This summer, Premier League fans will clamour again for new signings to spark their beloved clubs back into life. But they should be careful what they wish for, as not all transfers have happy endings. Indeed, there are few guaranteed successes … although Erling Haaland might be the nearest thing.
Haaland, 20, has hit 49 goals in 52 games for Borussia Dortmund since his January arrival last season and is the prime target for several of Europe’s top clubs this summer, though you wonder who can really afford him after reports that his agent Mino Raiola is seeking football’s first £1 million-per-week pay packet.
With the pandemic draining the finances of even the wealthiest clubs, the field of Haaland’s suitors will be a small one. Even then, Dortmund will play hardball as they did last summer in fighting off Manchester United’s attempts to sign Jadon Sancho and sources told ESPN they are seeking £155m (€180m).
Sergio Aguero, Manchester City’s 32-year-old all-time record goal scorer, is intriguingly available on a free transfer when his contract expires in June, and is reportedly keen to stay in the Premier League. The big question for suitors after an injury-ravaged year is: How many games do you get out of him and is he still same lethal finisher? It is a gamble a few clubs might well be willing to take.
The rest will be looking for uncut diamonds they can polish or players who have somehow gone under the radar, like when Leicester City signed N’Golo Kante for little more than £5m from Caen ahead of the Foxes’ improbable 2015-16 Premier League title win. Riyad Mahrez was also in that Leicester team and joined from Le Havre for a little over £400,000. Those two brought in a combined £90m in transfer fees for Leicester when they left! Nice work if you can get it.
That kind of genius from the recruitment department, however, is rare. Take a look at this season’s new signings around the Premier League and deliver your verdict.
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Remember how Arsenal thought Thomas Partey was the answer to their prayers in midfield? Since joining the Gunners from Atletico Madrid for £45m, the Ghana international has either been injured, or is making very little impact in a team seemingly destined to finish in mid-table. Willian and, to a lesser extent, Gabriel have not ripped up too many trees either. Real Madrid loanee Martin Odegaard has had his moments, but is he an upgrade on home-product Emile Smith-Rowe?
Chelsea were the biggest spenders in Europe last summer as they brought in Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Ben Chilwell and Thiago Silva. It’s fair to say that none of them have won rave reviews yet though it may only be matter of time, given the quality of those individuals. So far the new goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has probably performed most consistently among the new arrivals, and it has been an academy product, Mason Mount, who has sprinkled most stardust.
Manchester United invested £40m to sign Donny van der Beek, a Champions League star at Ajax, but he has hardly had a kick in any game that matters. Even striker Edinson Cavani, prolific everywhere he has has played, has a modest eight goals in 29 games for United. And then there is full-back Alex Telles, who is no more than Luke Shaw’s understudy.
Tottenham Hotspur pulled off a value-for-money deal by signing midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg for a transfer fee of around £20m from Southampton. He has hardly missed a minute in the Premier League. But Gareth Bale’s loan from Real Madrid has been a damp squib and Sergio Reguilon, part of Sevilla’s Europa success last summer, looks better going forward than he does defending his own goal.
Liverpool probably did not freshen up their squad enough after their runaway title triumph. The lively Diogo Jota has scored vital goals and added to the competition up front, but Ozan Kabak and the so-far unused Ben Davies from Preston North End have not looked strong enough signings to shore up a defence hit by injuries. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Jurgen Klopp missed a trick in not making a major defensive signing as insurance last summer. It has proved costly.
So far, so ordinary, then, in the transfer market activity of the big clubs. But Manchester City can claim the signing of the season and possible Player of the Year in Ruben Dias, acquired for a little over £60m from Benfica, City manager Pep Guardiola has said of his defensive stalwart: “He plays every game like it’s his last and makes everyone around him better.” Dias, aided by a rejuvenated John Stones, has been the big difference in turning City into quadruple-chasers. Always lethal in attack, City now have a minder at the back door.
The jury is out, though, on City’s other signings from last summer. Ferran Torres scored in four group games in the Champions League, but had seen very little action in recent weeks before scoring against Leeds on Saturday. Nathan Ake has had injury problems, but is clearly behind Dias, Stones and Aymeric Laporte in the pecking order despite his £41m transfer from Bournemouth following their relegation.
Other notable hits? Renaissance man Jesse Lingard has been sensational since being loaned out to West Ham, so much so that you would have to imagine that Manchester United will want him back. The Hammers are also delighted by the additions of Craig Dawson and Vladimir Coufal.
Other new arrivals cherished by their clubs are Aston Villa striker Ollie Watkins (12 Premier League goals in his debut season so far, and a goal on his England debut) and right-back Matty Cash, the dangerous Raphinha (Leeds), and the quick and resolute Wesley Fofana (Leicester). All are automatic selections every week.
Everton’s marquee deal for Colombia international James Rodriguez was always going to produce some magic moments, but the 2014 World Cup star misses a fair few games and it is arguable whether he can make the consistent impact they need to become European regulars. The Toffees did solid work picking up Abdoulaye Doucoure, Allan and Ben Godfrey — though their fans must wonder how Moise Kean has been converted from Goodison Park misfit into Champions League star, running Barcelona ragged while on loan at Paris Saint-Germain.
At the bottom, Sheffield United’s £20m punt that Rhian Brewster could come in from Liverpool and get goals in the Premier League backfired badly. He is yet to score for the Blades in their nightmare season.
Sam Allardyce tried to rescue West Bromwich Albion with five January signings. Loanees Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Turkey international Okay Yokuslu have helped to make them a more solid outfit, but Senegalese striker Mbaye Diagne has scored only twice and the key player remains one who inspired their promotion last season — Matheus Pereira. Despite that amazing 5-2 win at Chelsea, their position still looks hopeless.
Fulham would be down already but for the exploits of Joachim Andersen — signed on loan from Lyon — who has not only looked their best defender, but top creator as well with some pinpoint long balls. It is hardly his fault that his team’s strikers or midfield players cannot score for toffee.
Callum Wilson, moving to Tyneside from Bournemouth, has been another key signing and without his 10 goals, Newcastle might easily have slipped out of the Premier League. Even the Toon’s disillusioned fans have to accept the much-criticised hierarchy did some smart business to get Wilson on board. Jeff Hendrick and Ryan Fraser, however, have made little impact.
Elsewhere the jury is out on several others: Matt Doherty (Spurs), Cengiz Under (Leicester), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (his Fulham loan has produced only one goal), Rodrigo (Leeds) and Ebere Eze (still learning how to dovetail his undoubted flair into Crystal Palace’s pattern of play).
It all underlines an essential truth in the modern game: Any club with dreams of success needs to a recruitment team with a sixth sense of whether transfer targets will sparkle or struggle in the Premier League. No one ever said it was going to be easy.