The transfer market food chain
After a World Cup's worth of transfer speculation, Manchester United chief executive Ed Woodward typically felt the need to offer some headline-creating words of his own.
"Our financial position allows us to do things in the transfer market that most other clubs cannot do," he said last week. It was quite a statement, especially since United themselves have arguably only made two "statement" buys in the last six years: the purchases of Robin van Persie and Juan Mata.
It also cuts to the core of one of the offseason's few genuine elements of intrigue, beyond who goes where, and something that does have deep influence on the pitch: where does actual power in the transfer market lie?
It is an issue often confused with vague notions about the supposed "size" -- or "bigness" -- of clubs. The truly telling aspects are actually much simpler and clearer. Transfer power tends to be displayed by three rather elementary facets, which lead to some stark facts.
The first facet, obviously, regards the types of player status a club deals in.
Even that, however, doesn't display real power as much as the next two: how often a club actually gets the player they want, and how often they are forced to sell.
These, really, are crucial.
In that regard, Jose Mourinho's recent description of market "sharks" was apt. Some clubs always do the biting and never suffer unfortunate chunks being ripped out of the body of their teams; others must be much more careful.
From there, it is rather easy to analyse the activity of the major European clubs, and build something of a transfer "food chain" at the elite end of the game that reveals where the true power lies.
We decided to do exactly that, and measure the nature of the elite outfits' signings and sales over the past five years, looking at how they got their players and when they sold them.
While a certain amount of subjectivity was required to evaluate the variety of different deals, displays of power tend to be clear: mega-deals, winning auctions and extracting players from notional rivals. Similarly, there is the obvious fact that any such food chain is always in a state of flux, with clubs capable of sudden evolution. The second tier emphasises that.
As has become apparent, though, some of Woodward's more cautionary words rang very true.
"I don't want to see players going to other clubs in Spain," the United chief executive said. As his club and so many others have found, there is not much you can do about that...
Top tier: Real Madrid, Barcelona
The apex predators. Quite simply, there is no comparison with the clasico two and it is naive folly to think otherwise. They are responsible for the highest number of expensive deals, which are always for the highest-quality players. With a truly unique and unrivalled power, they generally just get who they want, in a way that simply no other club can.
It is arguable that, historically, only AC Milan in the late 1980s have ever been able to compare. You only have to consider this summer, as James Rodriguez and Luis Suarez moved to Spain to ensure about six to eight of the world's top 10 players line out across the two clubs, while Real also took Toni Kroos from Bayern Munich. The latter -- where a top player departs one major club for another -- is the type of situation that Barca and Real so rarely have to deal with and it is difficult to even think of many examples from the last decade.
While the Catalans did lose Thiago Alcantara to Bayern last summer, that was really only because he wasn't one of their marquee players, as well as the sloppy allowance of a contract clause to take concrete effect. Otherwise, the clasico duo only sell on their terms and impose those terms on others. It says much that other sides only get to display their power when Barca or Real are looking to cast off players, as was effectively the case with Alexis Sanchez and Gonzalo Higuain.
Put simply, these clubs don't follow the market, they set it.
Second tier: Manchester City, Chelsea, Bayern Munich
The circumstances in which these clubs developed their wealth may be profoundly different, but they have led to one common effect: all three have relatively quickly and recently moved to the top of the market.
They may not be signing the absolute prime quality in the way Barcelona and Real Madrid do but they basically take everyone just beneath. That is revealed in the way Bayern simply did what was necessary to bring in Javi Martinez, Chelsea effectively won an English auction to sign Eden Hazard, and City currently house the next two best players outside Spain: Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure. There is also the stealth and speed with which these clubs get transfers done, which is a statement in itself.
While Real's purchase of Kroos -- and ongoing interest in Aguero -- illustrates that these three do live in the shadow of La Liga's monoliths a little, the key is they all have the wells of cash to ensure they keep players in ways others don't. Beyond Kroos, after all, what examples are there of these sides unwillingly losing players? City moved to quell Toure's unrest while Chelsea wanted to sell Mata themselves.
Third tier: Manchester United, Arsenal, Paris Saint-German, Monaco
A mix of old power and new money, with modern realities taking effect, and where the contradictions and complications of the market are first revealed.
Manchester United have not made a mega signing of the type in which Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco currently revel -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Radamel Falcao, for example -- yet you cannot imagine either of the French clubs taking big names from Old Trafford because of the relative weakness of the French league. That still leaves PSG and Monaco susceptible to being picked off by the likes of United themselves, if not quite to the same degree as Arsenal.
Bacary Sagna's move to Manchester City showed that some of Arsene Wenger's most notorious recent problems have not gone away, but the London club are beginning to properly flex their new financial muscle as outlined with the purchases of Mesut Ozil and Sanchez.
The fact both of those players were unwanted by their clubs is not insignificant, however, and it was a similar situation with United and Mata. It sums up the reality for all of these right now. They have the scope and potential to go higher but there is still something holding them back.
Fourth tier: Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Napoli
With each of these clubs, you can almost sense the cyclical frustration. They are all capable of one real statement signing and thereby have the potential for so much more if they can build on it, only for the bigger fish to then force them to effectively start again.
Look at the way all of Luis Suarez, Erik Lamela, Carlos Tevez, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Radamel Falcao and Gonzalo Higuain were initially signed by these teams and then compare with the way Suarez, Falcao, Gareth Bale, Mario Gotze and Edinson Cavani were sold. Bigger clubs simply swooped and took what they wanted.
Juventus are just about keeping their recent title team together, but it seems inevitable that one of Arturo Vidal or Paul Pogba will eventually make way. That is the reality here.
Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.