Harry Redknapp's jibe this week -- pouring scorn on Chelsea's £22 million ($35M) offer for Luka Modric, he noted that "there are people being sold for £20 million who are not fit to lace Luka's boots" -- wasn't exactly thinly veiled. In the preceding week 19-year-old Blackburn defender Phil Jones had been signed by Manchester United for £16.5 million ($26.6M) plus add-ons, with 21-year-old Sunderland midfielder Jordan Henderson heading to Liverpool for the same figure.
When you hold one of the Premier League's best midfielders, evoking the image of smooth-chinned young apprentices is a sensible bargaining tool. It is not often that such sums are swapped for relatively inexperienced players so early in a transfer window. But the Spurs manager knows as well as anyone that relativity doesn't really apply in the transfer market; the relationship between
Like most big deals, the moves reflect the position of the buying club; many of Manchester City's £20 million-plus acquisitions in recent summers came about because it could afford the massively inflated fee that would prise apart another club's fingers, and got in exchange Premier League and international experience (e.g. James Milner, Carlos Tevez) and/or bona fide star quality (David Silva, Yaya Toure). Part of United and Liverpool's willingness to spend similar sums on young English players may stem from regulatory changes: at present, eight of every 25-man squad must be "homegrown," and FIFA has proposed a nine-plus-nine rule that would ensure that homegrown players make up half of every matchday squad. If clubs are investing with "homegrown" ringing in their ears, it's no surprise to see them do so before accounting for Financial Fair Play, regulations under which clubs can (supposedly) spend no more than they earn, begins: no matter how inflated the market, there is almost always a premium attached to English players.
Given the current uncertainty over the futures of John O'Shea, Wes Brown, Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson, all of whom qualify as homegrown, it seems likely that United are motivated first and foremost by Alex Ferguson's desire for rejuvenation, with the quota figuring in the mix. Jones' transfer is not an atypical deal for the club: Dimitar Berbatov is the only outfield player over 23 that Alex Ferguson has lavished huge sums of money on in the last few seasons. The manager prefers the opportunity to develop players at United -- think Javier Hernandez, and Rafael and Fabio da Silva -- and is not afraid to gamble on promise. He has admitted that he had intended to purchase Jones next year, but acted sooner because of the interest shown by City and Liverpool; his decisiveness also enabled United to beat Arsenal to the signing of Chris Smalling in January last year.
When United paid £29 million ($46.8M) for Rio Ferdinand, then 23, in 2002, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said the club had paid well over the odds for a player he had been interested in at £19 million ($30.7M). But Ferguson insisted that: "the key to this is potential. We're very confident that he will go on and develop into the best center half in the world." In fact, he had tried to sign a teenage Ferdinand six years earlier, while he was a West Ham United player on loan at Bournemouth.
Ferdinand arrived after the 2001-02 season, one marked by problems in the defense; Jaap Stam's unexpected departure and the difficult adjustment of his replacement, 35-year-old Laurent Blanc, played no small part in United finishing the season without a trophy. No such problems this time around, but Jones does arrive after a season in which United's defense, repeatedly shuffled by injuries and suspensions, conceded its highest goals-per-game count in the league since 01-02.
Though he has been accused of the odd lapse of concentration, one of Jones' real strengths is anticipation, a facet that, along with his willingness to move forward with the ball, enabled him to make a mark playing in a defensive midfield role for Blackburn last season. Everton had 70 percent of possession at Ewood Park on the opening day, but struggled to carry momentum in to the final third with Jones, then 18, protecting his defense. Shifted in to the back line, his ability to read the game -- allied to aerial strength -- helps him to avoid trouble.
With his signing, United has a prospective back four (Rafael, Smalling, Jones and Fabio, average age: 20) already in his squad before Patrice Evra, Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic decline. Jones' partnership with Smalling at U2-1 level bodes well -- even after two dreary England performances in the ongoing European Championship. Jones fired off numerous aimless punts against Ukraine earlier this week, but arguably wanted for better options on many occasions. Against Romania in the qualifying campaign, he started a promising move with a perfectly targeted long ball to Tom Cleverley (also on United's books).
England U-21 manager Stuart Pearce has attributed to Jones and Smalling the same glee that Vidic takes from the dirty jobs and to Jones the leadership skills to inherit not just the position, but also the captaincy. "They want to defend, they're happy to get hit with the ball the keep it out of the back of the net," he said. "You have to be unselfish to be a natural leader; I think [Jones] has that."
Henderson will be less keen for his recent England U-21 appearances to be used to measure his worth, having struggled to impose himself on either match so far. After his full England debut, in November,
It would be a shame for him to be judged entirely on games in which his side has had to play largely without the ball -- Henderson's mind seems to move quicker with it, and it is then that his tireless movement can really make an impact. At club level he has often had the barely suppressed agita of Lee Cattermole (possibly the antithesis of Gareth Barry, whom Henderson partnered against France) to rely on for defensive duties. Any criticism of his tendency to attempt Hollywood diagonal balls must also be tempered by acknowledgment of how incisive his passing often is, whether over a few yards (his instant ball to Steed Malbranque helped Sunderland open Liverpool up early last season) or half the pitch (on new year's day, he set up Asamoah Gyan's late goal against Blackburn with a beautifully shaped and weighted ball).
At Liverpool, Henderson must compete for his favored central midfield position with Lucas Leiva, Raul Meireles, Jay Spearing, Jonjo Shelvey and Steven Gerrard, who will be keen to hit his best form having hardly been missed while injured last season. But Henderson could also contribute from the right, as he often did for Sunderland. Knowing he needs to make the most of Andy Carroll, signed for £35 million ($56.5M), Kenny Dalglish will see potential value in the mischief made by Gyan and Darren Bent from Henderson's supply.
Henderson's price tag has prompted much sniping, with Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, who had talked about the youngster being worth £30 million ($48.5M), cheekily hailed as a master salesman. But the player insists he is not weighed down by it, instead seeing it as a sign of Liverpool's faith in his ability to learn from players like Gerrard -- and for all Cattermole's charms, Anfield does offer a different caliber of on-the-pitch learning.
In truth, Liverpool has perhaps been forced by its position in the market (namely: financed but without the lure of European competition) to risk money on a slightly less certain prospect; the club has lost several signings to its rivals in recent years, including Vidic, and United appear to have secured Ashley Young despite Liverpool's long-term interest. Ferguson was keen on Henderson after an assured display at Old Trafford, but balked at the asking price.
But in any case, Dalglish is comfortable with young players -- before replacing Roy Hodgson, he worked at Liverpool's academy and showed little hesitation in bringing players such as 18-year-old John Flanagan into positions of responsibility. It has been evident in all of Liverpool's recent transfer dealings that he, like Ferguson, is thinking of the future. Good British players will be overpriced and harvested early so long as they seem not to be in abundant supply; increasingly a necessity, it doesn't matter how many Rafael van der Vaarts you could have got with the same spend. Neither Jones nor Henderson seems to be under any illusions as to his claim on a place in the starting XI at his new club, so contemplating the zeros on the checks before they've laced up their own boots in the home dressing room seems a little off the point.