Tuesday September 1st, 2015

The summer transfer window slammed shut in England Tuesday with a typical whirl of deals and eye-watering amounts of money changing hands, finishing off a two-day series of deadlines across Europe's major leagues. Whether the moves will improve teams and performances remains to be seen. The big winners appear to be the intermediaries overseeing the deals, and the players, whose salaries can leap without even needing to change clubs. Sometimes, as in the (deserved) case of Thomas Muller at Bayern Munich, mere interest from another club can precipitate a hefty pay hike.

Here are some of the winners, losers, bests and worsts from the summer transfer window after another hectic series of deadline days:

Smartest succession planner: Wolfsburg

Kevin de Bruyne did not go on strike. He did not miss training. And he did not agitate for a move. In fact, the Belgian midfielder would have been perfectly happy to stay at Champions League qualifiers Wolfsburg for another season. Instead, he watched as his price went up from €50 million in June to €65 million in July to €75 million in August. Sometimes not playing can be great for your value.

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It was too good for Wolfsburg to refuse, but the German side reacted quickly. Within one day of selling, it had signed Julian Draxler, a huge talent at Schalke who needs a change of scenery but could easily follow KDB as the next big thing out of the Bundesliga. There was clearly a plan and a strategy in place, and Wolfsburg followed it (the club also added Dante from Bayern Munich to fortify its defense).

Atletico Madrid can say the same thing, but it has been following the same strategy for years. Not every club could say the same….

Biggest risk-taker: Manchester United

United’s summer started with smart deals for Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin, but ended in utter farce. David de Gea’s on-again-off-again move to Real Madrid failed to go through because the clubs failed to register matching information on FIFA’s Transfer Matching System in time; that information allows an International Transfer Certificate to be issued, which the relative national associations then distribute.

The de Gea stand-off was a summer-long saga, with the goalkeeper a regular sight in the stands as United played its opening matches. De Gea wanted to move, Madrid wanted to sign him, and United only allowed that possibility so late on in the day that it was not able to happen. Real Madrid has blamed United for the deal not happening, and the animosity between the two could be the story of the week.

Now coach Louis van Gaal has to reintegrate last season’s Player of the Year back into the squad, and hope that he can repeat last season’s form. Even a grumpy de Gea would be better than Sergio Romero if Sunday’s performance at Swansea is anything to go by. 

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What United really needed this summer, after releasing Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie, was a center forward. What it got was Memphis, an exciting but raw left-winger who excelled under van Gaal for the Netherlands at the World Cup, and Anthony Martial, a 19-year-old Monaco forward with pace to burn and an eye for goal. One week after United missed out on signing Pedro after a quibble over the payment structure on a €28 million deal, it spent twice as much on potential.

Tottenham asked about Martial back in June and walked away after he was valued at €20 million. United bought Martial for a reported €50 million, which could rise to €80 million depending on future performances. Martial has been compared to Thierry Henry, but he might turn out to be the next Freddy Adu (unlikely). Truth is, he’ll be somewhere in between. In which case, you can’t help but wonder why United didn't spend less on Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon) or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Dortmund), both available at €40 million and who at least have some track record.

In a bizarre window, this signing tops the lot; it could be the moment that English football jumped the shark.

Most underrated deal: Bakary Sako, Wolves to Crystal Palace

Perception plays an important role in transfers. Managers, sporting directors and board members listen to the opinions of scouts and trusted advisers when it comes to new arrivals, but often in the end, it comes down to perception. Premier League clubs tend to look abroad because they feel there is more value to be found there. It’s true that English players do come at a price, but not all of them. You just need to know where to look.

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One flaw in the market at the moment seems to be the scarcity of players who make the jump from the Championship, England’s second tier, to the Premier League. Aaron Cresswell (Ipswich to West Ham), Gareth McAuley (Ipswich to West Brom) and Ashley Westwood (Crewe, in League One, to Aston Villa) are a few examples, but there are not many others.

On Tuesday, some clubs redressed the balance.

West Ham signed Michael Antonio (Nottingham Forest) while Chelsea was in for Michael Hector (Reading). Sako, who scored one goal and set up another in Palace’s recent win at Chelsea, is a perfect example. Signing a player from Wolves may not feel exciting–but sometimes it can be just as effective.  

