The Liverpool teenager Bobby Duncan appears to have bucked a growing trend by leaving to join Fiorentina in Italy. Whatever the rights and wrongs of a dispute with the European champions that led to the player’s exit, Fiorentina are at least getting a promising young talent at the right age.
Most of the recent Italian imports from the Premier League have been just the opposite, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan joining Alexis Sánchez in Serie A after failing to convince he was worth a regular place at Arsenal.
Fair enough, Romelu Lukaku is only 26 and Chris Smalling could easily enjoy a career rejuvenation at Roma but there seems something almost poetic about Mkhitaryan and Sánchez, both 30, ending up in Italy when they so conspicuously failed to live up to expectations after the swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United in January 2018.
Had any money changed hands that particular bit of transfer business might now be regarded as one of the most ill-judged in Premier League history, though Sánchez’s stratospheric wages at Old Trafford helped ensure a massive financial hit to the club did not go unnoticed.
As recently as six months ago Ed Woodward was still trying to sweep the mistake under the carpet, arguing United could easily afford to keep paying Sánchez’s reputed weekly wage of £400,000 until his contract expired, though the executive vice-chairman appeared to overlook the difficulty Ole Gunnar Solskjær would face in pretending it was normal to have the club’s highest-paid player a non-functioning and visibly struggling presence on the first-team periphery.
Sánchez has just said that with more game time at United he might have made an impact, though most supporters who have witnessed his misery over the past 18 months would surely agree with Solskjær and the club hierarchy that after a certain number of chances it is best to accept something is not working and try to move on.
The only mystery now that Sánchez has left England is what Internazionale could possibly have seen in the player’s contribution at United to convince them he may be worth taking on. His telepathic partnership with Lukaku, possibly? His knack of scoring important goals just when needed? If only.
Obviously the Chilean has been a top performer – watch some of his highlights from Barcelona and even Arsenal and plenty of potential takers might be excited – but looking backwards failed to work out for United despite José Mourinho’s confidence at the time.
It was no surprise when Mourinho went for Sánchez; the manager has long held a preference for signing established, no-risk individuals who can slot into a team straight away and Sánchez had spent the last few months of his time at Arsenal looking like a man counting the days until he could reach a more suitable destination.
Perhaps we should have guessed then that the eventual move would not work out happily for anyone involved. Mourinho might have had a clue that off-the-peg players do not always thrive in different environments through Mkhitaryan’s generally disappointing performances for United. The Armenian had good days and bad days but soon found himself out of the side.
He was not a Sánchez-size problem because he was not on the same wage scale, though it was evident fairly early that the manager had reservations about his new player. That is how he ended up being traded for Sánchez, and Arsenal fans could not have been all that surprised to find he found it just as difficult to hold down a regular place when he turned up in London.
There is a theory the Premier League is just too quick and physical for some players. Mourinho initially said Mkhitaryan would need time to adapt, which was fair enough, though he never quite did adapt, at United or Arsenal. Perhaps this is surprising for a player who shone in the Bundesliga (not exactly a village green competition), yet in his best seasons with Borussia Dortmund Mkhitaryan was surrounded by attacking pace, and he was often the player who would take a split‑second longer to pick out a run or see a pass.
United in particular have spent the past few years trying to inject more pace into their game, to increase their overall tempo, largely without success. Mkhitaryan might have been the answer, once, though under Mourinho it was felt he slowed the game down, and at Arsenal he seemed to suffer from a loss of confidence as much as anything else. Perhaps that would not have happened had he joined Arsenal earlier, instead of arriving midway through Arsène Wenger’s last season. Instead he left Dortmund to join United, one of several players represented by Mino Raiola to link up with Mourinho at the club.
It is possible that sometimes agents know even less about how transfer deals will work on the pitch than managers, their main interest being movement and money rather than the delicate art of team building.
Certainly there are Liverpool supporters who suspect the 18-year-old Duncan’s move to Florence was a plan hatched by his agent rather than the player, and if for no other reason one can only hope such a bold move by one so young works out. Also, paying £1.8m for an untried teenager is a risk a club should be taking – at that price it may turn out well for all parties.
Whether the same can be said of the last-minute loan deals that have taken Premier League players to Italy is more debatable but at least Arsenal have got Roma to take over Mkhitaryan’s considerable wages for a year. United, inevitably, will still be paying much of the Sánchez salary. All of which goes to show that no matter what age, no matter what track record, there is no such thing as a risk-free signing. Not that United do not know that already.