Nothing for Money

An extremely rare photo of Moussa Sissoko grafting.

We’re now twelve games into the new Premier League season. Twelve games – which was more than enough for every single player out there to show their qualities. Twelve games – in which every single player has been thoroughly tested. There are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ anymore: this is literally it. If someone’s form exploded and performances flourished – we can safely assume that he’ll carry such form through the entire season. If someone struggled, failed or maybe even never got a chance to play at all – we can conclude that it’s already too late for them to make a difference. A dozen of games for each team is just about enough to reassess the way English clubs have handled the biggest, fat TV paycheck in the history of football. The whole legion of highly-rated, pricey lads gets under scrutiny – right now.

First things first: there were no less than fourteen EPL clubs that managed to break their respective transfer records last summer. Only Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Man City, Stoke and Middlesbrough abstained – and, coincidentally, each of those clubs has been playing according to, or above the expectations. Those fourteen record signings alone have costed approximately £378 million pounds worth of transfer fees – slightly less than the estimated value of SSC Napoli and a bit more than the yearly GDP of ten economically modest Oceanian countries. That money bought four centre midfielders, seven wingers and three strikers – clearly, everyone, even West Bromwich, was more keen on adding some firepower than safeguarding their defences. And what exactly that copious amounts of cash have done?

Let’s see… It’s now the second half of November and those fourteen players – bear in mind, almost exclusively attacking players – have twenty goals and five assists between them; roughly one goal per every 19 million pounds spent on their signatures. Whenever they’d capture the headlines with some valuable contribution, it was mostly to remind the fans that – after a great struggle and lengthy adaptation to new environment –  they’ve finally did something worth mentioning. Meanwhile, the league belonged mostly to well-known, seasoned veterans: Sergio Agüero, Diego Costa, Coutinho and Alexis Sánchez. Not that anyone expected it to be different – but certainly, those record-breakers should’ve had at least considerable impact on the performances of their new teams!

 

They didn’t. With one exception, though. Sadio Mané, another man in the line of Saints-to-Scousers signings, had a terrific time at Liverpool and rapidly transformed into one of the most dangerous wingers in the entire league. Already last season, he was a threat – but at Southampton, he’d notoriously pop up with a hat-trick just to fade in to the background for the next four or five games. Not anymore. He now averages 3 successful dribbles per game, has even even more freedom to roam and wreak havoc behind defenders’ backs and still excels in sprinting (according to The Sun, he’s one of the top 20 fastest EPL players, clocking 21.593 mph). In short: he’s destined to surpass his previous record of 11 goals and 6 assists. At the moment, with less than 1/3 of the games completed, he’s already on 6 goals and 2 assists…

Title-winning Leicester are probably happy with the acquisition of Islam Slimani. After a long, unsuccessful and quite ridiculous pursuit of Troy Deeney, they’ve settled for Sporting CP striker, who’s been priced at £28 million. It looked like the towering number nine will be yet another very expensive bench-warmer – but it’s his headers, that helped Foxes to beat Burnley and equalize in an eventually lost effort against West Brom. Slimani also performed decently in the Champions League, scoring against Porto and setting up a goal in a 3-1 win over København. He might not be Jamie Vardy circa September 2016 – but for a struggling, Kanté-less team, he’s been a good buy.

The Algerian connection: Leicester slumps, but it’s hardly Slimani’s fault.

Two smaller, but still positive stories of modest success are associated with Nacer Chadli and Christian Benteke. In their previous clubs, the Belgians were two classic cases of hasty investments: Chadli was brought to Spurs with a chunk of Gareth Bale’s fee from Real Madrid and Benteke has been the third or fourth striker lined up by Reds to replace the massive void created by Luis Suárez’s Barcelona move. In the end, neither got the job done: one was benched in favour of Lamela and Eriksen; the other, in favour of Sturridge and Firmino. Last summer, they both downgraded to smaller clubs and here they are, providing much-needed offensive dimensions to otherwise insipid Crystal Palace and West Bromwich sides. Too bad it’s only a relegation dogfight for both of them.

