When cachet still matters
And we’re back! Yes, a certain transfer market move by Real Madrid you’ve probably heard of may have a lot to do with my recent awakening from hibernation, but the fact is that the whole sequence of signings, farewells and the drama they’ve brought in the last few weeks makes it almost impossible for me to keep watching and not to write about it.
Before the Mbappe story started, the football world looked divided into four tiers in terms of ability to sign top talent:
- Top tier: English teams with billionaire backing (Chelsea, City, even United) plus PSG. These English clubs have almost unlimited resources, as they not only have a TV contract that’s exceptionally better than any other leagues in Europe, but they also have access to cash whenever it’s required to make an extra effort for a specific player. And then there’s PSG, a propaganda operation from Qatar which only cares about making global impact for their brand, and for which finances become secondary. The signings of Lukaku, Grealish, Messi, etc. and Kane’s offer this summer prove this eloquently. At least on paper and with the cash restraints brought by the pandemic, no other club could compete financially with this group.
- Second tier: the following four / five English clubs (Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, etc) plus the historic teams in the rest of Europe (Bayern, Juve, Inter, Real Madrid) with the question mark of Barcelona, whose financial statements looked so terrible that no sane top-level player would think of going there to make money (Hello, Memphis).
- Third tier: smart teams which have made a habit of buying well and selling even better and / or have an outstanding academy that keeps them interesting. I can think of Ajax, Sevilla, Villarreal, Lyon, Lille, Atletico, Benfica, Porto, the Italian second tier, even Phil’s Real Sociedad… And, of course, the remaining Premier League teams, no matter how insignificant they may be in historical terms. That TV contract is gold.
- The rest.
With this panorama, it would seem as though the handful of top-level coaches (Guardiola, Pochettino, Tuchel… OGS? No, not really) can only find employment and its corresponding top-level salaries in those few clubs. Ancelotti and Koeman coaching Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively shows how neither of these clubs have been able to attract a dynamic manager who’s at his peak. The same could be said of top-level players. However, the Mbappe deal seems bound to happen, and that introduces an extremely interesting point to discuss: the weight of brands and the importance of legacy in the decisions that those world class players and coaches are making in this context.
I can understand that Messi can still get a few more titles under his belt, and that he measures himself in terms of silverware, so that, plus the money, is the rationale behind his move to Paris. At the same time, I found his choice disappointing: being filthy rich, he could have gone for a rebuilding side or a more romantic option rather than the Qatar propaganda programme, even if it is based in a beautiful city.
The same can be said about Ronaldo trying to go to City, even if the move was unsuccessful. He wants to win another CL title before he retires, and even though he indeed has the killer instinct that City have missed for a few seasons, it seemed like a desperate move to keep the tenths of millions coming for another couple of years while he could contend for CL glory. The comeback to United can be sold as a nostalgic retirement but it’s eventually been the cash for him (and Mendes!) rather than the chance to destroy the Premier with a full team of specialists in leaving forwards in front of the keeper. A pity he didn’t end up wearing sky blue, especially for Guardiola.
But back to the macro analysis: this cash concentration has created a de facto Superleague, with the only difference that it’s managed by our friends at UEFA and with the participation of a few other participants who can, every once in a while, upset these loaded squads.
But then there’s Mbappe. He could still stay in Paris, win the treble, learn from Messi, take the team to unprecedented heights, make it become a powerhouse in the next ten years and become filthy (filthier?) rich, but no. Sounds as though he can’t wait to run his own show. Four years ago he turned down the chance to play next to his childhood hero, Cristiano Ronaldo, and now he runs away from playing with Lionel Messi, in both cases because he wanted to lead, not to be led. And to do that he moves to a team which hasn’t hired real talent in two seasons and four transfer windows, which just hired a manager past his prime and that will have to offload some liabilities before they can reinforce the team. And, on top of that, he leaves to make HALF of what he’d make in Paris.
And why is that?
Because that second tier of historic European teams that apparently can’t keep up anymore with the (forgive me) plastic newcomers have something that those guys lack: cachet, prestige, reputation. I’m not sure how long this will last under the current circumstances, but if you’re a teenager who wants to rule world football, you’ll probably want to do it wearing Bayern’s, Real Madrid’s, Barcelona’s or AC Milan’s shirt, not City’s or PSG’s. Those historical brands still retain their allure, and the fact that they’re struggling may even increase their appeal among some players: ladies and gents, I took team X back to relevance.
That will surely change. If Guardiola and Tuchel stay where they are for a few years and Qatar keeps pumping cash into Paris, the new generations will grow into those teams, and that football. I just hope that more players and coaches choose the challenge over the safe and financially rewarding options: those are the stories we all want to write and read about.
- Mallorca (5th) vs Espanyol (13th): 1. (27/08, 20:00)
Tweeted this result on Friday afternoon. Mallorca look great, Kubo has become a 90-minute menace and Espanyol still need some dynamite up front. Maybe the recently signed Loren (former Betis player) will help.
