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Feb 21, 2013

Friends reunited lacking the X-factor

The appeal of the known quantity is obvious. At the highest level, every deal is a multi-million pound gamble, an investment in wages and transfer fee when there are so many questions, of character and compatibility, of attitude and adaptability, which can only be answered once the move is complete. It makes sense to take some of the variables out of the equation by turning to familiar faces. Or that is a logical assumption, anyway.

The recent experience of the Premier League's elite clubs suggests otherwise. The summer of 2014 will bring the 10-year anniversary of the last unqualified successes of the footballing policy of friends reunited. Then Jose Mourinho returned to Porto to sign Ricardo Carvalho, Chelsea's classiest central defender of the Abramovich era, and Rafa Benitez brought his former Tenerife charge Luis Garcia to Liverpool, where the mercurial Spaniard contributed glorious and ghost goals alike in their improbable Champions League triumph of 2005.

Yet while they flourished, others of the old boys' network floundered. Mourinho later borrowed Maniche, a bigger figure than in his Porto heyday, but who made a smaller impact. He had already spent £13 million on Paulo Ferreira and, over the subsequent nine seasons, Frank Lampard Sr may be the only man to have watched more Chelsea games from the stands than the long-serving right-back. Meanwhile, Benitez recruited Mauricio Pellegrino, a stalwart of his Valencia teams who quickly proved utterly unsuited to the Premier League.

Since then, however, reunions have been a recurring theme at Anfield. Roy Hodgson, either underestimating the requirements for a Liverpool player or overrating his former charges, signed Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen. Brendan Rodgers' first two buys were Joe Allen and Fabio Borini.

Even before the unlucky Italian suffered a season-ending injury, neither of the £25 million pair was in Rodgers' first-choice team. So when hints emerged that Rodgers had targeted Ashley Williams to replace Jamie Carragher in the summer, some could have been forgiven for feeling apprehensive just as, a few months on, they may be grateful he failed to sign Gylfi Sigurdsson again. Superbly as the Wales defender has done for Swansea, the lesson is that it pays to have a more extensive scouting network. Revisiting your past rarely pays off.

Perhaps, all things considered, it is better that Andre Villas-Boas has not been able to sign his former Porto playmaker Joao Moutinho for either Chelsea or Tottenham. The last Portuguese passer Chelsea imported, Deco, performed more successfully for Luiz Felipe Scolari at Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup than he did at Stamford Bridge.

Another managerial arrival on these shores, Roberto Mancini, has returned to his native Italy for four of his old Internazionale players but David Pizarro and Maicon have been fringe figures, Patrick Vieira was a useful substitute (and may prove a better Football Development Executive) and Mario Balotelli, while playing significant contributions as Manchester City won the FA Cup and the Premier League in successive seasons, was still sold at a loss. Mancini's best buys, men like Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero, have been genuine newcomers.

It is a familiar tale. Go across Manchester and rewind a couple of decades and one of Sir Alex Ferguson's first signings was a bulwark of his outstanding Aberdeen side. A case of better the Red Devil you know? Not exactly. Jim Leighton was dropped for the FA Cup replay in 1990, with the unheralded Les Sealey displacing him until Peter Schmeichel's arrival.

Perhaps the greatest Premier League manager at raiding his past has been that advocate of the future, Arsene Wenger. Thierry Henry, possibly the division's greatest player, was one of his charges at Monaco; so, too, was Emmanuel Petit, whose recruitment was the catalyst for the double in 1998. Sadly for Wenger, that particular well has dried up: most of his players from the principality are pushing 40 now.

The moral elsewhere, however, is that it is a dangerous approach for a manager appointed by a bigger or more ambitious club to try and recreate his former side. Craig Bellamy excelled for Mark Hughes at City but Roque Santa Cruz and his old Southampton team-mate Wayne Bridge were expensive, embarrassing failures (and, indeed of those rounded up for Hughes' get-together at lowlier QPR, only Ryan Nelsen prospered).

Harry Redknapp has a famous fondness for signing some players time and again, which served Tottenham well when they were relegation strugglers and enabled them to make a first leap into the top four. Yet by his final year at White Hart Lane, only Younes Kaboul of the Portsmouth alumni was starting regularly. Jermain Defoe was on the bench, Niko Kranjcar a marginal figure and Peter Crouch already sold.

Because the higher the standard, the harder it is to find talents who can stand out and the lower the chance those players will be owned by a manager's previous employers. When, rather than taking a step up, he exchanges clubs at a similar level, a policy of trusting the known makes more sense, as Michael Laudrup has shown in taking Chico Flores and Jonathan de Guzman to Swansea.

For managers who exchange mid-table or relegation-threatened Premier League clubs, there is merit to the idea. There is still more in the Championship: Neil Warnock's promotion with QPR was based on the solidity of men who followed him around, in Shaun Derry, Clint Hill and Paddy Kenny, while Cardiff's former Watford manager Malky Mackay has a group of former Hornets among his current league leaders.

Among the top six, however, the evidence is that the net needs to be cast wider and that, even if a manager brings his coaching staff to a new club, the wholesale movement of personnel should not extend to many players. All of which is another indication of how the game has changed.

One of only two Englishmen to lift the European Cup twice first met his mentor at Hartlepool and was signed for him again at Derby, Leeds and Nottingham Forest. It may prove there will not be a second John McGovern; perhaps more pertinently, there is not another Brian Clough. Because the trend that has accelerated since Carvalho and Garcia came is that managers' exes lack the X-factor.

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