Best signing, worst window: how transfers played out


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The transfer window closed on Aug. 31, with Europe’s top clubs spending plenty of money to enhance their squads even amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the financial constraints that has brought.

Manchester United splashed more than €120m on Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane, while also bringing back Cristiano Ronaldo; Arsenal spent the most of any Premier League club on six new players; Liverpool picked up RB Leipzig defender Ibrahima Konate for €41.5m, while Manchester City and Chelsea broke the bank for a statement signing each (Jack Grealish and Romelu Lukaku.)

In Europe, Real Madrid and Barcelona were hit hard by financial issues and had to move stars on, as were Inter Milan, but Paris Saint-Germain led the way both with the €70m signing of Inter full-back Achraf Hakimi and the free transfers of world-class players Lionel Messi, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Sergio Ramos and Georginio Wijnaldum.

But what do our writers think of the window?

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Who signed the best defender?

Gab Marcotti: If you include wing-backs (or full-backs who attack), then I’d suggest PSG with Hakimi. If you’re sticking to actual one-one-one defenders, it’s probably a toss-up between David Alaba (Real Madrid) and Varane, though I’d lean toward Alaba simply because while neither had a great season, Alaba’s was better.

Long-term, I’m a big Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich) guy, so if I’m buying futures, that’s where they’re going.

Rob Dawson: Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team conceded too many goals last season, 12 more than champions Manchester City. Solskjaer wanted a new centre-back, and the club managed to get Real Madrid’s Varane for €41m. A Champions League and World Cup winner signed during the peak years of his career is a great addition and, judging by his performance on his debut at Wolves last weekend, the 28-year-old will do well in the Premier League.

Mark Ogden: Leicester City. You can’t ignore the quality of Varane or the potential that Liverpool have signed in Konate, but Jannik Vestergaard has been one of the best and most underrated defenders in the Premier League during his time at Southampton, so to sign him for just £15m is a fantastic piece of business by Leicester. Wesley Fofana‘s broken leg could have derailed Leicester before the season even began, but they moved quickly and smartly for the Denmark international.

Julien Laurens: The sun must have got to your head on holiday, Mark, because picking Vestergaard ahead of the incredible defenders signed this window — Varane, Konate, Sergio Ramos, Alaba and Upamecano, just to name a few — is crazy. My pick goes to Hakimi at PSG. Yes he cost €60m from Inter Milan, but he’s already proven what an impact he will have this season. He is arguably the best right-back in Europe right now and it was a great coup to get him.

James Olley: Historically, Manchester United have often had to fend off Real Madrid for their best players, yet this time they’ve prised a crown jewel away from the Spanish giants. United have been searching to find Harry Maguire the right centre-back partner for years, and they’ve landed one of the world’s finest in Varane for the relatively modest price of £41m. It’s hard not to see him adjusting well to the Premier League and improving United almost immediately.

Who was the best free transfer/value for money deal?



Julien Laurens questions why Barcelona look set to improve a direct rival with nothing in return for Antoine Griezmann.

Ogden: Ronaldo. I know Gab will argue against me until the end of time over the financial benefits, or otherwise, of Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United, but the €15m initial fee is relatively insignificant, with €8m in add-ons, and will be paid over five years. The wages will, of course, be huge, but United are a commercial juggernaut and I believe they will end up making more money out of Ronaldo than he costs them. Oh, and he’ll score loads of goals too.

Marcotti: I assume we’re all picking around the top end of the market and since everyone has taken either a Messi or Ronaldo stance, I’m going to do the same and go with Messi.

Why? I think he’s more important to PSG (especially in light of Mbappe not extending his contract yet), in terms of image and on the pitch, than Ronaldo is to United. I think commercially as well, Messi moves the needle for PSG more than Ronaldo does for United, mainly because United are already huge, the Premier League is already huge and Ronaldo’s agent Jorge Mendes, I think, has a much clearer idea of what his client is worth than Jorge Messi. So yeah, whenever we hear about a player “adding x million to a club’s commercial revenues” we also have to consider that the agent, if he’s smart, will know this and will incorporate it into the price.

I’d also give a honorable mention to Bayern’s signing of Marcel Sabitzer for €15m. Coach Julian Nagelsmann knows him from RB Leipzig, he adds depth to a midfield area filled with expiring contracts, and he’s a quality footballer.

Laurens: There can be only one winner here: Messi. No transfer fee, not even a signing-on fee and you get one of the best players in the history of the game, if not the best: PSG win this transfer window with Messi alone. No one never thought it could happen and yet they concluded the deal in five days once it became clear that Barcelona weren’t able to register his new contract.

Dawson: Yes, it’s hard to look beyond Messi’s free transfer to Paris. He instantly makes PSG better on the pitch and probably favourites to win the Champions League, while also making the club more appealing off the pitch to fans, sponsors and broadcasters. His impact will be huge.

Olley: Messi and Ronaldo moving in one summer is the stuff of fantasy, and the fortunes of both in the autumn of their careers will be fascinating viewing. For the sake of variety, I’ll opt for Gianluigi Donnarumma. Italy’s goalkeeper was a key figure in their Euro 2020 success and at just 22 years old, PSG may have their No.1 for the next decade — all without paying AC Milan a penny.

Who paid over the odds to get what they want?