2. Valencia (6th) vs Alavés (19th): 2. (27/08, 22:15)
Also tweeted this prediction and it was a huge mistake by this scribe. I thought Alaves would upset Valencia, but the locals love late kick offs and Bordalas has already instilled his stamina and aggression in the locals’ DNA. Watched a good 60 minutes of this and it’s the best Valencia I’ve seen in 18 months. Beware. If the front office stay put (huge “if”), Valencia could enjoy a more than entertaining season.
3. Celta (16th) vs Athletic (11th): 1 (28/08, 17:00)
Tough one to pick, as I really like both coaches, something that very randomly happens. I’ll side with the hosts: their combination of young talent and experience must click at some point, and Coudet should be able to get that going.
Athletic, with their self-imposed hiring limitations, seem unable to take the quality leap that would keep their fans more content, so they are now impossible to calibrate. One day they impress vs Barcelona, the following they lose to Celta (yes, they will). Perhaps they should hire four or five Real Sociedad youngsters…
4. Elche (17th) vs Sevilla (1st): 2 (28/08, 19:30)
Sevilla are my dark horse for the title this season. Their squad may not be the best but it’s very likely the deepest. Their summer reinforcements are fantastic, and the team now knows what Lopetegui wants from them. Remember this paragraph when we’re at matchday 32. This team is going to challenge for the title, and when you’re correctly motivated, Elche should be a walk in the park.
5. Real Sociedad (7th) vs Levante (8th): 1. (28/08, 19:30)
This is a must-watch, as these two sides are as entertaining as LaLiga can get at this point. I’ll favour the home side because that Athletic joke must have Phil sharpening his knives and he would not take well me picking Levante. And yes, Real Sociedad are better, deeper and should prevail.
6. Betis (10th) vs Real Madrid (3rd): 2. (28/08, 22:00)
From the beautiful dream of watching Mbappe donning the white shirt to the stark reality: Real Madrid will miss eight players this weekend (Kroos, Modric, Ceballos, Mendy, Marcelo, Nacho, Lunin, and the negotiated Odriozola), so it won’t be pretty. Even Mariano has made the list, so yes: No Mbappe, yes Mariano.
I have to say that I liked Ancelotti’s tantrum after the 3-3 draw vs Levante. He even looked as though he wanted to win that match! If he manages to get the players to the right level of motivation, this should be a fun season to watch Real Madrid, although please do not expect any titles. The renaissance of Isco and Bale will only last a few matches, and after that the team is terribly short to put together decent challenges for all competitions… unless THAT signing ends up happening, of course.
I also liked Pellegrini’s complaints about the playing time in LaLiga. He spoke eloquently about a taboo topic: is LaLiga really that entertaining? Why are refs so bad? Why are there so many interruptions? He’ll do well with Betis this season, but I see a Benzema double to keep his friend interested in the trip to Barajas.
7. Barcelona (4th) vs Getafe (18th): 1. (29/08, 17:00)
Believe me, Barcelona are not bad. They’re not outstanding, but if you’re expecting that they will drop to the bottom half of the table now that Messi isn’t going to score 60 goals this season you’re wrong. The spine of the team is fine and the youngsters coming up are brilliant. Assuming they don’t go bankrupt, they should be fine in a couple of seasons, although that assumption is not a foregone conclusion. At all.
They will probably have to sell a couple of their stars in January, but for the time being they need to keep Depay under the impression that everything’s ok. A win over the Bordalas-less Getafe is on the cards. We’ll see what happens with Aguero in a few weeks.
8. Cádiz (9th) vs Osasuna (14th): 2. (29/08, 19:30)
Cadiz have signed Florin And One (yes, he plays football, is very talented and completely unstable). Osasuna have signed Ontiveros (very talented and completely unstable). Cadiz, who must think that Andone is the new Mágico González, are in no position to take flyers. Osasuna can afford a couple. Let’s support common sense.
9. Rayo Vallecano (20th) vs Granada (12th): 2. (29/08, 19:30)
A team surrounded by suspicion because of its ownership, Granada have done pretty decently in the last couple of seasons. Rayo, on the other side, are still managed by someone who completely ignores the club or its fans. And on top of that, the differences between the squads are huge. Easy visitors’ win.
10. Atlético de Madrid (2nd) vs Villarreal (15th): X. (29/08, 22:00)
Maybe not to the extent of Sevilla, but Atletico have done a pretty solid job with their reinforcements in the summer. Correa keeps taking them higher than they should, as Luis Suarez’s decline looks closer. However, this season they do need a lot more from Joao Felix and a centre-forward who can replace Suarez every other week. Let’s see how the signings do, but at this point I can’t see them defeating Villarreal… and the opposite is also true.