Paying the Price for Premier League Riches – The New York Times

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Rory Smith On Soccer
The surplus players at English clubs would make fine assets for teams across Europe. The problem is that the clubs that could use them cannot afford them.

The headed clearance did not quite get the requisite power, or direction. It floated, rather than fizzed, out of Brentford’s penalty area, the danger not quite clear. Two Manchester United players converged on it, sensing opportunity. The ball bounced off the turf, not too high, not too quick, and hung in the air for just a second. And that is where Andreas Pereira met it.
There is a reason some Manchester United fans have come to know Pereira — with equal parts affection and admonishment — as the Preseason Pirlo. It is in the exploratory exchanges, the warm-up fixtures and the touring exhibitions, where he does his best work. Once meaning is introduced to the games, once the season gets down to business, Pereira tends to fade from sight.
Perhaps that is the sort of player he is: undeniably talented, often capable of the spectacular, but too much of a luxury to fit into a tightly defined system. Perhaps it is lack of opportunity or managerial trust. Perhaps he falls — and this is no criticism — just a shade below the level required to thrive at a club as grand, and as demanding, as Manchester United.
Whatever the reason, the chance against Brentford was his sort of moment. Pereira was first to the bouncing ball. He pulled his right leg back, catching the ball at its apex, and cracked a volley toward goal, where it hit the underside of the bar and dropped like a stone. Not quite half full, Old Trafford’s crowd stood, open-mouthed, to applaud.
After the game, Pereira used his sudden spotlight to issue a cri de coeur. He stood ready to serve, he said. He just needed United’s manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, to give him a run, he said. He was ready to compete for a place, to play regularly, to show that — at age 25, almost a decade after he first moved to Manchester — he was a man, not a boy.
His plea will, in all likelihood, fall on deaf ears. Even with uncertainty hovering over the future of Paul Pogba, Solskjaer has an abundance of options in his central midfield: Bruno Fernandes, Scott McTominay, Fred, Nemanja Matic, Donny van de Beek. Having committed more than $140 million to sign Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane, the club needs to balance the books. No matter how much he looks like Andrea Pirlo in the preseason, Pereira will be sold, if a suitable offer arrives.
Pereira is not the only player in that bind. Diogo Dalot, a Portuguese fullback, also featured in that game at Old Trafford late last month. So did Jesse Lingard. Like Pereira, Lingard spent last season out on loan. Like Pereira’s, his departure this summer from United would most likely be accepted as an economic — and to some extent sporting — necessity. Like Pereira, Lingard had a chance to play in preseason because many of Solskjaer’s first-choice players have been given extended breaks after featuring in the European Championship and the Copa América.
There are more — many more — players like them across the upper echelons of the Premier League. A couple of days after United played Brentford, Arsenal hosted Chelsea in another tuneup game. Arsenal’s team included Mohamed Elneny and Sead Kolasinac; Chelsea, the European champion, introduced the likes of Davide Zappacosta, Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley from the bench. All of them, too, are available to the highest bidder. Or, in fact, any bidder.
It is the same situation at Liverpool — where Xherdan Shaqiri, Nat Phillips and Divock Origi have been part of Jürgen Klopp’s preseason camp — and at Manchester City, where even Patrick Roberts, a wing who has spent the last five years out on loan, has managed an appearance in recent weeks. But City cannot attract bids for Riyad Mahrez or Bernardo Silva, let alone Roberts. Tottenham would like to clear the decks, too, but it has been unable to find a buyer for Serge Aurier, Moussa Sissoko or Harry Winks.
None of these players, with the possible exceptions of Silva and Mahrez, are likely to feature regularly for their clubs once the season starts next weekend. They are all, to some extent, now more useful to their teams as potential sources of income — not so much as defenders or midfielders or forwards but as assets to be sold, to free up space and to raise funds.
And yet, with only a few weeks left in the transfer window, they all remain firmly in place. It is not because they lack talent. It is not, necessarily, because of a shortage of suitors: There are plenty of teams for whom all of those players would be fine recruits. The problem, instead, is money: They all earn too much of it, and the teams that might desire them do not have enough of it.
