As the 2014 summer transfer window counted down its final seconds, Sky Sports neatly summarized the stakes: would Falcao be a Manchester United player? Could Arsenal negotiate a fee for United striker Danny Welbeck as the buzzer sounded? All that was missing was the voice over to “tune in next episode”, or to skip the credits and click the button to the next episode on Netflix.
Of course, these were real life characters, with real life plot lines, and real life consequences. Arsenal needed reinforcements after Olivier Giroud’s injury. Manchester United, well, they needed to show they were Manchester United. So would chairman Ed Woodward add that extra contractual incentive to save the day? Does Liam Neeson save his family?
Television has turned off field, tangentially related sports event into events themselves, from transforming the NFL Draft into a three-day primetime show competing with Thursday night comedies, or filling out brackets along with March Madness selection shows. Will Leitch wrote this summer about how the NBA free agency might trump the actual games, as its the only time when fans can feel like insiders. Actually, scratch the term “fans” - as Leitch points out, with the amount of information available online, we’re more “sophisticated connoisseurs”.
We’ll never be in the negotiating room with Falcao’s agent, fleshing out the finer details of a contract. But we can create our own metric for a quality player, and with that, we have our little victory over Woodward or Liverpool director Ian Ayre. It’s the same mentality that lets Chelsea supporters have an opinion on players who don’t even exist. And why we tune in to watch an unfortunate reporter in London or Newcastle stand in the middle of of supporters passing around inflatable dolls. This is our time.
Before we get to the deadline day analysis, let’s get it out of the way: the “smart” teams do get their transfer business done before the deadline, and “really smart” teams get their transfer in before preseason training, integrating new players into their sides. Manchester City did this, and sending a Sky Sports reporter outside the Etihad would resemble more “Waiting for Godot” than fandom. Chelsea bought Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas before or during the World Cup, and look at them, hitting 11 goals in their first three matches. Daniel Taylor wrote that the best sides “identify, negotiate, and leave all the last-minute business for everyone else” and City targeted this summer’s haul of Bacary Sagna, Willy Caballero, Fernando, and Eliaquim Mangala last October. But then again, where’s the movie if Liam Neeson decided to work a white collar job and install a home security system?
Perhaps no recent summer transfer was symbolically more significant than Mesut Ozil a year ago, so much so that modern Arsenal identity could be divided into pre and post-Ozil spending. Before Ozil, the perception was that Wenger had lost his touch. $70 million later, and Wenger was back to his wily self - that’s the power of the transfer window. But Wenger’s ace up his sleeve also raised expectations for a sequel. Surely Wenger would count down the seconds, wink into the camera, and voila!, Edinson Cavani would appear behind the curtain.
Danny Welbeck doesn’t have the name, excitement, or imagination of Ozil, but he does have the graft needed to be an effective player. He’s a jack of all trades - good technique, versatile, intelligent, good work rate, and at his best combining with more skilled teammates. He has everything but goals, but that’s about what $25 million gets you these days. And whereas Ozil’s time in England has veered from brilliance to boredom, Welbeck can always be counted on. And only 23 years old, he’s a player that Wenger used to mold. Consider his development as a throwback to the Arsenal glory days.
There’s the idea that creativity and money have an inverse relationship in business and life. I had a vision of manager Louis van Gaal signing unheard of players from amateur Dutch leagues with skills so specialized they could only fit in his style. A transfer window full of Bebé’s, basically. Or at least a couple Dirk Kuyt’s.
But when you have $330 million to spend, searching for months for that one deal on Craigslist turns into buying a Benz at a dealership, and scouting one player able to play five different positions turns into “let’s get Falcao”. There’s no doubting the quality of a player who’s scored 104 goals in 139 games across Europe, and perhaps another prolific goal scorer is what Van Gaal needed to balance his “broken” squad. If he, Wayne Rooney, and Robin Van Persie develop an understanding with Juan Mata and Angel di Maria behind them, there could be 60, 70 goals across the three. If not, there’s always FIFA 2015.
To quote LeBron James, Steve Bruce didn’t buy just one, or two, or three attackers - Steve Bruce brought in four attackers in one day in Hatem Ben Arfa, Gaston Ramirez, Abel Hernandez and Momo Diamé. Ben Arfa and Ramirez are creative players who have underachieved in England. Ben Arfa in particulate is a high risk, high reward player who can both carry and sink a team depending on the moment. The duo will be responsible for feeding Hernandez, with Diamé providing balance to Tom Huddlestone in midfield. All this for only a little over $20 million.
The 2014 summer transfer deadline day featured characters, stakes, money, and profanity - all the makings of a good Netflix series. And even the deadline was more of a suggestion, with Arsenal announcing Welbeck’s signing more than two hours after the window was supposedly closed. Premier League clubs ended up spending over $90 million in one day, and the ecstasy of transfer window connoisseurship brings the morning after hangover of going back to a regular fan, in the form 35 more league matches, watching your side get knocked out of cups to lower tier clubs, and walking home from bars after losing points in injury time. But there’s always January.