(Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images) | Written by Abheek Dasgupta
In the last decade, there has been massive inflation in the football market. A hundred million pounds, which was very recently considered exorbitant for any footballer, is now merely an erstwhile barrier that is broken every summer, even for wunderkinds who have played just one season of senior football, such as João Félix. With new financial powers in the sport such as China, wages have also been inflated to an unimaginable extent. However, recent situations involving certain players and their clubs have now ensured that the football market is set to go through a phase of correction very soon.
While it is true that the demand for world-class footballers is at an all-time high, there is always uncertainty associated with transfers. This arises from both footballing and non-footballing aspects. Football is, after all, a team sport, and the success of a player is determined by how well he fits with the team and the way a team plays. A target man whose main strength is to win headers off crosses is always going to underperform in a team that attacks using short passes. Off-the-pitch matters, such as whether the player and his family are enjoying life in the new city or not, can create negative distractions that can put off a player from the sole footballing objective of doing well for the team and winning matches.
The problem with a player with a huge salary who does not fit into a team is that not many other clubs can afford to buy the player, and the player is generally unwilling to take a wage cut in the prime of his career. This can lead to situations where the club cannot offload a player it does not want in their roster – the most infamous example being former Dutch international Winston Bogarde who chose to see out his lucrative contract at Chelsea even though he did not play a single league game for The Blues in three seasons. There were three clear examples seen this summer of clubs facing massive challenges when it came to one of their highly-paid players, which were interestingly very different – one involving a player who wants to leave, one involving a player who is injury-prone, and one involving a player who is underperforming.
Neymar and PSG
When Neymar moved to the French capital to become the world’s most expensive footballer, a tag that he still holds today, there were discussions about whether the Brazilian superstar would enjoy playing in a league with no real opposition on paper in the long run. The belief then was that Neymar was bought by the French club in order to attain its ultimate objective – to win the Champions League. While the previous two seasons had a lot of reported rifts between Neymar and his teammates, most notably that with Edinson Cavani regarding who will take penalties, it was expected that a good Champions League run all the way to the semi-finals or the finals at the least would ensure that all is well in the home dressing room of the Parc des Princes.
But that did not happen. And it was not just that the two round of 16 exits, but the manner in which they were eliminated from Europe’s premier club competition that caused problems. In the 2017-18 season, it faced Real Madrid. While Los Blancos were the defending champions, it was not matching its lofty expectations in the few months before the tie. This included a series of upsets in the league, and finishing second in the Champions League group after a toothless performance at Wembley against Tottenham Hotspur. Most people expected PSG, bolstered by Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, to eliminate the tournament’s most successful team. However, that changed when two late goals from Ronaldo and Marcelo ensured that the Spanish club goes to Paris with a 3-1 lead. And while overturning a two-goal deficit at home was expected to be a challenge for the Parisians, their abject performance at home led to their opponents cruising into the quarterfinals. That was certainly not how a team that aspired to win the Champions League should perform against fancied opposition.
If that was bad, next season’s exit was somehow worse. While Manchester United were on a high following the appointment of the man who won them the Champions League twenty years ago in Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the Red Devils were clearly not the favourites for the tie. And the first leg showed everyone why, as goals from Kimpembe and Mbappé helped PSG win away from home 2-0 despite the absence of Neymar and Cavani. However, what happened at the Parc Des Princes three weeks later was absolutely shocking as defensive errors from Thilo Kehrer and legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon followed by a late penalty conceded by Kimpembe meant that it became a memorable night for the visitors from Manchester. As Neymar was spotted absolutely stunned by the cameras, many were wondering whether he was thinking of moving elsewhere in order to win meaningful titles.
And that is exactly what happened. Reports came out that Neymar wanted to leave PSG in the summer transfer window of 2019. For any average player, this would have been easy. But given Neymar’s enormous salary, only two clubs were in the fray – Real Madrid and Barcelona. The transfer fee was massive too, as the Parisian club would not want to sell at a huge loss. It had to involve either of Neymar’s potential buyers giving a few players to the French champions in return. But that was futile, as the buyers had to look at players they could do without and PSG could get a set of players that could “replace” Neymar as no individual player had the capability of doing so.
The window has now passed with Neymar remaining in Paris. While he has promised to play seriously for PSG this season, it would be impossible to do so mentally as his mind and heart lie elsewhere. Given this fact as well as the fact that Neymar would be one year closer to the expiry of his contract next summer, PSG will be desperate and would have to sell their superstar at a much lower price. Both the club and the player are losers here.
Gareth Bale and Real Madrid
Gareth Bale was phenomenal in what turned out to be his final season for Tottenham Hotspur. With 21 goals in the league, he won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, PFA Young Players’ Player of the Year and the FWA Footballer of the Year in the 2012-13 season. The only other player who had achieved this individual treble was his future teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, and to do so in a season where many other players, most notably Robin van Persie whose 26 goals ensured Manchester United regain the Premier League title, performed at a very high level, this was a commendable achievement.
It was no surprise then that after a string of semi-final exits in the Champions League, Real Madrid and its chairman Florentino Perez, wanted the Welshman to bolster their attack. The notorious negotiating skills of Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy ensured that Los Merengues could only get the player for a then world-record fee.
With four Champions League titles and one La Liga title, Gareth Bale has certainly had an amazing time in Madrid. He was also someone who would turn up in big games and his record in Champions League finals show just that. He scored the extra time goal against Atletico in 2014 that saw his team take the lead, assisted Sergio Ramos when the two Madrid teams faced off again two years later and finally, scored two goals in the 2018 final against Liverpool, including a stupendous bicycle kick which was nominated for the Puskas Award.