It is an issue that does not just apply to England. No team in Europe requires funds quite so much as Barcelona, with its stratospheric salary bill and its apparent inability to find a way to sign Lionel Messi to a new contract, while somehow staying within La Liga’s financial rules.
It has attempted to shed some of its high earners, too, but with no luck so far. Samuel Umtiti, Miralem Pjanic and Philippe Coutinho and all of the others are still there, at Camp Nou, pinned down by the sheer weight of their contracts. There are plenty of clubs out there that would be delighted to have any of them. And there are some that could afford a transfer fee and their salaries. Those two groups, though, do not intersect.
This is precisely the problem — albeit a scaled-up, more urgent iteration of it — facing clubs across the Premier League. Their surplus players would make fine assets for teams across Europe, but no club that wants them can afford them.
The most immediate explanation for that, of course, is the coronavirus pandemic: a year of hosting games in empty stadiums, along with the rebates due to the broadcasters that have kept the game afloat, has led to purse strings being tightened and reduced budgets.
But there is a deeper issue at play, too. Over the last few years, the teams of the Premier League — alongside a cadre of continental superclubs — have gloried in recruiting as many of the best players on the planet as possible. They have done so by offering them far higher salaries than they could feasibly obtain elsewhere.
The on-field consequences of that trend have been clear. The Premier League stands alone as the most competitive domestic competition in the world; the rest of Europe’s major leagues have come to be seen as the private fiefs of a handful of elite clubs. It is only now, though, accelerated by the pandemic, that we can see the off-field impact.
The player trading market that underpins the activities of every club in Europe — even in the Premier League, insulated from the worst of the downturn by its vast television revenues — is fundamentally fractured. The salaries on offer at English teams, and at the likes of Barcelona, are way out of step with what everyone else can afford to play.
For years, that has brought an impressive reward: The Premier League has gloried in its financial potency. Now, though, the cost is becoming clear. England’s elite are able to buy, but — sufficiently detached from the rest of their peers — they are increasingly unable to sell.
Pereira, as one example, most likely could not earn what he does at Old Trafford if he moved to the sort of team, in Italy or in Spain, that might be interested in his services: Lazio, say, or Valencia. Even if he was prepared to accept a lower salary, and willing to join a lower-profile club, United would have to pay out the rest of his contract, as it did with Alexis Sanchez.
And even then, signing Pereira — still relatively youthful at 25 — might appeal less to one of those clubs than picking up a younger, cheaper model, with greater resale value, from France, Belgium or Portugal, where prices have dropped precipitously as a result of the pandemic: the very same rationale that means selling players to other Premier League teams is not proving as easy as, perhaps, everybody thought. The unwanted reserves of the great English teams and the overpaid castoffs of the super-clubs are too old, too expensive, too much risk and too little reward.
For some of those players, there will be a way out. Moves will materialize once liquidity pours into the market. Pereira may get a chance to prove his Andrea Pirlo tribute act can endure after the start of the season. More creative, lower risk deals — loans with options for future purchase, in particular, offsetting the cost — may rescue others.
Still more, though, will remain where they are, stuck in limbo, not valued enough by their current employer but valued far too highly by everyone else. In doing so, they will absorb not only money but space and time in squads increasingly laden with unwanted passengers.
The pattern is one that England’s teams would do well to heed, as they consider how best to exercise their financial superiority in what has become, and is likely to stay, a buyer’s market. How much of that money they can spend, of course, may define how much success they enjoy today. It is how well they spend it, though, that will define what tomorrow looks like.
There are two sides to the great Harry Kane debate, and each one is equally valid. One holds that, as the captain of England and one of the best strikers of his generation, he has the right to decide where he wishes to — borrowing a phrase from LeBron James — take his talents. The other points out, no less convincingly, that he has three years left on his six-year contract, and so he really does not have the right.
It is easy to see why Kane might feel that Tottenham is standing in his way. It is easy to see why Tottenham feels Kane might like to come to work, given that Manchester City — his intended future employer — has yet to make an offer for his services worthy of consideration and debate. Predicting how it resolves from here would take a particularly gifted clairvoyant.
