It seems odd to describe a transfer window that yielded five moves of about $100 million or more (and fully 20 of $50 million or above) as one that never really got going. But that’s how this summer transfer window, which closed in most European leagues at various times on Monday, might well be remembered.
Because Neymar is still in Paris. Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez remain in Madrid. Christian Eriksen never left North London. Paul Pogba stayed in Manchester. And Philippe Coutinho joined Bayern Munich only on loan.
Curiously, some of the most expensive players of all time – Neymar remains the most expensive, while Bale and Pogba each were the most expensive at one time – were all on the market, while the fourth-most expensive player of all time, the 22-year-old Ousmane Dembele, was dangled as a trade piece.
Of course, plenty of big deals went down. Atletico Madrid landed Portuguese wunderkind Joao Felix from Benfica, to replace Antoine Griezmann who finally got his move to FC Barcelona. Eden Hazard went to Real Madrid in a move that had been several years in the making, one of Real’s five expensive signings. The dismantling of Ajax began as Frenkie de Jong went off to Barca and Matthijs de Ligt left for Juventus. Manchester United picked up several promising young Englishmen as Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester City all added useful pieces.
Lots of big business was done. But the big names? They mostly stayed put.
That they were available at all was the function of a series of improbable situations at their respective clubs. Neymar has decided he ought to have stayed in Barcelona two summers ago, now apparently over the notion that he should be starring for his own team in Paris Saint-Germain. PSG, for its part, was fine with the mercurial and increasingly erratic and injury-prone Brazilian leaving and taking his towering wages and attitude with him – while recouping much of that quarter-billion dollar transfer fee.
Bale and James were written off by their newly empowered manager Zinedine Zidane. But they are on salaries so large, even relative to their ample and obvious talents, that they are unappealing to anybody else. Bale had no interest in a move to China and, well, that was the totality of the options on the table. Pogba was eager to replace either one of them at Real, understandably fed up with the conspicuous lack of affection shown him by the Manchester United faithful in spite of clearly being the club’s best player. Eriksen was the alternative – at both Real and United. But Real could afford neither for a lack of movement from its excess pieces.
Just 18 months ago, Coutinho became the second-most expensive player ever when Barca extricated him from Liverpool, figuring he could succeed Andres Iniesta. But he couldn’t and now he’s been cast aside as a lowly loanee. Dembele, Barca’s second-most expensive player of all time, was constantly rumored as trade bait for Neymar.
But except for Coutinho and his temporary solution – a one-year loan with a Bayern option to buy him outright – they all stayed put. This may just go down as the transfer window of the almost-moves.
Perhaps Neymar didn’t move because Coutinho didn’t move – permanently, anyway. Or maybe it’s that Neymar didn’t move because Bale or James didn’t move. Eriksen didn’t move because Coutinho and Bale and James and Pogba didn’t move. And Pogba also didn’t move because, again, Real Madrid couldn’t find takers for Bale or James. Dembele didn’t move because Neymar didn’t. And on and on the revolving door went – or didn’t go, more like.
What stunted this window was the excess of previous windows. Mega-transfers tend to be driven by the belief that a team must have a certain player, no matter the cost. Once it convinces itself of that, it’s inevitable that the seller and agents extract the kind of money that makes the player immovable if things don’t work out, or when he becomes excess to requirements.
Bale, James, Coutinho and Neymar are still great players. But for whatever reason, their clubs or managers are eager to be rid of them, or at least open to it. But without an all-consuming demand by some club for their services, without a team’s desperation to land them at any cost, they are stuck unless they agree to major step down in prestige (China) or salary (anywhere else) – which you really can’t blame a player for recoiling against.
So in addition to a bunch of major deals, albeit fewer of the earth-shattering ones we’d been expecting, this transfer window also delivered a kind of reckoning. And a warning about the dangers of putting too much stock in a player.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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