On their trails to stay up, Benteke and Chadli will most likely face Sunderland aka “the turd that won’t flush”. With ten games without a win, David Moyes’ side looked dead and buried just three weeks ago – but since then, they beat Bournemouth and Hull and left the 20th place. Still – their record man, midfielder Didier Ndong has proven to be nothing more than a piped-down version of Lee Cattermole. The cost? £13.6 million.

Even greater disappointment would be Swansea’s new main man, Borja Bastón. A year ago, he used to be a rising star in an overachieving Eibar side – today, he’s just a ghost of his former self. Out of 12 possible appearances, he started only in three, attempting 8 shots and scoring one goal – nothing but a consolation one against Arsenal. Neither him nor Fernando Llorente were any close to recreating that goalscoring efficiency which was once provided by the other Spaniard, Michu. In fact, the opposite happened: after a handful of anonymous performances and a manager change, Swansea eventually benched both of their new forwards and reverted back to a false #9 approach with Gylfi Sigurðsson playing the main part.

 

Bastón’s story has been nearly emulated by new Watford winger, Issac Success. Fairly young player, in a fairly small La Liga club, playing one decent season and then choosing England for a fee that was nowhere near close to his actual ability to make an impact. After scoring his maiden goal against Bournemouth, the Nigerian has been given the nod two weeks later, on Hornets’ trip to Middlesbrough. He had okay 89 minutes there before being substituted off – and that was it. Clearly, he’s still only a squad player, sitting way behind experienced José Holebas in Walter Mazzarri’s pecking order.

Well – at least he has a goal to his name. Same cannot be said about Bournemouth’s new young winger, Jordon Ibe. Once tipped to replace Raheem Sterling as the Liverpool’s young hope, he’s now far, far from making an actual breakthrough at Vitality Stadium. While ex-West Ham lad, Junior Stanislas provides flashes of brilliance, the only time Ibe has been in the centre of attention was yesterday, when a robber armed with a knife stole a £25,000 Rolex from him. On the pitch, though, he’s been described by his manager as ‘inconsistent’ and created 15 goalscoring chances in 11 appearances this season. That’s only one more chance than Charlie Daniels – Cherries’ first-choice left-back…

The two supposed playmakers on the record list – Jeff Hendrick and Ryan Mason – have both stumbled into the sea of mediocrity, as they freshly promoted sides are just two more clubs with the ambitions not going further than staying up. Before joining Burnley, Hendrick was hardly a world-beater in Championship, scoring two and assisting three in 32 games played for Derby County. At the same time, in Premier League, Mason lost his bid for a first-team football at Tottenham, pushed out of the contention by Eric Dier and Mousa Dembélé. Today, with one goal each to their names, the midfielders are hardly relevant anymore – at least not, if you compare them to the likes of Étienne Capoue or Joe Allen.

 

Underachievers are everywhere. Sofiane Boufal, Saints’ response to the loss of Mané, had only four Premier League starts so far and the only thing he’s done was scoring a goal that eliminated Sunderland from the league cup. André Ayew moved to West Ham only to see his thigh injured for several weeks and his new team declining after a wonderful 2015/16 campaign. 14 miles north to Ayew’s new workplace, everybody and their dog wonders what’s the point of Moussa Sissoko at Tottenham. Few months back, the guy was absolutely slammed by bitter Newcastle fans, as he scored only a single goal and ‘helped’ Magpies’ relegation. This year, it’s the same story all over again: one lad, who shows up once in a blue moon and otherwise, contributes nothing. Pricetag? £30 million.

Last but not least: Sissoko’s national team partner, Alex Ferguson’s reject, Claudio Marchisio’s understudy, the man of hundred haircuts, the one and only: Paul Labile Pogba. This autumn, he’s been causing all kind of reactions: from disgust (1-3 vs Watford), through indifference (0-0 vs Liverpool), to admiration (3-1 vs Swansea). To tell the truth, he did not deserve as much criticism as he got from some deluded fans who though that £89 million has bought them a player of Messi’s or Ronaldo’s class. In reality, Pogba has been an above-average performer in an average Premier League team – not great, not abysmal; just decent. Which would’ve been fine – if not for the fact that debt-ridden United desperately needed Messi’s or Ronaldo’s class and spent big cash precisely in order to get it.

Sorry, money-burners. You’ve embarrassed yourselves again.

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