Pre-season tends to breed one emotion or another and there’s little middle ground between soaring optimism and fatalistic doom. Increasingly, that’s also a mood dictated by a club’s activity in the transfer market – activity provokes great expectation, inertia creates a pervasive doom.
That fallacy was exposed across the Premier League’s opening weekend. There were certainly isolated successes for new arrivals – Everton’s Richarlison being one – but it was more typically a round of matches which rewarded continuity.
Nobody proved that point better than Tottenham. They were the window’s fall guys and yet, away to Newcastle, their stability was rewarded. Spurs rocked at St James’ Park, certainly, and they were grateful to Hugo Lloris’ reflexes and the Gallowgate End crossbar for their three points. Nevertheless, when the time came to see the game out, it was their established combinations which allowed them to keep the ball away from their opponents. The Harry Kane-Christian Eriksen axis was of particular value, while Newcastle’s temporary focal points – Salomon Rondon and Kenedy – searched for a decisive understanding.
A day earlier at Old Trafford, Leicester lost to Manchester United but still managed to be intriguing in the process. Claude Puel started the season under pressure, he remains so, but there was evidence of his coaching impact within that game. James Maddison, a new signing, caught the eye, but Leicester looked a more rounded team, no longer confined to playing on the counter-attack. Demarai Gray had a good game, so too Wilfried Ndidi and Adrien Silva, and – though they ultimately travelled back to the Midlands pointless – theirs was a performance which suggested a more rounded approach to the game. For long periods, they were the better team.
At Craven Cottage, too, the fallacy of the market was exposed. Shahid Khan has invested a great deal of money into his Fulham side, spending north of £100m to make them Premier League competitive. Jean Michael Seri gave a good account of himself and there were flashes too from the returning Andre Schurrle, but it was Crystal Palace’s established players who proved decisive. At its critical junctures, the game’s outcome was decided by Jeff Schlupp and Wilfried Zaha and by two goals which relied not on any individual brilliance (although Schlupp’s finish was fabulous) but on the kind of understanding which can take months and years to develop.
On Sunday, all of West Ham’s optimism vanished within ninety minutes. Liverpool are excellent, but the five new signings fielded by Manuel Pellegrini really just had the effect of weakening an already overmatched side; there really wasn’t a department within Pellegrini’s team which functioned as it should.
This isn’t just an opening day phenomenon. Neither is it to say that transfers always have to be approached with caution. However, it does expose the flaw in the great bursts of optimism which accompany every new addition. All around the league, there are examples of that: Paul Pogba is still to find his best form at Manchester United, Granit Xhaka is yet to adjust to life at Arsenal, and Alvaro Morata has been a crushing disappointment at Chelsea. All transfers are really future investments. Literally, of course, but also in the sense that they’re conducted with the expectation of a time-lag; convincing a player to join is step one in the process, steps two and three involve re-educating him and then, eventually, deploying him in a way which creates a benefit equivalent to his cost.
It’s all fairly obvious, but it’s something ignored time after time. Unless it’s utterly ridiculous and involves a highly unique sort of player, a transfer spend seems rarely to impact decisively on the season in which it was committed.
On Sunday, Southampton drew with Burnley. Recently, St Mary’s technical director Les Reed has received all sorts of criticism for his ineffective recruitment. Southampton’s 2017-18 was an abject failure, very nearly an outright disaster, and the inefficiencies within the first-team squad were complicit in that. But from a dispassionate perspective, it really characterised just how tricky a science this is – and, perhaps, how miraculous it was that, between him and his appointed head-coaches, Reed’s Southampton had been able to survive their annual plundering for so long. Seasons came and seasons went, important players were invariably sold (usually to Liverpool), but Southampton maintained their stability and demonstrated few of the early-season fractures described above.
You wonder, also, whether that example is under-appreciated for just how rare it is and if its legacy is perhaps to understate the risk of rebuilding, even under more positive circumstances, and the challenges which that generally involves.
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