Olley: Brighton owe Gareth Southgate a bottle of something expensive. Ben White’s call-up to the England squad for Euro 2020 enabled Brighton to hike up their valuation of a promising young centre-back who Arsenal ultimately decided they had to sign at all costs. He is a likeable character, but there is a view within the game that the Gunners overpaid. He could, of course, improve, but he’ll need to. And when was the last time a centre-back actually got better during his time at Arsenal?

Laurens: English clubs always have to pay a premium for English players and we saw it again this summer with Grealish. He is not worth £100m and there was a reason why Aston Villa agreed to put a release clause in his contract: they never thought someone would pay this amount for their star player. Manchester City did, but it is too much for someone who has never played a single game in Europe.

Dawson: Grealish is not yet a £100m player, but City were so convinced of his ability that they decided to pay his release clause at Aston Villa. City hope the fee will look like value for money by the end of his contract and Grealish certainly has a high ceiling. City don’t make many wrong moves in the transfer market and they believe they’ve got it right again with Grealish.

Ogden: Arsenal spending £50m to sign Ben White from Brighton smacked of a desperation to be seen to be doing the right thing by recruiting young English talent. At 23, White is a long way from the finished article and his fee was artificially inflated by his late call-up into England’s Euro 2020 squad. Arsenal needed a commanding, proven centre-back to help solve their defensive problems, but ended up paying far too much for a promising rookie.

Marcotti: Harry Kane would have been the answer here, but yeah, you know how that went. And obviously, it would have been Mbappe if he had moved. I think Grealish’s fee is very high considering his lack of international experience at club level. Yes, he’s a unique talent, but he’s also 25 years old, so it’s not as if you’re paying for 15 years of future service.

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Who had the worst window?

Dawson: Barcelona. President Joan Laporta’s hands have been tied by the financial mess he inherited at Camp Nou, but there is little doubt Barcelona are weaker now than they were at the end of last season. Laporta insists he is trying to look after the long-term future of the club, though that might come with some short-term pain. They certainly do not look to have the same fear factor now that Messi and Antoine Griezmann have gone.

Laurens: Another vote for Barca. Losing Messi is enough to make your transfer window a bad one. If you add the fact that you let another big player join your direct competitors for the title, for the second summer in a row (Griezmann after Luis Suarez last year) and that you could not even register your new signings until the day before the start of the season, it has been a really tough ride.

Marcotti: Everybody is picking on Barcelona and, I guess, they’re the obvious choice. We just don’t know how bad the situation truly was financially. Maybe it’s true that they needed to give away both Messi and Griezmann. It feels hugely improbable, but hey, Leicester winning the Premier League was hugely improbable too.

Among Europe’s elite, I’d suggest Liverpool’s strategy of looking to kids (Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott) and contract extensions (six first-teamers penned new deals, including Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold) while making just one signing after losing Wijnaldum is a bit short-termist. But again, we don’t have a clear picture of their finances.

Ogden: Plenty of clubs had bad windows, for different reasons. Barcelona and Real Madrid won’t remember the summer of 2021 particularly fondly, while Newcastle fans once again had little to get excited about. But considering their clear objective was to sign a centre-forward to replace Sergio Aguero, Manchester City somehow ended up missing out on Kane and Ronaldo. Yes, they paid £100m for Grealish, but they would have been better using that money to fund a deal for Kane.

Olley: Barcelona’s mismanagement caught up with them this summer, culminating in Messi’s exit and the chaotic departure of Griezmann back to Atletico Madrid. They parted with Griezmann on loan with an obligation to make the deal permanent for €40m, two years after paying Atletico €120m for him. So, to summarise, Barca gave Atletico Madrid €80m, Suarez on a free, a La Liga title and Griezmann in exchange for Griezmann. No wonder they’re in a mess.

What’s your pick for the biggest move in January?

Laurens: Paul Pogba. I don’t see him extending his contract at Manchester United in the next six months or even after that either. So instead of letting him leave on a free in the summer, I can easily imagine United deciding to offload him to Real Madrid in January to cut their losses and getting something for a player who came with a £89.3m transfer fee in 2016.

Marcotti: I have no idea. I’d be purely guessing. Given how Barcelona keep finding new debts and liabilities under the sofa, I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow the situation degenerates further and Laporta has to sacrifice another important asset.

Dawson: Mbappe. January isn’t usually the time for big transfers, but then you also don’t expect a club to offer over €200m for a player with less than one year left on his contract, as Real Madrid did. Or to see it turned down. It would not be a huge surprise to see Real Madrid return with another bid for Mbappe in January, although there is no guarantee it would be accepted by PSG.

Ogden: Kane was very deliberate when he ended speculation over his future last month by saying he would be staying at Tottenham “this summer.” The England captain’s reasons for wanting a move have not changed, so don’t be surprised if City make a new attempt to sign him in January. Much will depend on how Spurs are performing at the time and whether they can sustain their promising start to the Premier League season, But, make no mistake, the Kane saga is not over.

Olley: Agents often describe January as a “tidy-up” window and historically, big deals don’t happen mid-season. City may push again for Kane, but it’s hard to see Daniel Levy relenting in the space of five months. Mbappe’s situation is unusual given it is a case of when — not if — he joins Real so, for the sake of variety, I’ll go for Houssem Aouar. He might not command the highest fee — Lyon were willing to take around €25m this summer — but they need the cash and he’s not without admirers in England. It isn’t hard to see one team taking a gamble on him.

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