Kyle Walker has become Tottenham Hotspur’s expendable, sacrificial lamb for the rest of the Premier League’s elite to scramble over this summer.
Although the Lilywhites have provided a masterclass in protecting the futures and values of key players by continually updating the terms of their contracts, they know they can’t match the wages on offer at some of the club’s divisional rivals and eventually, heads will inevitably be turned.
Offering up Walker, however, is almost an act of appeasement; the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United will feel they’ve managed to chip away at the quality of a side that has unexpectedly challenged for the last two Premier League titles, even though the general opinion of the England international at White Hart Lane and throughout the Spurs faithful is that he’s by no means as instrumental as outsiders assume – for starters, understudy Kieran Trippier is a more than adequate replacement.
It always seemed impossible Tottenham would be able to keep hold of everybody this summer and Walker, especially considering his seeming desire for bumper salary, is an acceptable loss when compared to some of the team-mates the rest of the Premier League’s title hopefuls are desperate to get their hands on – namely centre-back Toby Alderweireld, centre-forward Harry Kane and dazzling support act Dele Alli.
Yet, behind the scenes, Tottenham will know they’re facing a losing battle to keep hold of Alli long-term. Unlike Kane, he’s an import rather than a product of the academy system. And unlike Alderweired, he’s not an understated yet consistently impressive presence.
He’s the star of the show, the glue that holds Spurs’ starting XI together, the kind of unique talent that looked like a seasoned professional during his first ever season in the top flight and now appears destined for greatness, the highest level of the game possible, just a matter of months on from his 21st Birthday.
Some Spurs fans will argue their club is now closing in on the highest level of the game and should he remain committed, the England midfielder can play a vital role in not only getting but also keeping them there. Tottenham have come within a hare’s width of the last two Premier League titles, are about to embark upon a second consecutive season in the Champions League and have one of the most highly-rated managers in world football, Mauricio Pochettino, who oversees a young, ambitious squad that is improving all the time.
Yet, author of ‘Turf Wars’ Steve Tongue has a theory that, throughout the course of London football’s long and illustrious history, clubs rarely veer far from their typical status for too long.
There may be deviations along the way, but West Ham will always be the fourth-biggest club in London, just as Leyton Orient will always be one of the smallest. Spurs, according to Tongue’s theory, will always be overshadowed by Arsenal and Chelsea. Of course, we’re not talking decades or dozens here; more eras and centuries.
The danger of losing Alli, however, doesn’t come from a London rival – it’s the small bracket of historic giants at Europe’s top table, the clubs who have that unique aura about them, where wearing the shirt says something about the kind of player you are. The obvious example is Real Madrid. Especially for non-Spanish players, being offered a Blanco jersey not only says you’re a player of the highest quality, but also entertaining enough in style to carry your own global media profile and usually worthy of a Galactico price-tag.
In theory, Real Madrid are joined at European football’s elite, aura-surrounded super-club banquet by Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Monolithic clubs of incredible prestige and philosophy, who are in a league of their own in terms of finance, history, global following and success. Quite simply, there’s something uniquely divine about them that clubs like Tottenham will never be able to match.
Yet, by the time Alli’s eventual departure comes around, potentially in two or three years’ time, you have to wonder whether Manchester United will still have a seat at the table, whether they’ll be a part of the conversation over the Tottenham talisman’s future and whether they’ll still be one of the four clubs in European football whose aura makes them near impossible to turn down. Gordon McQueen once said “99% of footballers will tell you they want to play for United and the rest are liars,” but just like United’s aura, it feels like that percentage is slowly waning.
Last summer, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Manchester United defied the old adage that no Champions League football excludes you from the top end of the transfer market by acquiring Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the best centre-forwards in the business even when he left PSG at the age of 34, and making Paul Pogba the new world-record signing.
But so far this summer, the Red Devils haven’t been quite so fortuitous. Whilst Antoine Griezmann’s loyalty to Atletico Madrid amid their transfer embargo is certainly commendable, it also speaks volumes that the Euro 2016 Golden Boot winner turned down United despite their willingness to pay his release clause – all the more embarrassingly, not even in favour of another club. Could you have imagined that situation five or ten years ago?
Similarly, Manchester United’s striker search simply hasn’t gone to plan. The common consensus amongst the tabloids is that Romelu Lukaku has chosen Chelsea instead, whilst links with Alvaro Morata, Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubamenyang have amounted to very little thus far. And then there’s reports of interest in Kane, which Tottenham have quite simply laughed off – once upon a time, players like Kane at a club like Tottenham would be moving heaven and earth to force a move to Old Trafford.
Of course, the transfer window doesn’t officially open until Saturday – there’s no need to hit the panic button just yet. But compare that to United’s dealings during Jose Mourinho’s first transfer window – Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were all signed by the first week of July, whilst their negotiations over Pogba’s move were already well-documented and firmly underway.
This summer, meanwhile, United have already reportedly resorted to their third-choice of central midfielder in Nemanja Matic, having failed to make progress in their pursuits of Eric Dier and Radja Nainggolan. They’ve also seemingly lost out on another possible target to Chelsea in the form of Monaco’s Tiemou Bakayoko.
That’s not to suggest United can’t turn the tide back in their favour; Mourinho is unquestionably still one of the best managers in the world, the Red Devils will be involved in the Champions League next season and going backwards domestically next term feels almost implausible. They could be in a much stronger position next summer and of course, there will be two months of potential dealings left to go come July 1st.
Yet, it’s unquestionably clear that Manchester United’s aura is fading away. They were once a near- irresistible destination that only truly had to contend with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid for world football’s most illustrious talents, whereas they had practically first refusal on the rest of the Premier League – excepting divisional and ancient rivals.
There’s even a historic trend of Tottenham’s star entities swapping White Hart Lane for Old Trafford; Teddy Sheringham, Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov; but when the inevitable day comes that Alli leaves for his higher calling, his ascension to the select few clubs of truly preceding auras, United may not even enter his consideration. 99% of footballers may still want to play for United; but the rest think they can do better.