Could Tottenham and Liverpool learn from their European rivals when selling their best players?
In this country, the term ‘selling club’ has crept into the popular idiom over the last ten years or so, and become one of the most important ideas in English football. Used in its typical context, it is undoubtedly negative; referring to a club’s willingness to sell its best players, it connotes a quality the average pundit might term a ‘lack of ambition’. In this formulation, to be a ‘selling club’ is to relinquish hopes of glory, to bend to the power of the player-agent party, and, often, to prize monetary gain over sporting success. After all, it is indeed impossible to stick a shirt on 50 million pounds and send it out to play.
The consolidation of this idea has coincided with (and is undoubtedly correlated to) a number of recent high profile transfer sagas involving Premier League clubs. Probably the most important have been Gareth Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid and Luis Suarez’s to Barcelona, as both have now become bywords for the poor re-investment of funds; they give credence to the belief that the sale of a club’s best players, no matter how much money is involved, will always have a negative and destabilising effect on the club. Moreover, the prehistory of the Suarez transfer may well bear out this view; Liverpool rejected several bids from Arsenal the summer before, despite Suarez’s explicit desire to join the London club, and even seem to have ignored the activation of a buy-out clause (the legality of which seems questionable). In Tottenham’s case, the Bale transfer did seem relatively cordial on both sides, but perhaps only with the knowledge that the club had recently gone through an unsettling saga with Luka Modric’s desired move to Chelsea in the close season after 2010-11. In both the case of Suarez and Modric, their parent clubs refused to sell to another Premier League rival amid much theoretical debate between pundits, and ultimately reaped the rewards of keeping their star men; Tottenham got back into the top four, and even looked like they might challenge for the title at one point around Christmas, and Liverpool did mount a serious title challenge, eventually losing out to Manchester City. In both cases, the club’s last minute failures (Liverpool’s losses against Chelsea and Palace; Spurs’ poor run of form that saw Arsenal close a 10-point gap to gain third place) proved fatal for these transfers, and both Modric and Suarez were duly sold before the following seasons.
This seems to suggest that the sale of a club’s best players is indeed a step backward. Keeping them often leads to a new lease of energy in the next season (and pundits are often wont to say that retaining a key player amid transfer speculation is as good as making another great signing) and selling them often leads to the kind of (hindsight permitting) poor re-investment seen in the wake of the Bale and the Suarez transfers. Yet maybe these should be seen for what they are: naïve, misinformed and simply unlucky gambles on too many players. In a time when the Premier League is a beacon for foreign leagues in terms of money, our clubs have become too ready to buy and have lost the art of the sale. One need only look to the continent to see clubs who, struggling with debt and unable to prevent their players for seeking greener (and wealthier) pastures, routinely sell their best players year in, year out. In 2010, Valencia finished third for the first time in three years in La Liga, and then sold David Villa and David Silva; a year later, Juan Mata; and two years after that, Roberto Soldado. Yet in that time they reinvested wisely in a few economical transfers like that of the Algerian Sofiane Feghouli and the now-captain Dani Parejo, combined with talent promoted from the cantera like Paco Alcacer and Jose Luis Gaya, and the club still finish routinely in the Champions League spots (and, under the management of Nuno, seem to have their sights set on displacing the top two à la Atletico). Over the last nine years, Atletico themselves have sold their main strikers Torres, Aguero, Falcao and Costa, but still managed two Europa League titles, a Copa del Rey, a European Super Cup, and that incredible La Liga success in 2014. Now, with the likes of Koke, Griezmann, and Jackson Martinez they boast a team that any European manager would envy. Elsewhere in Europe, FC Basel have lost Shaqiri, Xhaka, Salah, Stocker and Sommer since 2010, and have still progressed further than Liverpool in the Champions League last season. In the same period, Benfica and Porto have, between them, lost Di Maria, Ramires, David Luiz, Nemanja Matic, Fabio Coentrao, Javi Garcia, Axel Witsel, Hulk, Falcao, João Moutinho, James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez, and still maintain a stranglehold on the Portuguese league, and can boast some significant scalps in European competition. One could say the same of Lyon and Marseille; Dortmund and Wolfsburg- the list goes on.
Sure, perhaps we should feel privileged that the wealth of our league means that our clubs are usually the ones buying these players. Perhaps we feel that these statistics only reveal the strength of the Premier League, before which even supposed European giants like Porto and Valencia struggle to keep their stars. Perhaps we would point to the comparative weakness of the Swiss or Portuguese leagues, in which a club can lose their best players and still win routinely. However, with every passing year that English clubs do worse in the European competition, we should be losing that complacency. Make no mistake, Porto and Basel and Dortmund are great teams, teams against which most Premier League teams would do well to win, and, maybe, hold their greatness because of their selling policy rather than despite it. Almost all of these Champions League mainstays sell their best players every year, but, keeping the spine of the time and adding wisely and economically, manage to perpetuate success. Maybe we are not the ones fooling them, but vice versa- maybe sale and reinvestment should be seen as a natural and beneficial cycle of football, rather than some kind of shortcoming in a club. The cycles may be longer in the Premier League, where players usually want to enter rather than escape, but it is still a fundamental part of football and one of the defining features of a great club. Sir Alex Ferguson’s most impressive achievement at United was maintaining success through a number of different squads, over a long period of time. Moreover, although Arsene Wenger has never managed to recreate the success of the Invincibles, the manager’s ability to consistently reach the Champions League through a number of different squads (and in the years of stadium debt after many of the Invincibles had left) should not be overlooked. More recently, Southampton have shown how to sell and re-invest wisely, in order to move forward rather than backward.
Yet the stunned reaction of commentators to Southampton’s achievement shows that the Premier League still has a way to go. This should be the norm, not something atypical. Partly because of England’s money, teams on the continent have had to do it for years, and they are no worse off for it. Essentially, as each new European season shows us, our league would do well to learn from them the art of the selling club.