The problem, as is so often the case, is that both are reasonable positions. Players should, of course, have the right to work wherever they like: Transfer fees are, when you think about it, really quite strange things. But then clubs, too, should be rewarded for the role they play in developing those players, and protected from their sudden loss.
The answer, perhaps, already exists: If players’ contracts came as standard with a buyout clause, then there would at least be a little clarity. This is already the case in Spain, and it is increasingly common throughout Europe. The clubs get their protection. The players get their freedom, even if, on occasion, it tends toward the theoretical. And everyone knows where they stand.
A mixed week for the national teams of the United States. For the men, the prospect of a bright future ahead, after Gregg Berhalter’s side beat Mexico to win the Gold Cup. For the women, a rather darker horizon, after defeat at the Olympics at the semifinal stage at the hands of Canada relegated them to the bronze medal game, where they beat Australia.
It is hard to overestimate the men’s achievement. This was, after all, a severely weakened U.S. squad, deprived of most of its most promising talents. When it takes to the field for World Cup qualifying later this year, its lineup is likely to be starkly different. Much better, in fact: If anything, this Gold Cup win is proof of the scale of the strength in depth at Berhalter’s disposal.
For the women, though, the outlook is a little more troubling. The performances of Sweden — Canada’s opponent in the gold medal match, and easy victors over Vlatko Andonovski’s team in the group phase — and the Netherlands highlight the sense that Europe’s best teams are catching the United States at a considerable rate of knots. At the same time, the timidity of defeat to Canada indicates that perhaps the U.S. is caught between cycles.
That is not to say that the U.S. women’s program will no longer be a force, or will see its star wane; when the World Cup begins in two years’ time, it will still, most likely, be the favorite. Tokyo should serve as a warning, though: Its primacy cannot be taken for granted, and that as the game grows, so does the scale of the competition.
A good point from Paul Tigan on the connections between the two elements of last week’s newsletter: players being suffocated by the pressure placed on them from outside to perform, and the case of David Alaba, who seems to have been given the job of solving all of Real Madrid’s problems.
The latter part, Paul wrote, “read like a classic, thoughtful analysis of a club setting unreasonable expectations on an individual. Not just on defensive performance, but also filling the gaps in the culture of a faltering organization (by being asked to fill in the shoes of Ramos and the like).”
He is right, of course: There is a link between the two cases, and one that I did not see as I was writing them. Clubs burden players with intolerable expectations, too — the final piece of the jigsaw phenomenon — and that is only heightened, as in Madrid’s case, by poor planning and lack of forethought. If Real Madrid’s struggles, by its standards, this year, Alaba may well be deemed a flop. The consequence will be personal. The cause may well be institutional.
Luka Martinac raises a valid question, too. “I wonder how long before sport start rejecting social media in order to protect their stars? Apart from the commercial benefit, it’s hard to see what reason there is to be on it.”
I’ve had the same thought. I suppose, first of all, we should not underestimate the commercial value. Second, I know a lot of soccer players — and I imagine this goes for other athletes — genuinely enjoy the chance to connect with fans. But most important is this: They have as much right as we do to use social media safely. If they have to withdraw because of the toxicity toward them, then what does that say about, well, us?
And a question from Vincent LoVoi, who wants to know why last week’s newsletter did not make mention of the Olympic soccer tournament, but focused instead on a Dutch player who currently straddles the English and French leagues.
This is entirely on me: I’m lucky enough to get to pick what I write about in this newsletter. I’m not sure I can explain my thought process any more clearly than “I thought it was interesting,” but I’ll give it a go.
The Olympics move pretty quickly, so the danger of writing a column on the tournament is that, within a few hours of its publication, it might look out of date. The timings of the games have not been great for a Friday newsletter, either: The women’s final, for example, will have finished by the time many of you read this. And besides, I’m not sure anyone, currently, can say they do not have enough Olympics coverage.
I hope that makes sense. It may not be satisfying, but that is the thinking behind the choice of subject.
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