There is something about the transfer window that is like reading a complex spy thriller. Everywhere there is information and misinformation, unlikely alliances are formed and you never quite know who's trying to bluff whom.
Agents insist their clients are attracting interest from bigger sides to encourage buying clubs to act and to drive up wages. Selling clubs insist other clubs are interested to push up prices and to try to encourage a swift deal. But what's really interesting is when buying clubs feign an interest in players they have no intention of signing.
Sometimes it's purely to deflect attention from their true target, or to try to push a price down ("Well, we were about to sign Striker A from Club X, but if you, Club Y, could offer a bargain on Striker B we might change our minds..."). Sometimes it's simply to unsettle a player ("You know, Striker A, there are other clubs out there; maybe you would be happier away from Club X"). Sometimes it's to put pressure on another club ("We're really keen on Striker A from Club X, but Club X is messing us round, so let's pretend to try to sign Striker B from Club Y to push Club X into accepting our offer" -- if Club Y is keen on signing Striker B themselves, so much the better). And sometimes, most cynically, it's to bolster a club's ego and image while trying to sell more tickets for the coming season ("Yes, I know we only signed a back-up right-back from Crewe and a pair of France Under-17 internationals this summer, but we were really close to landing this big-name Brazilian and that brilliant Argentinian and that forward from Nigeria who ended up at Milan").
Which brings us to the curious interlocking cases of Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Gonzalo Higuain and Cesc Fabregas and the square of competing interests between Arsenal, Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid -- and to an extent, Liverpool and Chelsea. A couple of weeks ago, Arsenal seemed on the verge of signing Higuain from Real Madrid. Personal terms were agreed in principle and it seemed agreement would be reached on a fee of around £23million.
That seemed reasonable enough at the time. Arsenal, we've been told even more forcefully than in previous years, have money to spend and such was the general sense of disillusionment around the Emirates last year it's logical that the club would want a big-name, marquee signing to appease fans. Higuain would supplement Olivier Giroud in offering a muscular striking presence. But, seemingly because Carlo Ancelotti, having replaced Jose Mourinho, wants to assess his options before allowing Higuain to leave, that deal is on hold.
Last week came the improbable news that Arsenal had bid for Suarez, a player who had expressed his love for Liverpool and his loathing for England when he insists he has been "victimized". The general assumption was that this was a ruse to try to pressure Madrid, who have seemed Suarez's most likely destination since he expressed his desire to join a club in the Champions League. Liverpool's managing director Ian Ayre confirmed on Monday that a bid had been made, while insisting that the club want to hold on to Suarez. It's not to say Liverpool do want to sell, or even that they are resigned to selling, to point out that if they were selling, it would be entirely in their interests to feign an overwhelming desire to keep the player and to reveal that other bids were coming in.
The Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, continues to maintain that Suarez is a "realistic target," a category in which he has also placed Wayne Rooney, whose situation is fascinating. David Moyes, the United manager, was adamant at his first press-conference that Rooney was not for sale, and yet there have been rumors all summer linking him to Arsenal, Paris St-Germain and Chelsea (with the Blues recently having had their initial bid rejected). Sir Alex Ferguson revealed at the end of last season that Rooney had asked for a transfer; given his abilities at manipulating the media, that seemed a pretty clear hint that United wouldn't be too averse to selling. Perhaps things have changed since Moyes, who gave Rooney his breakthrough at Everton then successfully sued him over allegations in his autobiography (although they insist the relationship is mended), but the manager this week acknowledged the forward's importance lies in the fact he is cover for Robin van Persie -- which was either astonishingly clumsy on Moyes's part or a signal that Rooney is no longer as indispensable as he once was.
For the one-time wonder-boy to learn he is essentially a back-up must come as a blow, while it would hardly be a surprise if United wanted to offload a reserve earning £250,000 a week. It may not entirely be coincidence that that deal has two years left to run -- the time at which renegotiations usually begin. Rooney, at 27, is at the peak of his earning potential: it may suit his interests if United think other clubs are interested and it may suit United to let him think it would accept an offer.
And then there's Fabregas. Arsenal have first refusal -- if Fabregas wants to rejoin them from Barcelona, where he moved two years ago -- for a pre-arranged fee of £25million, so in that regard United's bid of £26million makes some sense. But only some. Barca didn't want Thiago Alcantera, who preferred Bayern Munich to United, to leave because they felt it would leave them short in central midfield, which will presumably make them doubly keen to hang on to Fabregas. United's need of a dynamic midfielder has been clear for a couple of years, and the fact that Van Persie and Fabregas share an agent and are good friends is perhaps in its favor, but it still seems a deal fraught with difficulty.
The big danger of the game-playing is that expectations are raised. If no big-name signing arrives, the risk is that the season starts on a dreadful note of anti-climax, something Arsenal fans are all too familiar with. Whatever else is going on, it cannot afford to flirt with Higuain, Suarez and Rooney and end up with no one.