The times certainly seem to be changing. In its most attention-grabbing form, the new benchmark of €222 million (Dh963.8m) for Neymar has seen the unattainably preposterous become unfathomable reality. Summer madness at its most extreme.
Yet this paradigm-shifting outlay by Paris Saint-Germain is just one aspect of a more profound and all-encompassing trend which has grabbed hold of the market. A reframing is at play, floods of both TV money and largesse from owners combining to alter behaviour.
It can currently be witnessed in Southampton’s stubborness over Virgil van Dijk. From Borussia Dortmund openly detailing why their demands have pushed beyond €100m (Dh434.2m) for a player in Ousmane Dembele which they purchased last summer for €15m (Dh65.1m). Then to the amicable Philippe Coutinho causing civil war at Liverpool to force through his own move to Barcelona.
A paradox is at play. Manchester United this year becoming the first club to surpass the $3 billion (Dh13bn) threshold in valuation by KPMG helps prove there has never been more money in football, yet it appears making transfers is proving more difficult than ever. The art of negotiation is no longer needed. Accounts buttressed by burgeoning revenue streams ensure a steep price is paid, or no deal is made – as Manchester City’s no-expense-spared pursuit of full-backs has shown.
Heating of the market caused by the unexpected payment of Neymar’s release clause has only accentuated this issue.
The way clubs approach transfers and players embrace contract renewals also must change, as the power relationship between football’s two major factions shifts back into the direction of the employers.
The Red Devils’ moneyed manager Jose Mourinho has castigated the “dangerous” spending of “£30million, £40million, £50million in such an easy way” to land targets not from the top level.
Everton have lavished such sums on goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and Burnley centre-back Michael Keane, yet look destined to remain outside the top six.
Contracts are now king. If a player has more than two years left before expiry, then all the power is with the clubs. The financial imperative to sell has been negated. Arsenal’s comfort letting star man Alexis Sanchez wind his contract down is case in point.
The decision whether to renew is also now a delicate matter. Coutinho agreed to vastly-improved terms of £150,000 per week (Dh712,380) in January, yet this life-changing sum has potentially cost him the move of a lifetime to Barca. The same applies for Van Dijk and last summer’s renewal.
Do you take the money when offered, or hedge your bets that a better opportunity is to come in the season’s ahead?
In the NBA, LeBron James only ever signs short-term deals to maintain control of his destiny.
The supply chain the market is founded upon has been disrupted. Players moved to Southampton, and even Dortmund, knowing that exemplary performances would lead to transfers away. A tacit understanding of this reality drew players of Van Dijk’s quality to the Saints. But will they now be reticent to make such a move?
Or will clubs seeking to invest be prepared to offer shorter contracts to still be alluring, despite the lack of protection for their outlay?
These facets all add up to make the remaining weeks of the summer more intriguing than ever.
Chelsea made a dramatic start to their Premier League title defence after falling to a 3-2 defeat by Burnley at Stamford Bridge that featured red cards for Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas.
Here are three things learned from their opening day defeat.
Against the backdrop of Antonio Conte’s frustration at a lack of new arrivals and with the absence of key players Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Tiemoue Bakayoko, Gary Cahill’s 14th-minute dismissal was nothing short of a disaster.
Especially with Burnley’s physicality in the final third and at set-pieces and the Chelsea captain being his side’s best aerial presence in a defensive sense.
What came to pass in Cahill’s absence was chaotic, with Sam Vokes dragging Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz out of position and neither looking comfortable with the volume of high crossfield balls they were having to defend.
For Vokes’ second, Luiz left the Welsh striker and appeared to be more concerned with Rudiger. Unsurprisingly the Chelsea duo collided and Vokes had a free header.
However, the shambolic nature of what Chelsea descended into shouldn’t be solely squared at Cahill’s rash feet.
Yes, Rudiger was playing his first Premier League match with two brand new defensive partners but the German, Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta are all experienced internationals.
It’s not as if Burnley’s brand of football was particularly nuanced nor focused on dominating possession, for which red cards often affect.
Defensive positioning was key and while this mess revealed Cahill as the Blues’ primary defensive organiser-in-chief, the trio that finished the game cannot point the finger of blame at their errant leader.
There was a lack of concentration, communication and composure as Burnley, and Vokes in particular, made multi-million pound defenders look extremely uncomfortable against what was, with all due respect, a largely one-dimensional threat.
That alone should be worrying Conte deeply.
Alvaro Morata is not Diego Costa, in personality, playing style or physical make-up but the Spaniard has to replace his international team-mate.
Morata is more in the flexible, silky mode. More happy running onto the ball into space or having it at his feet, then bullying defenders with his back to goal or barging into his market and competing for crosses ala Costa.
It’s a potentially risky strategy by Conte given how important Costa’s presence was to their overall set-up last term. That being said, from January onwards the 28-year-old was on auto-pilot with Eden Hazard taking on greater attacking responsibility.
But on top of his sizeable price-tag, having to move to a new city and country, it’s a considerable burden for Morata to bear especially when the differences between the two players are so stark.
Added to that is the fact that Morata, outside of the Spanish Under-21 side has never been a frontline, first-choice striker; either being subservient to Karim Benzema and latterly Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid or Carlo Tevez, Fernando Llorente and Mario Mandzukic at Juventus.
Either he must adapt to Chelsea’s way of playing, or Chelsea must adapt to Morata.
