Spurs, Arsenal transfer policies linked; five EPL thoughts

Sunday September 1st, 2013

Gareth Bale completed his move to Real Madrid on Sunday for a record transfer fee.
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

1. The most expensive player in the world? After a saga that ran all summer, Gareth Bale became a Real Madrid player on Sunday evening. One explanation for the delay was that Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman, wanted to stop Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger from benefiting and plugging some of his team's holes.

Real Madrid might recoup some of the Bale fee by selling Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil, Fabio Coentrao or Ángel di Maria (or all of them). Tottenham's dismay on Sunday would only be deepened if Bale's sale allowed Wenger to pounce and end his transfer abstinence with a spectacular binge. The problem for Levy was that the Spanish deadline for incoming players closed before the British one. Given the timing of the final announcement Sunday, Wenger now has less than 30 hours to complete the deals.

Paying a world record fee enhances Real's image and establishes the new player as a brand. Paying more is good for business. Yet there had been reports that Real would hold the fee below €94 million, or £80 million. That was the record amount it paid for Christiano Ronaldo in June 2009. Ronaldo would remain the most expensive player on Earth and his planet--sized ego would be assuaged.

It doesn't seem to have worked out that way. After the deal was done on Sunday, the BBC reported that the fee was £85 million. Marca, the Spanish sports daily that often acts as Real's PR arm, put the fee at €99 million. That works out at nearer £84 million, but who's counting pennies? It means Real has taken a leaf out of Tottenham's book. In 1961, Spurs insisted on paying £99,999 for Jimmy Greaves to save him from the pressure of being the first £100,000 player in British soccer.

Bale won't be the first €100-million player, but he will be the most expensive payer, right? Well, it depends where you are and what you're spending.

The pound/Euro exchange rate is pretty much the same as it was four years ago, so a record in Euros is a record in pounds. But the Euro has fallen against against the US dollar. In dollars, Ronaldo cost more in 2009 than Bale did on Sunday. In America, Ronaldo is still the record holder. He's probably pricing trans-Atlantic flights right now.

2. Wenger gets value for money. With one day left in England's summer transfer window, Tottenham Hotspur has spent £109 million (about $169 million), on players. The question before Sunday's North London Derby was: do they have a team?

Meanwhile, Arsenal has spent £0, which works out at $0, and the question for them was: do they have a team?

Tottenham started four of its summer acquisitions at the Emirates. It brought on a fifth, Erik Lamela, in the second half. Its team also included two players, Danny Rose and Andros Townsend, who were out on loan at other clubs last season and three more who only joined last summer. It really is a team of strangers.

Meanwhile, Arsenal started 11 players who were all at the club last season. Wenger did unveil his major summer signing when Mathieu Flamini came on just before half time. Flamini was without a club when he turned up at Arsenal training to work on his fitness. With a great show of reluctance, Wenger signed him. It's not as if Flamini is a stranger to the Arsenal system. He played 153 games for the club between 2004 and 2008. He was part of the last Arsenal team to win anything: the 2005 FA Cup.

Arsenal won. 1-0. Olivier Giroud scored the only goal from close range after 23 minutes. The Gunners ended the game defending frantically en masse around the penalty box. Yet the victory could have been much greater.

So, does that mean Arsenal's problems are exaggerated, while Tottenham's bright new dawn will have to be postponed?

Tottenham did look like a powerful but misfiring machine. It had more possession and completed more passes but had far less cutting edge near goal.

For Arsenal, Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Nacho Monreal could all have scored. At key moments, the Arsenal players seemed to have more idea where their teammates were. Theo Walcott and Giroud were on the same page when the winger crossed low to the near post to set up the goal. The Tottenham defenders, meanwhile, did not seem to know whom to mark. Tottenham got into similar chance-generating positions as far more often. But their crosses almost always found Arsenal defenders.

Tottenham needed penalties to win its first two games. After three games it is one of only three teams in the Premier League that has not yet scored a goal in open play (the others are Hull and West Brom).

Yet with both teams set up to pack midfield, scoring early gave Arsenal a huge tactical advantage. Certainly, Bale might have made a difference, but the player Tottenham have really missed over the last 13 months is Luka Modric, who left for Real Madrid on the last transfer deadline. Christian Eriksen, the player they hope will replace his midfield creativity (while also scoring more goals) was signed too late to figure on Saturday.

