As the final weekend of the Premier League season dawns, the never-ending flow of football is about to take us into its darkest corner yet: the summer transfer window. And not just any old transfer window – one without a major international tournament to take the edge of the transfer talk.
And yet, this may be one of the most important summer windows in recent memory. That’s because there are seven Premier League teams who are looking to cram themselves into the league’s top four places and grab a Champions League place. With so much at stake, the right signings this summer could be the difference between the Europa League and the Champions League. You don’t have to play all that badly to drop out of the top four, just not as well as four other moneyed super-teams.
That means money will be flung around the league like there’s no tomorrow. The pressure of getting the right player means no one will want to take a chance on players who could be considered gambles.
And yet, it’s the gambles that often pay off.
Last summer, Manchester City and Manchester United both spent obscene amounts of money for little change to their league positions, and even Arsenal spent more money than they would have hoped for their return this year. Chelsea, on the other hand, won the league through an early formation change. It’s simplistic to say that’s all it was, and it’s a topic which has been covered to death, but there’s a truth in it which hints at a wider point: it was ‘clever’ management. Conte’s clever tricks weren’t just tactical, either. His signings were smart, too.
Clever isn’t a word we use often about Premier League signings these days. The big teams go out and spend hundreds of millions of pounds buying up the best talent, but it stands to reason that some players who are just perfect for a team are overlooked simply because of the pressure to buy the best and the most expensive.
Take, for example, David Luiz and Marcos Alonso.
They were, by all accounts, underwhelming purchases last summer. Both had Premier League experience and both were bought from abroad, but instead of seeing this as a positive thing, only the negative sides were advanced: David Luiz, the ‘Playstation footballers’ and Marcos Alonso, a man who’d failed at Bolton and Sunderland were the cries.
It’s hard to understate just how perfectly they fit, though. Alongside Gary Cahill’s toughness and leadership and Cesar Azpilicueta’s pace and competence, the hard edges of David Luiz’s least appealing qualities are filed away while his ability as a footballer are amplified.
Alonso, on the other hand, provides the mix of defensive ability coupled with athleticism and an attacking brain needed to play wing-back in a formation which is all about finding space for inside forwards like Eden Hazard and Pedro.
Clever signings are what set you apart from the rest.
Perhaps the ‘cleverest’ signing of the season, though, came from one of the ‘cleverest’ managers, Sam Allardyce. Mamadou Sakho was loaned from Liverpool and, after a few weeks of preparation, Crystal Palace’s defence became unrecognisable. Then he got injured.
It’s not a stretch to say that Palace looked safe after beating Liverpool at Anfield. But when Sakho was taken off injured at home to Tottenham, the game was still 0-0. It was then that Palace suffered three defeats in a row and were sucked into the relegation battle just before the end. Defeats to Spurs, Burnley and Manchester City made relegation a possibility again after superhuman work to get out of the mire.
Sakho may not have prevented any of those defeats, but he was certainly key to the victories previous to them. And it was a clever signing which showed that you don’t need to break the bank to get success.
And so when the transfer window closes again at the end of August, the same sort of underwhelming feeling might grip us if a top side hasn’t made any significant signings. But it was Luiz and Alonso – two eyebrow-raising signings – who have effectively won Chelsea the title by giving Conte the 3-4-3 option which has brought out the best in his attacking talent.
When it comes to spending hundreds of millions of pounds again this summer, maybe the Manchester clubs should be thinking about clever signing to amplify the best qualities of the star players they already have.