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Jul 20, 2011

The rules of attraction

Competition is intrinsic in football. Winners and losers can be determined after 90 minutes, but also with a glance at the league table. Beyond the official honours, it generates status symbols: a Champions League place, a European position, a top-half finish. What could simply be a measure of self-esteem has become a pecking order that is being ever more rigidly enforced by the players.

Consider some recent transfers. The much-coveted defender Phil Jones attracted interest from Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal. He opted for Manchester United, the newly-crowned champions; so, despite the competing attractions of Anfield, did Ashley Young. Liverpool, it appears, have been knocked off another perch: besides the 19-18 scoreline in the historic rivalry, it is 2-0 in the last couple of months.

It equates to proof that years of comparative frugality haven't dented United's appeal. They can retain a swagger in the transfer market, safe in the knowledge they remain the most popular domestic destination. Liverpool, meanwhile, facing a second successive season without Champions League football, have spent almost as much as United, but it is notable who they have signed.

While Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam constitute three costly recruits, they faced no competition from any of the clubs who finished above them last season; in Henderson's case, it is suggested Liverpool paid a premium to prevent either of the Manchester clubs entering the auction while, though United and Tottenham expressed an interest in Adam in January, that was not followed up in the close season.

Tottenham, too, can testify to the penalty paid for exclusion from the Champions League. Luka Modric's public desire to join Chelsea displays an ignorance of, or a disdain for, the capital clubs' rivalry. Despite eliminating AC Milan from Europe, Spurs are not of the rank required by the Croatian.

One phrase long seemed to sum up the gulf between the best and the rest. Now, however, the Big Four appears to have split, to be replaced by three groups of two. If United and Chelsea form the top pairing and Liverpool and Tottenham the lowest of the trio, the greatest intrigue lies in the middle. Manchester City and Arsenal might be bunched together, but they are opposites with contrasting appeal: the ideals and aesthetics at Emirates Stadium versus the finance and forceful progress of the Etihad Stadium. That Gael Clichy has followed Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor by decamping north suggests City are edging ahead, an impression that style of play is the lesser concern that would be reinforced should Samir Nasri follow. Yet the sense is that the Frenchman's preference would still be Old Trafford. City's money talks, but United's trophies emit a louder sound.

Further down the division, the notion of a glass ceiling is becoming entrenched. The moves of Young and Downing mean Aston Villa have lost a quartet of midfielders in three summers, following Gareth Barry and James Milner, while the traffic in the other direction, in the shape of Richard Dunne, Stephen Ireland and Shay Given, suggests they are getting City's discards. If, as seems likely, Villa appeal more to Charles N'Zogbia than Sunderland, as Darren Bent decided they do, it would merely indicate that the pecking order is as rigid in mid-table as it is as the top.

That Swansea's romantic rise through the divisions has been disrupted by the loss of two players - goalkeeper Dorus de Vries to Wolves and the Bolton-bound midfielder Darren Pratley - to established Premier League clubs indicates the difficulties newcomers to the division face.

Because, whatever judgments made by pundits, press or supporters, the most damning are coming from footballers themselves. They are enforcing the status quo and limiting social mobility by jumping ship to richer contenders, rather than enabling their current clubs to advance. Some show a lack of loyalty, others a shortage of patience in their bid to better themselves.

Collectively, their actions produce a depressing conclusion: that players are simply choosing the most glamorous and, in many cases, the richest of the alternatives and ignoring the other factors that could come into consideration, from the geographical and the personal to the footballing: the notion of where, and how, a player will fit into a team.

In Phil Jones' case, for instance, first-team football could be more attainable at Anfield or the Emirates. It was possible to envisage Young as an automatic choice on the left flank for Liverpool, whereas it is more likely he will be part of United's squad rotation. In both cases, self-belief could be justified if he emerges as a regular for the Champions League finalists. But while choices can be explained by ambition or condemned as avarice, decisions shouldn't simply be based by looking at the league table and selecting the highest placed of the suitors.

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