The magnificent soccer seven of Erik Lamela, Paulinho, Roberto Soldado, Etienne Capoue, Nacer Chadli, Vlad Chiriches and Christian Eriksen never deserved to become a trivia question, but here it goes anyway: what players did Tottenham buy with the money received from Gareth Bale’s sale to Real Madrid (added bonus trivia: “who did Tottenham buy with Bale money” returns 2.7 million Google results)?
Likewise, Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli (along with Emre Can, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Lazar Markovic, Alberto Moreno, Javier Manquillo, and Divock Origi) were not signed to replace Luis Suárez and his output last season of 31 goals in 37 matches by themselves. Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling were supposed to carry his speed and goals. Lallana was to add running, and along with Coutinho, an incisive pass from midfield. Lambert would give the side an option off the bench, and Balotelli would realize his vast, world class potential.
And along with Fabio Borini, the production of the seven players would make up for the goals, assists, attitude, spark, and nutmegs of Suárez. So the idea goes.
Yet heading into December, they’ve combined for eight goals. Granted, Sturridge, the player most likely to replicate the attention Suárez received from opposition defenses, has only played in three matches. But results lack those types of nuances, and Tottenham and Liverpool sit 10th and 12th respectively on the table.
In retrospect, replacing Suárez with one James Rodriguez would have been a much easier solution.
The $100 Million Man
How would you spend $100 million? Not in the sense that of cars and mansions, but within the parameters of a soccer team. You need a new striker, some depth in midfield, and a center back. Who does Football Manager recommend?
Outside of the initial euphoria of the number, the $100 million hole that Suárez and Bale left into their sides was a burden as much as opportunity. It’s never about the money, but the expectations that come with it, and neither Brendan Rodgers nor Mauricio Pochettino had worked with a transfer budget of this scale with their previous jobs at Swansea or Southampton. Like players from smaller clubs, managers experience growing pains as they come to terms with an abundance of resources. Rodgers, Pochettino, and to the same extent, David Moyes, made their names outperforming their limited transfer budgets. But how do you outperform when there are no limits?
Pochettino’s pressing at Southampton was an idiosyncrasy that allowed his sides to punch above their weight. Moyes’ famous last words at United were to build a side that was “harder to beat and harder to play against”. Rodgers’ “Death By Football” mantra was applauded at Swansea, a brave, small club playing football the Barcelona way. But stretching a dollar and instilling an overarching playing philosophy comes second to league titles, Champions Leagues, worldwide marketing campaigns, and most of all, unlimited transfer budgets. Intricate passing triangles are no consolation. Dreaming big is harder than one would imagine.
Joe Allen at Swansea was an essential player in Rodgers’ passing midfield. Joe Allen facing Isco, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos at Anfield in Champions League is a detail that could eventually lead to Rodgers losing his job. At the highest levels, the hot dog will suffice, no matter how it’s made. Pep Guardiola found out at Bayern Munich that passing is considered boring. Tiki taka died in more ways than one.
Waiting For (the Next) Suárez
Is there a right way to spend a $100 million? In theory, the two clubs got it right. The best way to replace Suárez and Bale is by finding the next Suarez and Bale. Markovic is only 20 and Origi is 19 years old. At age 20, Can is already on the verge of cracking the starting lineup for good. All this while rumors of Real Madrid circling Raheem Sterling play ominously in the background like the soundtrack of Jaws. Trophies, meanwhile, seem to be an added bonus.
It took Bale three managers, 24 matches, and two years before Tottenham won a game in which he started. His initial struggles led to rumors of a transfer to Birmingham City for under $5 million in 2009, and inspired this immortal headline. Tottenham would go through two more managers before finally cashing in on Bale. Success truly doesn’t come overnight (Jordan Henderson like Bale, was signed by Damien Comolli and struggled before establishing himself as a first team player - the jury is still out on whether Henderson develops into the elusive $100 million player).
Rodgers and Pochettino traded the balancing act of developing players and not getting relegated for the balancing act of developing players and staying in Champions League –like moving from a sparse frying pan to a million dollar fire. Liverpool last season, and Bale’s Tottenham the year before, represents the high point of each club, with the side specifically built to get the most out of their match winner. The cycle starts over and it’s up to the Chadli’s, Eriksen’s, Origi’s, or Markovic’s to hit the jackpot. Whether the two managers are around to see it is another story.