London- This is the age of the full-back – and that says a lot. For years full-backs were scorned as players who were not defensively sound enough to play in the middle of the back four nor technically good enough to play in midfield – “Nobody,” as Jamie Carragher has observed, “grows up wanting to be Gary Neville” – but this summer an astonishing amount of money has been spent on them. Most of the money, admittedly, has been splurged by Manchester City, who made Kyle Walker the most expensive defender in history at £50m then bought a back-up in Danilo for £26.5m before breaking their own record to sign Benjamin Mendy for £52m.
This is not just a Premier League phenomenon. Barcelona and Real Madrid have spent more than £26m on full-backs, while Milan have picked up a pair for the better part of £50m. But it is a phenomenon centred on City, where Pep Guardiola, having chosen not to augment his four thirtysomething full-backs last season, has swung to the opposite extreme. In City’s outlay on full-backs, three trends meet: Chelsea’s success with a back three last season has brought the lateral centre-stage; English clubs are spending mind-boggling amounts of money; and City, perhaps frustrated at how last season turned out, are spending (or, at least, have spent) the most of the lot.
But it is the overall figures that are most eye-catching. Romelu Lukaku for £75m. Álvaro Morata for £58m. Alexandre Lacazette for £46m. Bernardo Silva for £43.6m. Tiémoué Bakayoko for £39.7m. Mohamed Salah for £36.9m. Ederson for £34.9m. Victor Lindelof for £31m. These are not normal figures. These are not prices that have undergone the usual process of inflation; it may be, as Daniel Levy has said, that they are unsustainable. This is a market in which Jordan Pickford, an uncapped 23-year-old goalkeeper who has played 31 Premier League games (most of them very well, admittedly), can move for £25m with barely an eyebrow being raised.
Whether the prices are unjustifiable or immoral depends on perspective, but looking at the flurry of £30m, £40m and £50m deals, it doesn’t take a great cynic to wonder whether there might not be some sort of mass hysteria at work. Is this a bubble just waiting to pop? Will there come a day on which someone thinks: “£50m for Kyle Walker? What were we doing?” and the market collapses, vindicating the caution of Levy and, to a lesser extent, Arsène Wenger?
There are reasons for concern. Sky’s rebranding of its sports channels comes in response to falling viewing figures last season. Illegal streaming is a major problem, so significant that more than half those surveyed by the Football Supporters’ Federation in July admitted to using a Kodi box – more than had a BT subscription. Nonetheless, the expectation is for the next broadcast deal, which will come into force in 2019‑20, to be even larger than the present one, driven by a significant increase in overseas rights. The Premier League may be coming to the top of the market but it is not there just yet.
Perhaps we get the league we deserve. English football in the 1920s was characterised by innovation and pragmatism as the flux created by the first world war gave managerial opportunities to a class of people who had previously been excluded from such positions and who concerned themselves less with playing in the right way than with winning, because that was what guaranteed an income. The result was increasing use of the offside trap and ultimately, in response to that, an epochal change in the offside law. Or England’s 6-3 defeat by Hungary in 1953, followed three years later by the Suez crisis, creating an atmosphere of imperial decline that led to introspection, a questioning of tradition and the creative wave of the 60s, of which Alf Ramsey’s radical development of 4-4-2 and the World Cup win were an incongruous part.
Football is a part of culture, a reflection of the wider world – and that image is not a comfortable one. Ours is a society in which the people’s game has led to the extraordinary enrichment of a tiny few, in which we pay for our tickets and our satellite subscriptions, handing more and more money over to billionaires, and gawp when the amounts are relayed back to us via ridiculous transfer fees, salaries and agents’ commissions.
Not only do few seem to be appalled by the preposterousness of it all but there is an odd sense that for some fans this is the most enjoyable part of the season, when messiahs loom behind every contorted meme announcing a new deal and the game exists as pure, unsullied potential. The high point of Mesut Özil’s Arsenal career remains the day he signed. Far rather that, far rather the soap opera of agents and whispers, swoops and rumours, tactical projection and imagined combinations, the idealised simulacrum of the game, than the football itself. Behind those falling Sky figures a suspicion lurks that 90 minutes of play is too long to hold the modern attention span.
Yet unsettling as the nonsense of summer is, this is another season rich with promise. The fleet of new signings are part of that. This is what the Premier League is best at: turning the generation of cash and its expenditure into a spectator sport in itself. This remains the league of superstar managers and, if last season never quite ignited, that in a sense has only whetted the appetite for this campaign.
José Mourinho’s season was salvaged by the Europa League and Guardiola’s by a third-place finish, but neither really impressed in their first campaigns at their new clubs. The expected Rumble by the Irwell never quite came to pass, both too troubled by their own side’s failings – one couldn’t score; the other couldn’t defend – to be able to spend too much time needling. For this season that adds jeopardy. Neither club, having invested so much in appointing them, were going to sack their manager last season; this season they might.
Since joining Porto, Mourinho has always won the league in his second season at a club. There was little in 2016-17 to suggest he can do so again and become only the fourth manager ever to win the league with Manchester United, a club that have overwhelmed each of their leaders in the past century other than Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson – but the way they dragged themselves to the Europa League offers encouragement. The signing of Lukaku should help with the dispatching of the lesser clubs who so often frustrated them last season but the fear nags that football has moved on and Mourinho, energy sapped and charm exhausted, is struggling to keep up. Few managers, after all, have lasted more than a decade at the very top.
There is pressure too on Guardiola, all the more so now that his reaction to last season’s failure has been an extraordinary spree. Does juego de posición have any place in the harum-scarum world of the Premier League?
Elsewhere, can Jürgen Klopp’s high‑tempo philosophy prosper over a full season at Liverpool? Can Wenger survive another year with Arsenal? Can Mauricio Pochettino keep his young Spurs players invested in his project, even when they could be earning in some cases £5m more a season elsewhere? And what of Everton, expectations raised by spending unthinkable before Farhad Moshiri’s takeover?
And then there’s Antonio Conte, seemingly frustrated by his club’s transfer policy, who last season outshone them all to win the title and offered a new tactical template. Has he another trick to pull at Chelsea? It was, after all, his deployment of the 3-4-2-1 system that confirmed the importance of full-backs as attacking players, he who provided the structural underpinning for a world in which a club see their best way of reacting to a poor season as splurging £130m on a position once regarded as an afterthought.
The Guardian Sport