Wenger's squad still has holes. Unless he pulls a spectacular rabbit out of the hat on Monday, we know exactly what we are going to get from Arsenal this season. It's a team that should compete for fourth place, provided they don't suffer injuries. We didn't get much from Tottenham on Sunday. That includes any real clues as to how well, and how quickly its team will gel or just how good all those glossy new signings are.

3. Shankly's legacy. Bill Shankly would have turned 100 on Monday. Almost 40 years after he stood down as Liverpool manager, he continues to cast a huge shadow over the club.

As a coach, one could raise a small question mark over Shankly. In 15 years he won seven major trophies plus a second division title, all of them with Bob Paisley at his side. Paisley then went on to win 13 trophies, including three European Cups, in nine years without Shankly.

Yet Shankly was a great and inspiring manager in other ways. He hired good assistants, like Paisley. He took over a club that couldn't find a way out of the second division and led it to promotion in 1962, which was also the year a Merseyside band called The Beatles had their first hit. Shankly exploited the mood. He convinced his players, his club and its fans that Liverpool FC could be great again. More than that, he convinced the world that Liverpool FC and its fans mattered and that they stood for something.

Shankly was never afraid to press emotional buttons. On Sunday, against its bitter enemy, Manchester United, the club honored Shankly's memory by squeezing every last drop out of it. Shankly would have approved. Perhaps the emotion of the occasion communicated itself to the players, who started as if pure adrenaline coursed through their bodies. Daniel Sturridge scored after four minutes. United was rattled. It rallied in the second half, but Liverpool held on to win 1-0. Shankly would have approved of that too. The victory took Liverpool to the top of the league, two points ahead of Chelsea. Shankly would have loved that. "If you are first you are first," he once said. "If you are second you are nothing." For now at least, Liverpool is where Shankly believed it always should be.

4. England's choice. Wayne Rooney missed the game at Anfield with a head injury. Presumably Rooney cut his head banging it against the unyielding wall of Manchester United's refusal to give whatever it is he thinks will make him happy.

David Moyes, the United manager, said Rooney has "no chance" of playing in England's two World Cup qualifiers next week.

That's the sort of news that United managers have always been happy to deliver in recent years. Yet it is potentially good news for a couple of young men who were on the field at Liverpool on Saturday because England will need an extra striker.

Roy Hodgson, the England manager, might give in to popular sentiment and start Rickie Lambert. The 31-year-old made his debut as a substitute in England's last match and scored. That would still leave a place to fill.

Danny Welbeck started the last game for England. On Sunday, Hodgson will have had a chance to compare him directly with another fashionable candidate, Sturridge. Sturridge suffered a thigh injury Sunday, but Liverpool says he should be fit to play for England.

Welbeck's advantages are obvious. The two are more or less the same height and weight, yet Welbeck is clearly stronger. Sturridge, who has spent much of his career fighting against the idea that he should play on the wing, sometimes looks lost and lightweight in the center of the attack.

On Sunday, their roles were slightly different. Welbeck was playing alongside the most dangerous central striker in the Premier League, Robin van Persie. Even so, the statistics for Sunday are interesting. Welbeck had far more touches than Sturridge. He completed more passes and he passed more accurately. He also tackled more than Sturridge. But there is one statistic where Sturridge had the edge. He scored. Welbeck didn't.

Welbeck struck twice on opening day. That might be a blip. Over his career he has averaged one goal every five games, a terrible rate for a striker. Until he arrived in Liverpool last winter, Sturridge had also averaged only one goal every five games. But he was playing on the wing. Since moving to Anfield, Sturridge has scored 13 goals in 17 games. His strike on Sunday, a deft, pre-meditated head flick with his back to the net was a real finisher's goal. He was right all along. He is best playing as a central striker for his club. Maybe he should also play in that role for England.

5. Wilshere's choice. Hodgson may well have to find another late replacement after Jack Wilshere limped off in the North London Derby on Sunday (He was replaced by Flamini). Wilshere was suffering from stomach cramps, yet his departure means that he has only played the full 90 minutes once since February, and that was in the stroll against Fenerbahce last Tuesday in a Champions League tie both sides knew Arsenal had already won.

Wilshere is an undoubted talent. He is also forever injured. There has been talk, not least when Wenger tries to stop England picking his starlet, that he has played too much, much too young.

There is another problem. Wilshere is ferociously combative. He is also only 5-foot-8. On Sunday, against a Tottenham midfield that contained four players who are 6 foot tall or more, he lasted 43 minutes.

Wilshere needs to find a new body or a new style of play.

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