Based on the 31 minutes he played against Burnley, the former appears to be the most likely scenario with Morata showed encouraging sign at being able to provide the focal point of the attack, often with two Clarets centre-backs for company.
Admittedly his overall involvement was modest with just 14 touches and five passes completed but he didn’t waste any of those passes and gave the Blues attack some energy which Michy Batshuayi had failed to do during his time on the field.
Morata took his goal well, stooping to convert a header from Willian’s cross before delivering a clever looping flick-on header for David Luiz to give Stamford Bridge some semblance of belief a comeback was on the cards.
It was a very un-Morata performance but there were enough moments to show Conte that his new striker’s game can evolve. And while he can’t be, nor should be expected to become, Costa Mark II, he may well adapt to the team faster than previously forecast.
Confidence, of course, is everything for an athlete and with a goal and assist on his home debut following a week of questioning over his suitability at the defending champions, Morata provided by far the biggest positive for the Blues moving forward.
Willian started just 15 Premier League games last season, and while he had a family bereavement earlier in the campaign which impacted his involvement, it is a remarkably low number for a footballer of such high quality.
Pedro was a surprisingly consistent presence, occupying the Brazilian’s right-sided forward berth but with Champions League to prepare for, it’s inconceivable that Willian will make so few starts this time around.
With Pedro injured for this encounter, the Brazilian came into the XI and just like in the Community Shield offered pace, width and trickery and helped spread the pitch as Burnley looked to keep it tightly packed in the midfield area and restrict any signs of attacking play from the hosts.
He was poor in the first-half with Conte’s gameplan torn up in light of Cahill’s red and the pressure seeming to get to the players as the atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge became uncomfortable and uncertain.
But the addition of Morata seemed to enliven the Brazilian with the two working well in tandem; Morata knowing he always had an outlet and Willian a front-foot player who could detect the Spaniard’s runs.
Willian was, if anything, chronically underused by Conte – so much so, Jose Mourinho thought he could take him to Old Trafford this summer – and the Italian simply has to turn to him more as the fixtures, domestic and continental, mount up.
He was key cog during Mourinho’s title-winning campaign, offering dribbling prowess and set-piece delivery and is a player who can make things happen.
He’s an underrated asset for a club who look low on numbers as they begin their title defence in the worst possible way.
Miguel Britos scrambled home a controversial injury-time equaliser as Watford held Liverpool in a six-goal thriller at Vicarage Road.
The Reds looked as though they had put all speculation and uncertainty over Philippe Coutinho’s future to one side to win their opening Premier League clash – only for Britos to head home from point-black range in the dying moments to seal a 3-3 draw.
Here are three things learned from Vicarage Road.
Brainless at the back, bold in attach and panic in the final 10 minutes. New season, same narrative and similar Liverpool deficiencies.
Their chaotic nature is incredibly predictable and the solution to solving their frailties stretch further than simply changing personnel.
Yes, signing Virgil van Dijk would represent a significant upgrade on the edgy Dejan Lovren but their problems are systemic. The defensive trepidation is as much apart of their identity as their ability to inflict the same feeling in the opposite direction.
Not since the tenure of Rafa Benitez has a Liverpool side looked organised on the back foot.
In the seven seasons after his departure they have conceded 44, 40, 43, 50, 48, 50 and 42 league goals respectively. They begin the new campaign with three already against their name, two from a corner and one emanating from a throw in.
It’s basic fundamentals which all of Benitez’s successors have failed to grasp.
Under the Spaniard the Reds did not concede more than 28 goals in a single league season. Granted the approach was to sit back and counter-punch rather than attack on the front foot, a total tactical contrast to Klopp, but the German has to take a slice of the past in order to take the club forward.
In attack they are frenetic but the Reds require balance, knowing when to sit in deep and protect a lead and having the confidence to execute that plan.
They don’t need to go ultra negative but a space somewhere in between might suit.
Salah in the second half showed a fraction of the ability he will be bringing to the table this season.
The first 45 he was virtually anonymous as he was left deserted by a Liverpool midfield which failed to get a hold of the ball.
But as Watford’s stoic defence dissipated and the space opened up after the break, Salah showed the type of danger he will present this season.
It’s not just his speed but the application of his pace which impresses most. His intelligent movement on the right saw him repeatedly get in threatening positions but unfortunately for the Egpytian his finishing was untidy.
Still, a debut goal and an assist will immediately alleviate the pressure of a Premier League return.
The dynamism and trickery of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Salah will terrorise defences this season as teams will struggle to shackle them for an entire 90 minutes, eventually they’ll figure it out, as they did against Watford with Mane dropping deeper and Firmino coming out wide to shake them out of their rigidity.
Salah will reap the rewards of playing alongside them.
Abdoulaye Doucoure’s performances last season went largely unnoticed because of how poor Watford were but this campaign could be his breakout year.
It’s perhaps a lazy comparison to make but against Liverpool he had a touch of Yaya Toure about him. Marauding forward from deep, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson simply couldn’t get a hold of him.
No one took responsibility to track him and ultimately the visitors were made to pay for it. Even when they did get a man on him he slalomed his way out of trouble with silky footwork.
The statistics tell the whole story; 100 percent take-ons completed, 100 percent aerial duels won, two chances created, two clearances and one goal – utter dominance.