again time.  When you’re still marketing yourself as the best league in the world this is impossible to ignore.  The richest?  Yes.  The most unpredictable major league?  Probably.  But the best?  Luis Suarez’s departure has further underlined it can no longer claim to be the home of the best players, the most exciting is their current mission statement.  And there’s truth in this.  The money pouring in from TV has enabled the clubs from the middle down to strengthen.  And mercifully, last season at least, the top teams all had something wrong with them.  Realistically though there won’t be any surprises finishers in the top seven.

At the top Chelsea look the most like they’ve fixed last season’s mistakes with their summer transfers, bringing in Fabregas and Diego Costa to bring goals to last season’s best defensive record.  Mourinho finally has the type of striker he believes in, leaving a manager used to bringing in trophies little excuse not to do so.  No wonder they’re favourites.  Their closest challengers will be Man City, who’ve reacted to conceding too many last season by spending most of their UEFA mandated FFP limit on Eliaquim Mangala.  They’ll never have a problem scoring goals with the strike-force they have.  Much will rest on the fitness of Aguero.  If he stays fit for the season they should win.  After their first trophy in nine years Arsenal will be confident of adding to it.  Decent summer business is headlined by Alexis Sanchez arriving.  Their failing last season was against the other members of the top four.  Sanchez up front offers a far more mobile option than Giroud (for all his strengths) does.  This should be enough for them to offer a better bet away from home in the biggest games. The likelihood is they’ll fall just short again.

Liverpool will hope that they haven’t done a Spurs and wasted their Suarez windfall on average players (although it’s worth remembering that before the start of last season most experts were praising the way they’d spent the Bale money).  It’s tough to think of even one example of a club selling their best player and improving.  Add in the added demands of Champions League football and it could be struggle for them to maintain their place in the top four.  With pretty much the same team Everton will be nice to watch but fall just short.  Pochettino trying to make Spurs start performing anything other than Spurs will likely take longer than a season to take hold.

Man Utd under Van Gaal have been gifted an easyish set of opening fixtures (in contrast to their ones from last season, David Moyes’ conspiracy theorists, if there are any, must be livid).  Van Gaal’s revolutions elsewhere have tended to take their time settling in though.  With a new 3-4-1-2 formation to bed in and players for the Iron Tulip to fall out it’s likely to be a transitional season.  Unless any major transfers are brought in before the deadline passes a top four place will be the best they can hope for.

At the other end of the table Crystal Palace post-Pulis must surely have entered the relegation conversation, something you wouldn’t have claimed if Tony had stayed.  With no money for signings, an owner looking for anyone to sell to and a seventeenth place finish last season Villa look doomed.  Unless new assistant manager Roy Keane can get a response out of them they could finally do what they’ve been threatening to do for the last few seasons and drop down a division.  If a newly progressive West Ham decide that Big Sam isn’t fulfilling his mandate to provide attacking football and sack him you could make an argument for them doing the same.  West Brom are another that might be sleepwalking towards the drop.  Stoke have bought well.  Joining them in mid-table should be the north east clubs who disappointingly look more stable than they have in years.  Whether that remains the case at the end of the season is harder to predict.

Out of the promoted teams Burnley provide the most fairytale of the stories (lacking either a Thai billionaire or Harry Redknapp).  They are sensibly run, have stuck with the players that got them promoted and already look down.   QPR look better equipped to survive, just that bit more streetwise.  Their summer transfers have brought in valuable experience, and not just with Rio Ferdinand either, Mauricio Isla should be an excellent signing.  It used to be said that winning the play offs was the worst preparation for a season in the division above.  For the last three years the play off winners have stayed up while the champions have gone down.  Leicester look well equipped to try and stop this stat continuing.  They have pace throughout their team and almost more importantly money to spend in January if needed to try and buy their way out of trouble.