But there certainly was a problem. The Welshman, while one of the most talented players in the club, is extremely injury-prone, something that was known since his days in England. This, and his inability to properly assimilate into the team due to language issues meant that he was fast losing popularity among the fans and the media, with reports even blaming Bale’s love for golf as the cause of many of his injuries. With these red flags, giving the Cardiff-born player a massive contract in 2016 that made him one of the best-paid players in the world was a huge risk.
The size of this contract became a huge problem this summer as returning manager Zinedine Zidane wanted to offload Bale, who had turned 30 this July. But there were no European clubs willing to match the amount of money Real Madrid was giving Bale, and with Bale threatening to ‘do a Bogarde’ and play golf while he sees out his contract till 2022 if he is not in Zidane’s first-team plans, Real Madrid had to sell him at any cost.
It appeared as if this saga was going to end as Chinese club Jiangsu Suning was ready to offer the player a million pounds a week. Accepting this offer would have helped the 13-time European champions in saving a lot of money (Bale’s wages for the next three years) and therefore, it appeared to be a logical decision. However, in an inexplicable move, the Real Madrid board decided to block this transfer and the Cardiff-born winger remained in the Spanish capital.
Now, a fit Gareth Bale has been one of the best performers for the club in the early games of the 2019-20 season, which would certainly be causing a great deal of embarrassment for Zidane. If the Frenchman’s second stint as Real Madrid manager ends in failure, unlike his first stint, then this entire “yes, no, maybe” situation regarding Gareth Bale’s future at Madrid during the 2019 summer transfer window would be one of the reasons.
Alexis Sanchez and Manchester United
Alexis Sanchez was able to revive his career during his three and a half years at Arsenal following his transfer from Barcelona in 2014 where he was in the shadow of Lionel Messi and Neymar. However, his club was nowhere close to winning the league in any of his three full seasons there, and with the club facing the possibility of missing out on a Champions League spot for the second successive season, the Chilean opted to not renew his contract with the Gunners. This left the north London club desperately trying to sell their No. 7 in the January transfer window. There were plenty of suitors, with the two Manchester clubs appearing as favourites to seal the deal. In the end, it was the red half of the north-western English city that Sanchez joined in a swap deal that involved Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan moving the other way.
This news was received positively by United fans, especially because they could sign one of Premier League’s elite players right from under the nose of their neighbours Manchester City, who in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson phase has definitely been the more successful Manchester club. It reminded the fans of the signing of another Arsenal superstar, Robin van Persie, who chose United over City in 2012 and went on to be the main man in the Old Trafford-based club’s record 20th league title win.
However, the new No. 7 of Manchester United could not bring his Arsenal form to his new team as he could only score two league goals and the equaliser against Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final. While the Red Devils had a good season with respect to their last few seasons, they were nowhere close to winning the league as Manchester City won the league with a record hundred points.
At this point, this signing was being considered a bad one. These feelings were amplified in Sanchez’s first full season as he played only 20 games in the league, many of which were as a substitute, and scored the solitary league goal, the winner against Newcastle at home.
Under normal circumstances, the course of action would have been to sell the player and forget about it. However, the Red Devils signed him as the highest-paid footballer in the Premier League who was to carry the burden of the iconic No. 7 jersey, which was earlier won by club icons such as George Best, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. His horrendous form ensured that no team would sign him for the salary United was paying. Currently, he is on loan at Inter Milan but his parent club is still paying the major share of his wages. It is also believed that his salary is affecting the club’s contract negotiations with other players, with David De Gea’s contract expiring next summer.
These are not the only three cases in modern football where a player was bought with a lot of expectations and paid massive wages but ended up not meeting those expectations. Other examples include Philippe Coutinho, who has recently joined FC Bayern München on loan from Barcelona, and James Rodriguez, who just finished a two-year loan spell at the German champions before returning to Real Madrid. As a lot of money ends up being wasted on a player who, for different reasons, is not fitting the club’s strategy any more, it jeopardises the club’s transfer strategy as there is a reduced budget for a new replacement player and the fact that it is difficult to offload a highly paid player.
With many such examples now, it is only expected that the football wage market corrects itself, and clubs avoid taking this huge risk of giving a player a massive wage despite there being no certainty of whether the player would achieve what is expected of him — which when all the three examples above are combined, would be a player who consistently plays and performs at a high level while enjoying being at the club. This would potentially lead to lower base salaries when a player just joins a club and automatic raises for performance or loyalty. Clubs may also be more thoughtful when it comes to offering a new contract to an injury-prone player and give more emphasis on an appearance bonus than the base salary.
If the wage market corrects itself, it would be the players who have consistently played at a high level for a club, are fan favourites, and who enjoy the club atmosphere that would be in the top ten of the highest-paid player rankings. Examples of such players currently would be Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos, Robert Lewandowski, Sergio Agüero and David De Gea. Someone like Mohamed Salah, after his second magnificent season at Liverpool, would get a massive contract renewal offer after similar performances. It would make young players think more about a club atmosphere and a system that suits them rather than where the initial money is, and this will be great for the game as we see more players fulfilling their potential.
El Arte Del Futbol is an official content creator for One Football. Find more original features, Player Profiles and tactical analysis on www.elartedf.com. If you are reading this on our website, we’d like to thank you for your continuous support!