Substance over style

As the new season rolls into view, football fans are being treated to the usual gamut of chugging transfer sagas. The ‘will he-won’t he’ domestic affairs have become an annual English tradition. For a couple of days the rumours pique the interest of the general public but when the initial flirting turns sour, the babble becomes trite, dull and practically irrelevant. Moreover, these drawn out transfer soap operas have little positive – if not a detrimental – effect on the teams involved.

Consider the Luka Modric affair. The longer Spurs battle to keep their star midfielder, the more it might upset their dressing room. Rafael van der Vaart made veiled comments to the press hinting at his disappointment that his team mate would jump ship just a year removed from Tottenham’s exciting European campaign and, presumably, the morale of the team will only sink further as the saga continues. Even if Harry Redknapp manages to claw his coveted star back from the brink of a lucrative transfer to Chelsea, he will have to make do with a disgruntled player, further diminishing his team’s chance at challenging for European qualification. But Chelsea, too, will experience these detrimental effects. If the drama drags deep into August they will have to deal with an unfit player who is unfamiliar in their system; if they don’t get their man, they will have expended a ridiculous amount of time and effort for no gain. The majority of the time, these sagas present both clubs with a lose-lose situation.

The argument that either club would gain (or retain) an elite player is of course valid. But how many times has a big money domestic signing changed the complexion of the Premier League? Manchester City’s courtship of the very average James Milner and the high-profile situation with Fernando Torres might provide the hint that these affairs are not cost-effective.

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Closer examination of the three most successful teams of the past decade serves as testament. Arsenal built their team around determined, skilful players who had not reached their full potential abroad. The signings of Henry and Vieira immediately spring to mind, but the Wenger teams of the early 2000s were packed with rough diamonds. Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires and Kolo Touré all fitted Wenger’s criteria: technically gifted and mentally strong. As Abramovich rode into the league, his team did not dominate immediately under Claudio Ranieri. It took some astute, tactical and cheap signings from José Mourinho to turn investment into trophies. Paulo Ferreira and Ricardo Carvalho joined him in Chelsea from Porto. They were players he knew to be solid and experienced from the club’s Champion’s League victory. Manchester United, too have built their team around a similar transfer strategy. While a few big domestic signings – Berbatov, Ferdinand and Rooney – serve as anomalies, the team’s success would not have been as great without the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo and the solidity and consistent performances of Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic.

These long episodes of tedious posturing between English clubs, players and their agents are in vogue. Occasionally, it must be said, they have a meaningful effect on the league. But André Villas-Boas would do well to learn lessons from his compatriot. Mourinho brought success to Chelsea through pragmatism and tactical nous more than sexy signings. While spending big bucks domestically grabs all the media attention, real contenders are busy finding those rare gems from abroad who bring with them determination instead of drama.