Prem's drama makes up for lost stars
There was something a little discordant about Ed Woodward's bombastic claim, made while in Los Angeles on Manchester United's preseason tour this week, that the club's new manager, Louis van Gaal, was free to break the world transfer record to bring a glittering, shimmering star to Old Trafford.
"Whether it is a record or not does not really resonate with us," said Woodward. "The reality is we are not afraid of spending significant amounts of money in the transfer market."
It was a strange thing to say. Not because it is not true -- United, like most of the world's superclubs, probably do have the resources to spend north of 90 million pounds on a player -- not because spending as much money as possible should not be an ambition so much as a regretful necessity, and not even because it seems like a poor start to any negotiation process to boast about how much money you have. No, it was curious because it is not clear who, precisely, they might want to break a transfer record on.
Nobody on Van Gaal's list of known targets -- players like Thomas Vermaelen and Daley Blind -- would require the club to flex their muscles particularly. Someone like Arturo Vidal might require United to break their own personal best, the 37 million pounds spent on Juan Mata in January, but they would not have to get close to the highest fee ever paid by a British club, let alone the sort of figure Real Madrid splash about on an annual basis: Juventus would find it hard to resist an offer of much more than 40 million pounds for a 27-year-old.
There may, obviously, be a secret plan to entice a genuine Galactico to Manchester -- although such things are rather harder to keep secret than most like to imagine -- but even then, who might it be? James Rodriguez has gone. Edinson Cavani and Falcao would not cost more than 60 million pounds. Bastian Schweinsteiger would not cost more than half that. United have the clout to attract Cristiano Ronaldo to return, but probably not while they're out of the Champions League.
Woodward may well be right. United might be ready to break the world transfer record. It's just that they don't really have anyone they can do it on.
Gareth Bale, the current record holder, feels he can explain why that might be. "The Spanish league is the most exciting and the world's top players play there," he said a couple of days after Woodward's remarks. "The Premier League is great but we are attracting the best players to La Liga."
There is something a little discordant here, too. Real and Barcelona might be locked in an inordinately expensive arms race -- one that has taken Rodriguez and Toni Kroos to the Bernabeu and Luis Suarez to the Camp Nou this summer -- but it does not necessarily follow that La Liga is the best in the world; the strength of a division's top two (or two of its top three) clubs is not the only, or indeed best, gauge of a division's strength.
Where it is hard to argue with Bale is in his assertion that Spain's twin titans now seem to have a monopoly on the world's best -- and therefore its most expensive -- players. The world transfer record seems to be their private property: after Bale, the most lucrative deals in history are Madrid's captures of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rodriguez and Kaka, as well as Barcelona's signings of Suarez, Neymar and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Even Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco, France's cash-saturated parvenus, cannot compete.
It would be easy to interpret that trend as Bale did, to suggest the Premier League has lost its allure, but in truth that is a distortion of history. England's top flight has always been rather better at making stars than at buying them.
For the likes of Ronaldo, Suarez, Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Sergio Aguero and Didier Drogba, the Premier League has functioned as a refinery of talent, a forge and a finishing school. The number of players who have arrived here as the best in the world -- players at the very peak of their powers, playing for the very biggest clubs in the very best leagues -- is little more than a loose handful: Andriy Shevchenko, Juan Sebastian Veron, Hernan Crespo, Yaya Toure, among but a few others. As that list suggests, not all of them have worked out.
And so the departure of Suarez, the league's outstanding player over the past two years, regardless of his myriad personal flaws, should not be seen as a blow to the Premier League's esteem, but as just the latest installment in its natural cycle. Others will rise to fill his place -- maybe Alexis Sanchez, or Diego Costa, or Lazar Markovic or Thibaut Courtois -- as they always have done.
In the meantime, there is no shortage of glamour: it is just that it is not necessarily on the pitch. There was a feeling last summer, when Bale departed and Jose Mourinho returned, that it was the Portuguese -- with his five o'clock shadow, his taste for psychological warfare, his fine line in surly aphorisms -- who was the most box-office thing about the Premier League. Now, he has a rival.
Real might have signed the undoubted playing star of the World Cup, but United have secured the managerial one. There were times in Brazil when the whole tournament seemed to be set up to deliver a resounding vindication of Van Gaal's methods.
Everything he tried worked: his initial switch to a three-man defence in order to counteract Spain's possession game, his half-time substitutions to avert disaster against Australia, his drinks-break tactical tweak that turned the round-of-16 tie against Mexico, his unorthodox use of Tim Krul as a final substitute in the quarterfinal against Costa Rica.
Even the eventual defeat in the semifinal, to Argentina, showcased Van Gaal's ability: rarely can a side have so effectively shut down Lionel Messi for quite so long. He was denied a place in the final, of course, but that does not diminish the impression he created for anyone unfamiliar with his work or uncertain as to his ability (it is, after all, not far off 20 years since he won the Champions League). Van Gaal has a Midas touch; everything he touches turns to gold.
The effect it has had on his first week at United is eye-catching. Context is everything in management; the same action is interpreted differently depending on who carries it out.
When Van Gaal complained about his new side's preseason tour being more of a commercial concern than a footballing one, it was greeted as a sign of his confidence, his determination to shape the club to his wishes. It was a show of strength. Had David Moyes done the same, it may have been seen as a sign of weakness, an inability to understand quite what a global brand United is.
Van Gaal's CV would always have earned him respect, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that his remarkable World Cup has sprinkled him with stardust, with an aura of invincibility. He may well be the Premier League's most famous name, its biggest star, its main event.
He and Mourinho are friends, of course, thanks to their time together at Barcelona, and the early signs are that their relationship as foes could follow the path of the Portuguese's with Sir Alex Ferguson. Mourinho and the Scot spent an awful lot of time slapping each other's backs, but there was always a lingering suspicion that they were doing it a little more forcefully than strictly necessary, that it could have turned (metaphorically) violent at any minute.
Mourinho and Van Gaal have the scope to be just as rich in intrigue, just as finely poised. The Premier League may have lost its star, but players come and go. What it does better than anyone else is storylines. This could be a belter.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.