Biggest change of philosophy: AC Milan

The days of austerity in Italy are over. Record-breaking spending in Serie A was summed up by Milan, who spent big on Alessio Romagnoli and Andrea Bertolacci (€25 million and €20 million respectively from Roma), Carlos Bacca (€30 million from Sevilla) and Luiz Adriano (€8 million from Shakhtar).

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Mario Balotelli gets another last chance in loan return to AC Milan

As if two center forwards were not enough, Milan added the combustible Mario Balotelli on loan to the mix. Coach Sinisa Mihajlovic needs to finish in the Champions League places after all that, but early signs are that rival Inter’s spending spree–potentially eight new starters, among them Geoffrey Kondogbia (€30 million), Ivan Perisic (€16 million), Miranda (€16 million) and Stevan Jovetic (loan)–could be effective.

Roma spent far less than both, and looks likeliest to challenge Juventus for the Scudetto.

Best negotiators: AS Monaco, Bundesliga clubs

When Monaco went on its spending splurge in summer 2013, the club was compared to Real Madrid. These days, it’s more like FC Porto: a brilliant youth academy and a superb buy-low, sell-high trading policy. Aymen Abdennour cost Valencia €30 million, Layvin Kurzawa cost PSG €23 million and then there’s the Martial deal, which has stunned French football.

German clubs have also made the most of English interest: Roberto Firmino (Liverpool from Hoffenheim, €41 million), Baba Rahman (Chelsea from Augsburg, €20 million), de Bruyne (Manchester City from Wolfsburg, €70 million), Heung Min-Son (Tottenham from Leverkusen, €20 million) and Shinji Okazaki (Leicester City from Mainz, €11 million) were all sold with an English premium attached.

Naughtiest tweet: Saido Berahino, West Brom

With just under an hour left on the clock, and reports filtering through that Tottenham had put in a fourth bid for Saido Berahino to West Brom chairman Jeremy Peace, it all got too much for the English striker. “Sad how i cant say exactly how the club has treated me but i can officially say i will never play [for] Jeremy Peace,” read his official twitter account. The message was retweeted over 21,000 times in the next 15 minutes.

Had he been hacked, or did he just reach his breaking point? If the latter, it was the digital equivalent of another West Brom forward, Peter Odemwingie, driving down to QPR’s Loftus Road in the hope of signing a deal only to find, in front of the TV cameras, that the office doors were locked to him. Berahino has been agitating for the move to Spurs all summer but West Brom has been unwilling to sell, at least in the price range (£20 million rising to £23 million), that Spurs have offered.

With the window now closed, Berahino handing in a written transfer request last week and not in a happy mood, it could be a tense few days at the Midlands club.

Biggest surprise: Mateo Kovacic, Inter to Real Madrid

Has Inter done it again? The team that famously sold Roberto Carlos and Andrea Pirlo before they were great has released Croatian midfielder Kovacic to Real Madrid for €35 million. Some Italian pundits believe that Madrid’s interest proves that he will become a great–“he has the quality to become the new Pirlo,” said former player Luis Suarez (not the Barcelona forward)–but others are more mystified.

Where will Kovacic play? Is he a long-term replacement for Luka Modric, who turns 30 next week, or an option to play alongside Modric and Toni Kroos? As well as Kovacic, Inter sold Xherdan Shaqiri and Hernanes; coach Roberto Mancini is not hot on the creative types.

Best non-sale of the window: Nabil Fekir, Lyon

Lyon acted smartly to tie down playmaker Fekir to a new deal in July. It multiplied his salary to €75,000 per month and warded off any suitors. The response? A hat trick in Lyon’s weekend win over Caen, following an admission from Martial, his former teammate in the Lyon youth ranks, that “Nabil was better than me.”

With France hosting Euro 2016 next summer, keep an eye on Fekir, who could be the biggest breakout for Les Bleus since Franck Ribery 10 years ago. United, of course, will hope that player is Martial.

Most tanked market: Russia

The days of Russian clubs signing the likes of Hulk (€60 million) and Axel Witsel (€40 million) are long gone. Russian clubs in total spent under €20 million on players this summer, with Spartak Moscow’s €6 million on Ze Luis from Sporting Braga the most expensive signing. The emerging markets are now further east: China, and the gulf states.

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